I don’t know about you, but in dark times I turn away from crime/mystery fiction. I want brighter stories. ‘Bright, AMP? Aren’t you supposed to be a noir guy?’ Hey, bright doesn’t mean soppy. 😉 Here are a few novels that fit the bill for me, and maybe you.
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, 2006. At first glance, a simple story. However, it radiates deep emotion. One of my favourite works of literary fiction from the last 15 years.
The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway, 1952. A timeless tale, told with the direct prose of a fable. The story is mythic, yet it feels absolutely real.
The Colourby Rose Tremain, 2003. A British couple migrate to New Zealand (South Island) during an 1860s gold rush. As with many tales of migration/colonization, the migrants and natives clash (in this case, the British and the Maoris). There is pain and conflict, yet the tone is uplifting.
To some, crime noir is a subgenre set in grim urban environments, featuring petty criminals and desperate characters, permeated by a sense of disillusionment. I favour a wider lens. In the North Noir (Detective Eva Naslund) series, crime noir is less bleak. It is more like life itself: not always dark, not always light.
Crime noir is linked to film noir, to movies such as TheMaltese Falcon, which was first a novel. In a noir detective novel, the main character is sharp-witted and/or sharp-tongued. No quarter is given. Criminals try to rig the system, but fail.
Of course, noir detectives aren’t lily white. They cross lines, some more egregious than others, which they breach for the sake of efficiency or to apprehend criminals. Noir detectives are crime fiction’s dark angels. They know darkness, but follow the light.
The word novel is derived from the Latin novellus. As an adjective, novelmeans new, fresh, unique. Centuries after its birth, it also began to be used as a noun meaning story. ‘Hey, AMP,’ you say, ‘enough of the etymology.’ Right. Onward.
Novels are adept at delivering ideas andemotions, as well as action, setting and mood. If an author concentrates on one thing – for example, what people say – the story can fall flat. Talk by itself isn’t dramatic. Discussion devoid of action is a debate, not a story.
We all expect different things from novels. In my case, I want them to tell a complete story. Not just that some guy, let’s call him Odysseus, travelled for years, but how and where he travelled, and when and why, and who helped or hindered him – which are all included in Homer’s epic.
Beyond that, I want novels to tell a new story. ‘But, AMP,’ you say, ‘nothing is ever new under the sun.’ Fair enough. However, there will always be twists and shades: different settings, fresh perspectives, new odysseys.
Bay of Blood retells the story of Tom Thomson’s mysterious death.
“There are many clever details in Potter’s Bay of Bloodwith close parallels to Thomson’s life and death (1917). However, Potter takes his readers on a fascinating 21st-century chase, with bells and whistles never dreamt of 100 years ago.” ~ Dr. Sherrill Grace, UBC Killam Professor Emerita and Thomson Scholar.
Why do writers write crime novels? Why do readers read them? We’d have to delve into the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). 😉 We’d need a thousand hours – no, a million.
Let’s look at things from the reader’s side of the page. That’s what really matters: why readers read, not why writers write. It’s a large question. However, I’m going to take a succinct approach. Crime fiction suffuses the zeitgeist. Crime readers have favourite styles: cozy mystery, private investigator, police procedural, etc. Regardless, they’re all fascinated with one thing. Murder. Why?
I see it as a two-headed compulsion. One, readers want to experience the other side of life: death. Two, they want to experience fear. They crave it, but only fictionally: fear of the unknown, fear of the invader, fear of reprisal, fear of something that will disrupt their life – or end it. Fictionally, of course.
PS: Book sellers claim that everything hinges on sales, i.e., on book buyers. I beg to differ. Buyers are great, but everything hinges on readers. Period. That includes those who borrow from libraries or share a book a dozen times. The more shares (the more readers), the merrier.