Tuesday, September 04, 2007

More Mongolia and one more question for readers

I've finished Michael Walters' The Shadow Walker and, as in last week's comment, I'll say a word or two about settings.

My earlier comment discussed Clive James' occasionally simplistic view of crime novels set in far-flung climes, expressed in a New Yorker article in May called "Blood on the Borders." His thesis is that since crime novels have nothing new to say, their authors instead offer colorful views of their homelands. ("In most of the crime novels coming out now, it’s a matter not of what happens but of where. Essentially, they are guidebooks.”)

I'll save the question of whether crime novels are outmoded for later. The other half of James' assertion is easier to deal with. His guidebooks comparison conjures up visions of picturesque settings, when, in fact, setting can be more sophisticated than that. Sure, Walters' novel offers an occasional marvel at Mongolia's splendid isolation, including this, about a tourist camp in the Gobi:

There are also occasional observations about older residents in traditional robes mingling with younger people in western dress and, as I mentioned last week, of traditional Mongolian tents called gers incongruously co-existing with modern apartment blocks. I liked the observations, but I'll give Clive James the benefit of the doubt; they have a whiff of the guidebook about them.
"Holiday camps?" Drew said. "In the desert?"

"Well, you could perhaps think of it as a large beach," Nergui smiled. "Though I admit it's a long walk to the sea."
Not so for the novel's musing on the effects of capitalism on the environment and economy of the once-communist Mongolia. Nor is it the case for the unusual position in which the chief investigator, Nergui, finds himself, as a mix of police officer, diplomat and commercial and industrial relations specialist. Mongolia's rapidly modernizing economy is responsible for this mix of roles, and Walters make it a plot element.
Wearing his police hat, Nergui is resigned to the occasional blundering and ethical lapses of his colleagues, and this, too, is no mere narrative guidebook description. Rather, Walters presents it as the inevitable result of a sudden necessity for a professional police force, unnecessary when the army exercised police functions. The main plot, too, is tied closely to current conditions in Mongolia, involving as it does international struggles over rights to the country's extensive mineral wealth.
Yes, these are all aspects of setting, but they're hardly guidebook stuff. They're part of why I'd recommend The Shadow Walker as a story of, and not just a guidebook to, Mongolia.
The question: Clive James called current crime novels "essentially ... guidebooks." What crime stories have you read where setting overwhelmed plot, where the story was lost amid the colorful sights?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007
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Blogger Linkmeister said...

I'd argue that nearly every book Nevada Barr writes about Anna Pigeon, the law enforcement park ranger, is as much about the environs of the park in which the crime takes place as about the crime and its resolution.

Not that it kept me from acquiring them and waiting anxiously for the next one.

In Hound of the Baskervilles) I felt the moor was as much a character as the principals.

Any thriller which takes place on the sea, too. Many of Hammond Innes's books did that.

September 05, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I spent a day tramping around Dartmoor this spring. The weather was obligingly spooky in the morning, wraiths of mist wrapping themselves around craggy outcrops of rock and all, and just as obligingly sunny from lunchtime on -- a perfect day, and I recall seeing no hounds or horses.

Your comments about Nevada Barr and sea thrillers are interesting. Clive James wrote the crime part of current crime novels off, and he was almost as harsh on setting. Setting is important, he wrote, but it can be too tourist-like, too concerned with paying attention to things a tourist would pay attention to, especially if the author has set the story in a country other than his or her own.

That's why I'd be interested to hear if anyone shares James' complaint.

September 05, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I agree with James that it's hard for an author to be original with the crime part (although JD Robb/Nora Roberts started one of her "in Death" books with the victim being killed by electric drill, which certainly got my attention). But if you take setting out of it too, what's left? Only characters, so they'd better be darned good. I think he's right that that works best for series authors. Somebody starting out to write a standalone mystery could equally get hung up on his/her characters' foibles as he/she could on the setting.

Look at Monk. Do we really care about the actual crime that was committed? I'd say no; we're much more interested in the character Tony Shalhoub plays.

Same with House, really. Hugh Laurie is a lot more compelling than whatever disease he's trying to treat.

Both of those are recurring characters, just as crime series detectives/cops are.

September 05, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think James' belief is that it's not difficult but impossible for an author to be original about the crime part. Even if he's right that "the roman policier" has "run through all its possible variations of plot and character," though, and I suspect that he's not, he may be setting up a straw man. Who says that crime fiction has to be original? A good crime novelist can have fun ringing changes on a formula without seeking to break out of it. Peter Temple's Joe Cashin and Yasmina Khadra's Brahim Llob are angst-ridden, middle-aged, male detectives, yet vital, entertaining and effective as crime-fiction protagonists -- and quite different from their fictional demographic colleagues.

September 05, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm surprised you did not mention Fred Vargas here. The setting of Paris (and Quebec) seem to be an aside, with her characters driving the novel. (That's what I thought after reading my first Vargas: Wash The Blood Clean From My Hands.)

It's the characters in "Wash.." that lead to "compelling reading" for me. Office politics; normal office interaction; real human beings - that's what had me reading on.

September 05, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wash The Blood Clean From My Hands is an interesting case, and you're certainly right that her novels depend more than most on their strong characters.

I may be the exception, but I enjoyed the settings. I'm from Quebec, and I was eager to read about the tensions between the French characters and their Quebec counterparts. I may even try to find the novel in the original French so I can look for the linguistic misunderstandings between the two sets of characters. The translator, Sian Reynolds, eliminated these because they would have been so difficult to render into English.

September 05, 2007  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Having addressed location in response to your previous question, I thought I might turn the set of questions around. If we say that "foreign" crime fiction is just a bunch of travel guides, what about a travel book prevents it from being amongst the best in literature? I seem to recall Henry James and Mark Twain venturing into this territory. More recently, take Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell, an outstanding book about his time in ever-troubled Cyprus. This book should be read! Or his brother Gerald's "My Family & Other Animals", which is a great favorite of many and another true travelogue (and family history) involving migration from England to Corfu (this one I haven't read- I've stuck with Lawrence D. to date). Sure, there may be books that are so formulaic that they have nothing to offer but a brief sense of déjà vu and maybe a longer headache, but that is as true of modern (or classical) "literary" fiction as it for detective stories. In fact, Nick Hornby has written (in Believer magazine) that one is much more likely to go wrong with so-called modern literary fiction than with almost any other type of book, including modern crime fiction. Mr. James needs to lose his pretensions and get on with life: books are good, bad or indifferent on their own merits, one at a time, regardless of any other classification one might give them.

September 06, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Certainly Roughing It would fall into that category. And then there are all the great medieval travel books by Marco Polo, Ibn Batutta, etc. Travel could be synonymous with adventure, events and stories then, and it can be today for an imaginative writer.

September 06, 2007  

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