Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Detective's Eye, the Criminal's Eye

by Scott Adlerberg

When you write a crime story, do you write it from the detective’s point of view or the criminal’s? It’s a question worth asking because, speaking broadly, most crime fiction tends to be told from one of these two perspectives. You get the bulk of the story from the police/detective/law enforcement side or from the transgressor’s side. There are myriad variations on these frames of reference, but let's face it, most crime writers tack one way or the other. In police procedurals, private eye novels, cozies, and classically styled detective stories, the general thrust of the story leans toward order and rationality. There may be moral complexity and violence, there may be difficult choices for the investigator to make, and in this day and age, endings may not be as tidy as they once were. Still, there is a basic sense that to mystery and disruption, at least a modicum of closure and balance will be restored to the world. In noir fiction, or any crime fiction emphasizing the criminal's side, you get the opposite. Disorder and irrationality rule the day, and there's no guarantee that anything will be resolved or orderly when the story wraps up. Detective-eye fiction leaves the reader comforted to some extent (a mystery has been solved, a problem explained, a wrongdoer caught, etc); criminal-eye fiction aims to leave the reader unsettled and disturbed. Process and intellect triumph in detective-eye fiction. Chaos and malignancy trump reason in criminal-eye fiction.

For whatever reason, most crime writers favor one of these two approaches.  Most write either type a majority of the time.  I guess which type a writer prefers says something about their psychology and their outlook on the world, but there are some writers who do both types and do them equally well. They can alternate between the detective eye and the criminal eye. Neither viewpoint seems foreign to them. What I want to do here is point out a few writers I've read who excel in this regard; they are writers I marvel at for their ability to inhabit entirely different writing personas depending on what they want to depict.

To start with: Edgar Allan Poe

Old E.A. Poe.  You have to start with this bipolar individual. On the one hand, you have the murderous I-narrators of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat”; on the other, C. Auguste Dupin, the model for so many later detectives. And Poe's utterly convincing whether presenting his criminal madmen or the logic-machine Dupin. The crime tales move from instability to utter derangement; the mysteries like “The Purloined Letter” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue” go from bafflement and terror to lucid explanation. The mind of Poe is a never-ending source of fascination, at least to me, and it’s partly because he was able to access such completely different parts of his brain to write his various tales.

Georges Simenon

One of the most prolific authors who ever lived, Georges Simenon gave us, of course, Inspector Maigret. The Paris-based policeman has a stable home life with his devoted wife, and he’s known for his steadfast patience when pursuing a case. Unlike Dupin and many other detectives, he works more from intuition than sheer logic. He soaks up atmosphere at a crime scene and even mingles with suspects. He hangs out in the milieu the victim inhabited, embedding himself in that specific world. For Maigret, understanding the psychology behind a crime, the motives involved, is quite important. As such, he often wades through the darkest of waters. He finds himself lost. But inevitably he makes a connection that gives him insight, and that insight leads him to a solution.  In each, through the inspector, you get a glimpse into human desperation and darkness, but by the story’s conclusion, the culprit has been captured or killed and the reasons behind the malevolent actions elucidated. Best of all, Maigret can return to his comfortable Parisian flat, where Madame Maigret has made a great meal and he can smoke his pipe in peace.

The other Georges Simenon writes roman durs (hard novels). These are explicitly psychological novels that are quite serious and dark in tone. While Simenon said that he wrote the Maigret books as a way to relax, the roman durs demanded total concentration from him. All are short, no more than 200 pages, and intense. They dissect the routines of daily existence with an understanding of the difficulty and pain people go through merely to carry on each day. In these books, Simenon burrows deeply into people with psychological hang-ups and problems, and often he studies the sticky, tangled relationships between men and women. Crimes happen in these books, lots of them, and when they do, the focus is on the people who committed them and why they committed them. While the Maigret books are perennially popular, the roman durs are the books that have made Simenon’s literary reputation. I haven’t read all of them, but the ones I have read – November, The Mad Hatter’s Phantoms, The Clockmaker, Red Lights, Betty – are excellent. He wrote a bunch of others, and for those who are interested in seeking them out, I recommend the reissues from the NY Review of Books Classics imprint.

Ruth Rendell.

British writer Ruth Rendell followed no less than three strands of crime during her career.  The detective-eye side of her writes procedurals featuring her policeman, Chief Inspector Wexford.  In the fictional town of Kingsmarkham, he and his main assistant, Detective Mike Burden, solve all manner of cases.  Wexford is married and has two daughters, and as the series progresses, we get as clear a sense of his family life as we do the cases he investigates. There is nothing cozy about these books - they confront horrible deeds and deep-rooted social ills - but in each one, Wexford and his colleagues succeed.  They tie up their cases.  In classical fashion, a feeling of order, however temporary, prevails.  Rendell wrote 24 Wexfords, and the quality of the series is very high. Favorites of mine from the ones I read: Kissing the Gunner's Daughter and Simisola.

Rendell’s standalone novels are something else entirely. She wrote 28 of these, and in them, abnormal psychology reins. Rendell is an absolute master at portraying damaged people from inside out, people who are social misfits, suffer from mental illness and have experienced every conceivable sort of disadvantage. Obsession in various guises is a key ingredient in these books, as is the difficulty of human communication. Rendell is cool in her approach, yet understanding of nearly everyone, victims and victimizers alike, and it is with these psychological thrillers that Rendell has taken the whydunit and worked inventive wonders with it.

After writing these books for twenty years (alternating them with the Wexford mysteries), Rendell in 1986 started a third line of books under the name Barbara Vine. The Vine novels (there are 14 of these) tend to be longer and more leisurely paced than the Rendell standalones, but in the Vine books also, the emphasis is on psychology and dysfunctional human interaction, with particular attention devoted to families and their secrets. Just about no psychological depth is too deep for Rendell/Vine to probe, and if I had to name a few must-reads among these, I’d name The Crocodile BirdA Dark-Adapted EyeA Sight for Sore Eyes, and A Fatal Inversion

Poe, Simenon, Rendell - three particular favorites of mine who are equally at home looking at things from the detective's vantage point or the criminal's.  It's a great ability to have.  Crime writing switch hitting, in effect.  

Who are some writers you like who switch from book to book between the detective's eye and the criminal's eye?

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