Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Is Crime Fiction Too Well-Written?

John McFetridge

A little while ago Jason Duke offered up a prize for a writing contest. A hundred bucks. I agreed to be one of the judges and yesterday (only one day late) submitted my picks.

But really, every story entered was very good. I had a feeling they would be. Every flash fiction challenge I read is full of really well-written stories. Every issue of ThugLit. Everything on Twist of Noir. Needles, the actual ink on paper magazine put together by our own Steve Weddle and Scott Parker had really, really good stories.

So, now here’s my question. Is this crime fiction too well-written?

The only time I’m ever pulled out of one of these stories is when it’s told from the point of view of some uneducated thug or a hooker who’s been living on the streets since she was twelve and they use a word like “purchase” instead of “buy.” What’s that expression about not using a ten dollar word when a ten cent one will do?

Or, the famous Faulkner line about Hemingway, that he’s, “never used a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” I’ve always imagined that Faulkner thought it was an insult and Hemingway took it as a compliment.

But it’s also the characters. Sometimes I wonder if maybe we’re all using too many of these down-and-out, desperate characters (I include myself in all this, too, of course). So many strippers and hit men and mob thugs. And hanging out in so many dive bars. Often it feels like a Bukowski novel, but Bukowski actually lived that life.

So, I wonder, why doesn’t more current crime fiction involve characters more like the people writing it – middle-class, educated, pop-culture savvy? Able to use Google and a cell phone?

The crime world is pretty much the same as the rest of the world, it’s filled with everyone from down-and-out, desperate, homeless people to absurdly rich, worldy, successful people. And there’s a middle-class in crime, too. And cops who aren’t dysfunctional or burnt-out or damaged.

It may be more challenging, it may be riskier to try and make these kinds of characters interesting enough to carry a crime fiction story, but the payoff would be greater, too (maybe not in sales, I admit, but in literary quality maybe).

Sometimes I read Texts From Last Night – they’re funny and sometimes telling. Mostly college kids. A lot of texts about binge drinking and anonymous sex and plenty about drugs – they mention their dealers a lot. It makes me think that maybe there are crime stories on campus and in the suburbs that aren’t being told. Those drugs got there somehow and sometimes college kids run out of money.

Of course there are plenty of examples of crime writers having characters a lot like the people in their lives. Victor Gischler’s Pistol Poets has some great stuff on campus. Robert Stone has written some fantastic stuff about middle-class people who get involved in drug smuggling.

So, what’s some of your favourite crime fiction with characters a lot like you?


Paul D Brazill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul D Brazill said...

Good post. It's the thing about not sounding like writing. Not noticing the writing.

I haven't seen much of it in most of the crime fiction that I read but it is one of the reasons that a lot of horror writing doesn't work for me.

It weakens the impact, for one thing,although stories in certain setting - the Gothic, haunted house -do seems to suit it.

Although I would prefer a book that started something like "Last night I dreamt I went to that shithouse Manderley again"

Although I do write about people from my life -I've never had a doctor or lawyer as a mate, can't trust them, can you? -I think the middle class thing is more common in thriller fiction.

Ron Earl Phillips said...

John, very good posts. Things to ponder. Reading over what Paul commented, I think he's pinned it with his last statement.

Before being ensconced in reading hard crime fiction, I was of the thriller persuasion. Still am, I suppose. Anyway, you read stuff from Dennis Lehane or Marcus Sakey, two writers who write thrilling crime stories with people who were living normal lives until said writers twisted things around.

As a reader, I don't want to read about Bob and Susie next door (and they do live next door). I know what their lives are. Of course if Susie who's daycare giver suddenly had one of her kids kidnapped, I'd be more interested. Or if Bob a former Viet Nam vet, which is pretty interesting, turned out to be a thug in a past life. I could get into that.

I guess what I'm getting at is there are writers who dig into the mundane and twist them around, and there stories get placed in a different category from Crime, even if the who point of the plot is criminal. Sub-genres blur the line and sometimes you just have to look in a different aisle.

The kind of stories I really like though are one's like from the TV series BREAKING BAD where an everyday HS Chem Teacher discovers he has cancer and makes the choices because he doesn't want to leave his family behind in a ton of debt. Incredible series.

That might be the defining difference between hard crime and thrilling crime, the latter explores bad choices while the former never got to make a choice.

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, I like the idea of stories built around choices. And Breaking Bad is a great example.

I remember (vaguely, it was long time ago ;) when I was in school and people were complaining about the "domestication" of fiction, how in the 50's and 60's it moved from Hemingway's far off adventures to Cheever's suburbia.

Still, some great stuff came out of that domestication.

And I wonder about where the line is drawn in choices. Walt White has terminal cancer and wants to leave something for his family but Nancy Botwin on Weeds just wanted to keep her big house and her Mexican maid (oh, I know, her husband had just died and she didn't want to uproot her kids, but that a slippery, and very interesting, slope).

And yes, thrillers have long been known for the innocent person thrust into events, but these TV shows are so good at innocent people making decisions themselves to get a little more involved and then a little more and then...

But there must be a lot of books that deal with these kinds of characters and these kinds decisions and situations.

Dana King said...

"And cops who aren’t dysfunctional or burnt-out or damaged"

Not in fiction there's not, at least as far as I can tell. We've participated in this discussion before, John, over at Crimespace. I like reading books where the protagonist is a professional (cop, PI, whatever), but pretty normal. That's what I write. And the thread that runs through my rejections is that he's not damaged enough to be interesting.

Granted, I may lack the skill to make a "normal" person interesting. I'd be a lot more willing to accept that if the recommendation wasn't always to damage him up a little.

Paul D Brazill said...

I recently read Rob Kitchin's The White Gallows and the cop was pretty damn normal but far from dull. His wife has died of cancer but he deals with it like a pretty normal, decent bloke.

It was refreshing change from the stuff I usually read!

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, Dana, I agree, the solution shouldn't be to damage him (or her) up. Still, I fall into that trap myself often enough.

These days I'm recommending Brian McGilloway's novels. His Insp. Devlin is still holding his marriage together and getting home once in a while to have dinner with the family. And he arrests murderers.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A story of mine that appears in BEAT TO A PULP this week is about educated people: an engineer, a grant writer and an dentist. I think a lot of my stories are like this, BUT....I have more trouble placing them than I do the ones about bodyguards or hitmen. The majority of the zines are manned by guys who like it down and dirty. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
BREAKING BAD, my favorite show, has it both ways. It mixes educated people with the sleaze of the world.

Paul D Brazill said...

Patti, I really don't think you should describe engineers as 'the sleaze of the world'.

Nigel Bird said...

Hi there.
It's a great post. Helpful and informative.
As one of the entrants, I'm going to take the positive of the 'good writing' element and hold onto it, then I'm going to make sure I take your comments on board and use them to improve what I do. Criticism is invaluable and good criticism is like gold dust - thanks.
I guess what I was trying to do with my piece was look at racism, paranoia and difference in some way; I may not have got there with 'Sisterhood', but I'll use the theme again and hope to make a more rounded job of it.
I have really enjoyed being part of the comp and having a large number of readers come through is very satisfying.
Thanks to all involved.
If you do it again next year, and I hope you do, I shall return.