As noted in ‘Turning to the Light,’ in dark times I turn away from crime/mystery fiction. I read “brighter” fiction. Here are a few more suggestions. Caveat: Although the titles below aren’t murder stories, as with most fiction, there is death.
Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan, 2001. A sweeping fictionalized account of the convict William Gould’s life in 1820s Tasmania. The central theme is man’s inhumanity to man. One of the finest Australian novels.
Dirt Music by Tim Winton, 2002. To continue the Down Under theme, Dirt Music is another modern Australian classic. It sings the raw underbelly of Western Australia in the late 20th century: the money, the greed, and, above all, the power of the land.
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.
Elmore Leonard lived most of his life in Detroit, a working-class city, a ‘waste-not, want-not’ city. It’s no surprise he didn’t waste words in his fiction. Papa (Ernest) Hemingway is regarded by many as the ‘Father of Succinct Prose’: few adjectives, fewer adverbs. If Hemingway is the father, Leonard is the first son. In my view, he’s more Hemingway than Hemingway.
Leonard isn’t a traditional mystery writer. He doesn’t focus on sleuths trying to solve crimes. Instead, he delivers what I call Crime + Suspense. He keeps you guessing. You know the ‘hoods’ in his novels are going to pull a heist or execute a hit, but you don’t know how or when they’re going to do it.
Leonard generally writes from the point-of-view (POV) of criminals. In Get Shorty, for example, he creates an ambiance that sympathizes with – if not glamorizes – the criminal world.
As an aside, the majority of mystery novels feature detective leads, not criminal leads. When mystery authors use a murderer’s POV, to keep the whodunit in play they hide the murderer’s deepest thoughts – thoughts of murder. I’m not a big fan of using a murderer’s POV in a mystery novel. Not that it can’t work. An author can be inside a murderer’s mind, but not reveal everything that’s going on in there. Or, if the author reveals who the murderer is, they can keep the reader on the hook by slowly unveiling the how and why. In a sense, they deliver a howdunit.
Back to Elmore Leonard. He often presages what will happen near the start of a book, and then unravels how it happened. He knows how to tell a story: clean and fast, with lots of snappy dialog. That’s the signature of an Elmore Leonard novel. It’s noir, just not mystery noir.
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.