Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Greater Complicity

John McFetridge

Okay, after the very interesting discussion Steve started with something dumb someone said on the internet, I’m going to use something here that I stole from the internet that I think is smart.

In a discussion on Adrian McKinty’s blog, I forget where the discussion started, but like all good conversations it went off on a lot of tangents and at some point, a guy named “Richard L” posted this:

The trouble I have with most genre fiction is that the bad guy is the projection of the Other. In older westerns, the Other was the fierce savages. The Huns became the Other in World War I genre fiction, then the Nazis. Raymond Chandler wrote some novels in which the Other were pornographers, off-track gamblers, and marijuana smokers--all tame stuff today.

In recent times, the Other of choice is most frequently the serial killer, or as is the case in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, rapist child-abusers. Whenever a novel begins with some hidden secret in the past, and it turns out to be incestuous child abuse, it is like saying the butler did it.

There is another way to proceed, without cliche, but it requires recognizing the truth of our common animal nature and also the truth of our common humanity. Not too many novels published today do that, but there are some.

In the best crime novels, the protagonist discovers the greater complicity.

I like that, the greater complicity.

In Steve’s discussion about morality in crime novels my contribution (such as it was) was that because laws change all the time (booze is legal then illegal then legal again) and different places have different laws (prostitution is apparently illegal in Las Vegas but legal a certain number of miles outside of Vegas but then illegal again in the next state) we can’t rely on laws to set any kind of moral standard and that’s where fiction comes in.

With crime fiction we can see moral boundaries being stretched and we can see consequences. Which I think is a lot more interesting than laws being broken – or not broken depending on where and when the story is set.

But even stretching those moral boundaries can become cliche.

So, is Richard L right, is the only way to avoid cliche if the protagonist discovers the greater complicity?


Brian Lindenmuth said...

Maybe the protag doesn’t have to discover it but the author has to be willing to deal in it. If you want a book to entertain or to restore order in the end that’s fine. But. That’s just not the world we live in. It’s unfairly reductive. And the author who IS willing to deal in greater complicity is automatically swinging for the fences regardless of how successful the final product is.

I recently finished reading Do They Know I’m Running? By David Corbett and it deals in greater complicity. Everyone who has an opinion on immigration (regardless of what that opinion is) should be required to read it.

Charlieopera said...

I tell you what, I enjoyed the hell out of "Still Missing" (Chevy Stevens) and was somewhat disturbed at the ending (no spoilers), not as far as the novel's quality went, but I didn't want the bad guy to be who it was (very disturbing--but especially effective). Several people I tried to get to read this insisted they knew the ending and then provided "the wrong bad guy" as their expectation.

That said, I also enjoyed the hell out of the Stieg Larsson books (the butler did it be damned).

I don't usually like crime fiction that is rapped up (loose ends, etc.) and prefer open endings, but well written books (books I find well written) usually work for me no matter what.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think we see an excellent example of complicity today as one Senator holds up a bill to more closely regulate the safety of food. And this after the egg debacle. Most criminals rely on the complicity of friends (or strangers).

Jay Stringer said...

I know both Russel and myself have probably talked about 'social fiction' on here to the point of cliche.

But I'm not fan of the butler doing anything, and i only really enjoy seeing crimes commited by folk devils if its in service of some wider issue.

I want to see novels that open up a can of worms and ask all of those difficult questions. I want to see that it was "more than all this that put that gun in my hand."

As Freamon says in THE WIRE, "you follow drugs, you get drug dealers and drug addicts. But you start to follow the money, and you don't know where the fuck its gonna take you."

And aside from following the money, there's the other issues McFet has reffered to.We all play our part, one way or another, in the morals of our time. We choose when to turn our backs, when to cry wolf and when to be outraged. Crime fiction can turn the lens on these issues, and examine how and why we set these boundaries.

Maybe we could adapt Freamon's quote. "you follow the murder, you get butlers and child-abusers. You follow the reader, there's no telling where you'll end up."

As far as the protagonists....i'm not sure i need them to see it, i'm not sure our characters need to become aware of their part in the wider story. I like what Brian said above, that author has to be willing to deal with it. Lets take Pelecanos' DEREK STRANGE books. There are 'villains.' And they come in forms that are familiar enough to us. Pimps, drug dealers, arms dealers. But they are well defined characters, and they exist in books -and a world- that is well aware that there's more to all of it.

Jay Stringer said...

just though of one other thing.

despite what i said about protagonists above, it struck me that my two favourite films have something in common. In both of them -RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and CHINATOWN- the protagonists have to walk away from the corruption, failure or bureaucracy of the wider world.

Jake Gittes see's a woman killed, and uncovers a massive financial conspiracy, before being told, "forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."

Indy delivers the ark to the 'good guys' only to see it get shipped off to a secret location and lost in the system, and has to choose to walk away with Marion. "they don't know what they'e got there." "Well i know what i've got here."

John McFetridge said...

The line of Freeman's really comes across in this.

Dana King said...

Richard L tars genre fiction with too broad a brush with his Other comment. First, his definition of "Other" seems to be "the bad guy;" if that's how you ant to define it, well, then, sure, it's a problem for crime fiction, and there are bound to be bad guys involved.

It's in the complicity were things get interesting, and complicity can be anywhere. As jay said, the protagonist doesn't need to see it; he doesn't even have to know how it's affecting things around him. He can even be part of it. in fact, he IS part of it in many of the best stories, that's what causes his internal conflict.

This is why, I believe, Chandler's work endures as it has. Marlowe gives Carmen Sternwood a pass (aside from telling her sister to get her help) so the General doesn't have to live with her disgrace. He lets Eileen Wade kill herself. He resolves the minor matters in many of his stories by showing the hero's complicity in broader concerns.

Same thing in Dennis Lehane's GONE, BABY, GONE. Doesn't matter what Patrick does, he wrong. And right. Damned either way, though.

By the way, the reason prostitution is illegal in Las Vegas is, if you're getting screwed in Vegas, it's a casino that's doing it. They don't want the competition.

seana graham said...

Dana, if you're still reading down here, Lehane takes all the Gone, Baby, Gone questions up again in Moonlight Mile, which is coming out very soon.