On crime fiction

Perhaps C.E.O libraries contain more crime fiction than they used to, as James Fallows writes today what many readers have probably thought:

Like most people who enjoy spy novels and crime fiction, I feel vaguely guilty about this interest. I realize that crime fiction is classy now, and has taken over part of the describing-modern-life job that high-toned novelists abdicated when they moved into the universities. My friend Patrick Anderson*, who has reviewed mysteries for years at the Washington Post, recently published a very good book to this effect: The Triumph of the Thriller. Still, you feel a little cheesy when you see a stack of lurid mystery covers sitting next to the bed.

So I’ve figured out a way to tell the books I can feel good about reading from the ones I should wean myself from. The test is: can I remember something from the book a month later — or, better, six months or a year on. This is the test I apply to “real” fiction too: surprisingly often, a great book is great because it presents a character, a mood, a facet of society, a predicament that you hadn’t thought of before reading the book but that stays with you afterwards.

I’ve never loved crime fiction but respect the best of it. The idea of genre fiction has always seemed suspect to me, as my fundamental test of a novel regardless of the section of the bookstore in which it sits is, “Does it move me?” The definition of “move” has many entries, but if it achieves this fundamental task I don’t care what’s on its cover.

Fallows is depressingly accurate with his barb about “high-toned novelists abdicated when they moved into the universities,” although I’m well aware of exceptions to this comment, which echoes some the issues raised by A Reader’s Manifesto. He goes on to list a number of his favorites, none of which I’ve read except for A Simple Plan, an excellent novel I highly recommend. It spawned the eponymous movie, which is also excellent and forgotten.

Night Soldiers

I heard about Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers from Book/Daddy, whose comparisons between a writer as bad as the 1940 Russian winter like Tom Clancy and a much better, though not perfect, writer like Furst are accurate. For some still-inchoate reason I decided to read Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, whose style I called “straight from a poorly written technical manual on human emotion” and about “idiocy in war.”

Furst, in contrast, follows the John le Carré mold of thrillers with some thought. I’m not a reader of the genre, but I’ve hit some of the big posts: Raymond Chandler, who was a predecessor to many spy stories, and most of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, which I read in old paperback copies bought for $5 each from a small used bookstore in Oregon before they were reissued. Graham Greene is a favorite, although he is not a genre writer in the pejorative sense of the term.

I’ve only read le Carré where he was meant to be read: in airports, on planes, and in the other dead zones of time created by modern bureaucracies, during periods when I can ponder his easy “trust no one and everyone, including you, is guilty of something, or would be in the right situation” mantra until I’m interrupted by someone asking if I’d like a complementary beverage or cocktail ($5, $10 for a double). The message, if there is one, in Night Soldiers is closer to “once you start a thing, you may not be able to control it or what it does to you.” Or, as Tolkien said in The Two Towers, “[…] their coming was like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains.” In Night Soldiers the stone is Nikko Stoianev mocking local fascists in a Bulgarian village, who beat him to death and ultimately cause his brother, Khristo to flee with his helper or guardian (in the sense of Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces), who is a communist. The cast rapidly expands and remembering people can become confusing as you try to remember who’s who of villains, potential villains, and friends, but the story is satisfying and brisk without losing its sense of place.

Sometimes Furst descends into cliche, but at other points he rings the bells of the time and the language he used to express it: “This might have been a deception, meant to sow suspicion among allies of wildly different passions: Basques and Catalans seeking their own nationhood, communists of several disciplines, anarchists, democrats, idealists, poets, mercenaries, and those moths who were forever seeking the flame of the hour in which to immolate themselves” (emphasis mine). The first the alliterative cliche “sow suspicion” caused me to suspect Furst’s skill, but it mirrors well enough the sound of forever […] flame, and that last metaphor is so wonderful that I’d forgive “sow suspicion” even were it not echoed later in the sentence. Yet then Goldman, a character about whom the group’s voice says “Give him an inch and he took a mile!” Three pages later, a steal from Orwell: “[…] they had discovered that in this egalitarian society some were decidedly more equal than others.” Another character has “thick sensual lips,” and I’d like to never again hear about a character’s lips or eyes. Khristo is compared to a pawn. The good writing outweighs the bad but also makes the bad more noticeable. Some characters also have a tendency to pontificate in a way more suited to a political tract than a conversation, but this too is forgivable, like the ceaseless pointing to the idiocies of Communists and Fascists ideology and results.

Book/Daddy says Furst is aiming for the movies with Night Soldiers, and if I was inclined to doubt that judgment the ending made me a believer. In addition, the byzantine characters, situations, and places melted together in the novel’s last section, such that I lost track of who was doing what and why and how they knew Khristo from hundreds of pages and ten years earlier in the Soviet Union. (Give me a break with that last sentence: it’s supposed to mimic the book’s structure.) Book/Daddy also says Furst has improved with time, and next time I have the misfortune of being on a plane for ten hours at a stretch, I’m going to skip le Carré’s airport paperback if I see Furst nearby.

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