Tuesday, February 06, 2007

More about fictional detectives of a certain age (notes on genre)

A reader's critical remarks about my recent post Deadline in Athens, Part II prompted some thoughts about the nature of "genre" fiction.

The reader objected to my inclusion of Peter Temple's Jack Irish on a list of (mostly) middle-aged detectives with bad, sad or questionable marital histories and, in some cases, a tendency toward alcohol and self-pity (and, yes, Jack Irish is a detective, even though he might not list "detective" as his profession if asked to do so on a tax return. There is ample precedent for using the term even if the sleuth in question is not a police officer or professional investigator. T.J. Binyon's excellent history Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction includes amateurs of all kinds. For the purposes of my discussion, a detective was anyone engaged in trying to solve a crime or conduct an investigation. Detective seemed more serious and proper a word than sleuth.)

The reader's main objection, though, was to my having lumped Jack Irish in with other crime-fiction protagonists. Jack Irish, he wrote, "has more friends than is natural, and is one of the most interesting and complex characters in the genre." Further, he admonished me to read more Jack Irish novels "before you cram him into a pigeonhole."

He's right -- on the first point. With respect to the admonition, however, a pigeonhole is the last thing I tried to cram Jack Irish into. If anything, I pushed him onto a pedestal. Here is part of what I wrote in October about Bad Debts, the first Jack Irish novel:

"Yes, Jack Irish has lost his wife to a violent killer. Yes, he came close to personal and professional ruin because of it. But no, he does not sink into self-pity. More to the point, he is capable of clear-eyed self-analysis that no self-dramatizing American, self-pitying Scottish or self-conscious Swedish detective-novel protagonist would be able to manage."

Irish's low-key perspective, I wrote, "makes this something quite new in tone."

The larger issue, though, is genre. My light-hearted list included, in addition to Irish, Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander, Paco Ignacio Taibo II's Hector Belascoaran Shayne, Yasmina Khadra's Brahim Llob, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and a few others. That's an interesting and varied group of protagonists, and it is not "pigeonholing" to recognize that they are of a type. Authors themselves often recognize this in ways that are far too numerous to list here. They allude or refer specifically to earlier crime writers or detectives. Their scenes echo illustrious precedents in great detective fiction.

The link can be subtle, as in Brahim Llob's chilling account of how the fear and violence in Algiers have blunted his sexual desire for his wife in Yasmina Khadra's Morituri. Or it can be explicit and hilarious, as in Robert Crais' Stalking the Angel, where Elvis Cole welcomes a beautiful female client to his office, as so many previous fictional private investigators had, only Cole is standing on his head at the time.

Even if the author does not make the connection, the reader does. If someone writes a "mainstream" novel about a divorced, 45-year-old accountant who likes a drink from time to time and has a job to do, no one thinks anything of it. But substitute detective for accountant, and all kinds of associations come into play. The author may move against this type, may move with it, may ring changes on it, or may do all at the same time in a kind of counterpoint between writer, reader and genre, but the type is always there. Even in the face of something as unfamiliar as the eighteenth-century Judge Dee story translated by Robert van Gulik, most readers, maybe all, will invoke the more familiar fictional detectives, if only as examples of what Judge Dee is not. (Note: That book, published in English as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, inspired Van Gulik to write his own series of Judge Dee novels.)

In any case, this story has a happy ending. I'd been thinking of reading more Jack Irish, and the thoughts that led me to write this comment also sent me to a nearby bookshop, where I bought Black Tide, the second Jack Irish novel. I've read the first chapter, and it's brilliant. But then, I expected no less when I paid tribute to Jack Irish by including him on my list of interesting and distinctive fictional detectives who happen to share certain demographic and social characteristics.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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