This Week In My Classes: Canons and Complications

unlessMy classes aren’t meeting at all today, thanks to the “weather bomb” we are currently enjoying. It is uncanny how many storms have come through on Wednesdays this winter! And it’s an unpleasant surprise to get a big one this late in the term. The bright side seems to be that it’s supposed to warm up significantly by the weekend, so we can hope that all this snow will just be a bad memory before too long.

What is it interrupting? Well, in Intro to Prose and Fiction we’ve moved on to Carol Shields’s Unless, a novel I appreciate more and more the more time I spend with it. It’s not an in-your-face kind of novel, but (appropriately, given its themes) its sharp edges can take you by surprise: a modest-seeming story about a woman writer rethinking her life and work because of a family crisis, it’s also a commentary on women’s writing and the literary canon, and on women writers and literary culture. Reta is seeking an explanation for her daughter Norah’s decision to drop out of ordinary life and sit speechless on the curb holding a sign that says only ‘GOODNESS.’ In a series of increasingly acerbic letters to intellectuals, writers, and critics (never actually sent) Reta connects Norah’s rejection of the world with the world’s indifference (or worse) to women. To the magazine that has run an advertisement for a series called “Great Minds of the Western Intellectual World,” for instance, Reta writes,

I have a nineteen-year old daughter who is going through a sort of soak of depression . . . which a friend of mine suspects is brought about by such offerings as your Great Minds of the WIW, not just your particular October ad, of course, but a long accumulation of shaded brown print and noble brows, reproduced year after year, all of it pressing down insidiously and expressing a callous lack of curiosity about great women’s minds, a complete unawareness, in fact. . . .

I realize I cannot influence your advertising policy. My only hope is that my daughter, her name is Norah, will not pick up a copy of this magazine, read this page, and understand, as I have for the first time, how casually and completely she is shut out of the universe. I have two other daughters too — Christine, Natalie — and I worry about them both. All the time.

To the author of an article on “The History of Dictionaries,” she observes “there is not a single woman mentioned in the whole body of your very long article (16 pages, double columns), not in any context, not once.” In wry anticipation of the VIDA counts (and their critics), she notes,

Bean counting is tiring, and tiresome, but your voice, Mr. Valkner, and your platform … carry great authority. You certainly understand that the women who fall even casually under your influence (mea culpa) are made to serve an apprenticeship in self-denigration.

 And later, addressing the author of a book review who calls women writers “the miniaturists of fiction,” she says,

It happens that I am the mother of a nineteen-year-old daughter who has been driven from the world by the suggestion that she is doomed to miniaturism. Her strategy  is self-sacrifice.

The letters punctuate the story of Reta’s reconsideration of her own writing: in particular, she is working on the sequel to her earlier work of light fiction, My Thyme is Up; in our class reading, we’ve just arrived at her conclusion that her new novel, “if it is to survive, must be redrafted,” so when we meet again on Friday I hope we’ll be able to have a good discussion about how and why Reta wants to write a different kind of book, with different kinds of options for her heroine, Alicia. Then next week we’ll consider her editor’s advice that she rework it to make it “one of those signal books of our time” — by making Alicia’s fiance, Roman, the central character:

‘I am talking about Roman being the moral centre of this book, and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.’

‘It’s because she’s a woman.’

‘That’s not an issue at all. Surely you — ‘

‘But it is the issue.’

‘She is unable to make a claim to — She is undisciplined in her — She can’t focus the way Roman — She changes her mind about — She lacks — A reader, the serious reader that I have mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while, at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.’

‘Because she’s a woman.’

‘Not at all, not at all.’

‘Because she’s a woman.’

Clipping these bits out on their own makes the novel sound more didactic than the experience of reading it actually is, partly because Shields plays around with the form of the novel, partly because the other anecdotes and memories Reta shares with us implicitly raise the questions these more pointed sections address explicitly, so that the book reads like an ongoing dialogue — internally, for Reta herself, and then with us — about what we look for in fiction, how we judge what we find, and how those questions are affected by gender. We’re reading it right after A Room of One’s Own, and many of the questions are the same: what (where) is the women’s literary tradition, what is the place or effect of anger in literature, how are our notions of literary greatness tied to ideas about scale? (Shields said “Jane Austen is important to me because she demonstrates how large narratives can occupy small spaces.”)

forrestIn Women & Detective Fiction, this week’s reading also raises questions about literary canons and standards, and how we decide what is worth reading and discussing, but in this case it does so more accidentally. I’m not someone who believes that we should assign only the books we believe to be The Greatest (even if we individually felt we could be confident about our standards). Universities are in the business of education, not adulation, and plenty of works that we might feel falter on some grounds are plenty interesting and significant (historically, theoretically, formally) on others. Courses vary in their purposes, too, and the best and most relevant conversations don’t always emerge from the most elegantly crafted narratives. Still, I do sometimes find my principles conflicting with my actual reading experience, and that’s how I’ve felt with Katherine V. Forrest’s Murder at the Nightwood Bar, which has been our class’s reading for the past week.

Murder at the Nightwood Bar is one in a series with inarguable significance (“First, first, first,” emphasizes Victoria Brownworth in her recent profile of Forrest), and it deals explicitly with questions of sexual identity and systemic discrimination both through its closeted detective (alienated, thus, both from her follow officers and from the lesbian community she engages with during the investigation) and through the crime itself. It sets up lots of good points of comparison with our other books, from the detective’s struggle over getting too personally involved with the case (or people involved in it) to the connections it makes between individual crimes and systemic injustices. As far as all that goes, I have no regrets about having added it to the syllabus this year. I just wish it were better written — yes, that awkward evaluative measure! Better at what, to what ends, as I’m always asking? In this case, I just mean “better at the words”: especially during the patient rereadings required for class prep, it has seemed stilted and inartistic, sometimes tediously so. I’ve felt no temptation to discuss anything that’s not literal about it: not its form or its style, not its voice, its attention to setting, none of those “literary” aspects. Mind you, it’s not the first of our readings to make that kind of reading seem beside the point: Agatha  Christie is also not particularly literary. But Christie’s prose has a clarity and economy that gives it its own (superficial?) elegance. That said, while Forrest may not be as good a stylist, her materials are more challenging — her agenda is more ambitious, and she gave us much more to talk about than Christie did, even though Christie is, of the two of them, the one who is obviously part of the ‘canon’ of detective fiction. Not every course can or should be a tour of “the best that has been thought and said” (as if we could be sure what those examples are — as Woolf says, “where books are concerned, it is notoriously difficult to fix labels of merit in such a way that they do not come off”). My goal is always to find the readings that are the best for my purposes, which in this case include considering a wide range of different examples of detective fiction by women as well as examples that are in fruitful conversation with each other when collected on the syllabus. My hope is that they will also reward close reading and rereading. At this point, then, I’m ambivalent about Murder at the Nightwood Bar, then, which certainly serves the first purpose but doesn’t quite fulfill my hopes for the second.

Stepping into the Bog: Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair

franchiseaffairTey’s Detective-Inspector Alan Grant has only a bit part in The Franchise Affair, but his response to the case gets at the heart of what’s at stake in this intriguing novel. It’s not a ‘whodunit’ so much as a study in character and community, and the most threatening aspect of the specific crime is its challenge to readability. What lies behind the faces we see, whether of people or of buildings or communities? Grant, as his subordinate points out, is “famous at the Yard for his good judgment of people” — The Daughter of Time turns entirely on his upset at having “mistaken one of the most notorious murderers of all time for a judge.” When things look bad for the Sharpes, the mother and daughter accused of having kidnapped and abused innocent-looking young Betty Kane, he’s annoyed to have his initial liking for them (and dislike for their accuser) seem misplaced: “Now he thinks the wool was pulled over his eyes, and he’s not taking it lightly.” That things, and people, are not as they seem is essential to the form of the crime novel, yet here that formulaic certainty is worse than the offense itself. “How is she to judge,” reflects Marion Sharpe about Betty’s mother when the whole story has come out, “if appearances can be so deceptive?”

It’s unexpected that Marion would have so much sympathy to spare, considering what she has suffered because of Betty’s accusations. After all, the hostile responses she’s dealt with have themselves been the results of people assuming the worst about her and her mother because they appear guilty — and like guilty types, living as they do in isolation, and being unconventional to the point of eccentric. That surfaces can be misleading should be the Sharpes’ first line of defense; getting to know them is precisely what wins over their handful of supporters, most notably solicitor Robert Blair, whose initial response to their appeal for his help is suspicion that they might well be up to no good:

The old woman had a fanatic’s face, if ever he saw one; and Marion Sharpe herself looked as if the stake would be her natural prop if stakes were not out of fashion.

Blair isn’t the only one to associate the Sharpes with witches: “Give these midland morons a good excuse,” cautions his fellow lawyer Ben Carley, “and they’ll witch-hunt with the best.” Suspicion does quickly turn to hostility and violence: as long as they are unable to prove their innocence, the Sharpes become victims of this predatory mentality.

To an extent, Tey is just continuing the paradoxical strategy of any Golden Age “cozy”: a seemingly peaceful English village like Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead, or King’s Abbott in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, turns out to be a festering pocket of greed, jealousy, spite, and malevolence. The pastoral tranquility of the setting is a façade; the story’s central crime is not an aberration but an eruption, and the restored calm can only ever feel precarious, so certain are we that we’ll be back again for the next installment. Tey cares so little for the puzzle aspects of the story, though, that this formulaic oddity of the setting moves from background to foreground. The charm of the classic English town is compromised by its revealed dark side. “Don’t worry, sir,” a police officer says to Robert, who’s worried about the Sharpes’ safety; “Nothing’s going to happen to them. This is England, after all.” It turns out that he’s right about that last point, just not about what it means. The overall effect is not at all the nostalgic one often associated with “cozies”: just as Robert feels a mixture of pleasure and despair at the tranquil continuities of his own life before the Franchise affair, we’re prompted, surely, to wonder if this is a world that should be preserved or destroyed, policed or subverted.

One of the most unnerving aspects of the novel for me was that Betty Kane’s mean-spirited deception made all our “good guys” so angry that they started sounding an awful lot like bad guys. “An attractive face, on the whole,” Robert says to his cousin as they contemplate Betty’s photo. “What do you make of it?” “What I should like to make of it,” is the reply, “with slow venom, ‘would be a very nasty mess.'” As Robert prepares to face her in court, he declares his intention to “undress her in public . . . to strip her of every rag of pretence, in open court, so that everyone will see her for what she is.” He’s outraged that she might get away with her scheme and “go on being the centre of an adoring family”: “the once easy-going Robert grew homicidal at the thought.” When the truth comes out, and it’s revealed that whatever her other lies, her bruises are real, the general attitude seems to be that a beating was no worse than she deserved, and nobody seems shocked at the remark that “it was a pity her mother hadn’t done the same thing ten years ago.” Nobody, for that matter, censures the grown — and married — man who makes this statement for having an affair with a fifteen-year-old girl.

Is she really so appalling? At what point does she, like the Sharpes, slip from accused to victim? What threat does she really represent that the jury can reach a unanimous verdict without even hearing the remainder of the case (or retiring to discuss the evidence) and it’s greeted as justice? She’s shunned so completely that we never even find out what happens to her. Guilty though she certainly is, is she also a scapegoat, a focal point for disruptive forces that the community abhors and wishes to banish? Is it she who is really the witch, or some kind of shape-shifter, someone who has the terrifying capacity to make guilt look like innocence? Is it her real crime to embody and thus expose the deceptive safety of the world they all live in, making explicit a truth they all prefer to deny? “She can never again take a step onto green grass,” Marion says sympathetically of Betty’s mother, “without wondering if it is a bog.” But it wasn’t Betty who set The Franchise on fire and watched, face “alive with gloating,” as it burned to the ground.

Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar: ‘Who are you?’ ‘Retribution.’

I’ve been rereading The Daughter of Time for decades, so it’s odd that until now I had never read another novel by Josephine Tey. Mind you, in some respects The Daughter of Time is sui generis. And indeed all Brat Farrar has in common with it is Tey’s refreshing prose and keen eye for character.

Brat FarrarIf I were writing one of those annoying sales blurbs for Brat Farrar, I’d describe it as “The Talented Mr. Ripley meets Flambards.” I’m reading it now, in fact, because it was one of two titles I came up with as follow-ups to my book club’s reading of Ripley: I went scouting for other books connected to it in some way (which is part of our selection process), and I discovered that there were two other classic suspense titles from around the same time featuring imposters and identity theft: Brat Farrar and Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat. My book club voted for du Maurier, but I was too tempted by Brat Farrar not to order it as well.

Aside from the structural similarity of one man impersonating another, though, the two novels could hardly be more different, and of the two, much as I admired and enjoyed Highsmith’s deadpan sociopathy, it’s Brat Farrar that plays more to my personal tastes. For one thing, Brat — odd as he is — has a conscience, and so in this case a lot of the tension in the novel arises from his own discomfort with the fraud he’s perpetrating:

 He felt guilty and ill at east. Fooling [the lawyer] Mr. Sandal — with a K. C. sitting opposite you and gimletting holes in you with cynical Irish eyes — had been one thing. Fooling Mr. Sandal had been fun. But fooling Bee Ashby was another thing altogether.

Both protagonists are driven by a desire to belong, but in Brat’s case there’s a poignancy to his yearning:

He lay on the bed and thought about it. This sudden identification in an unbelonging life. He had a great desire to see this twin of his; this Ashby boy. Ashby. It was a nice name: a good English name. He would like to see the place too: this Latchetts, where his twin had grown up in belonging quiet while he had bucketed round the world, all the way from the orphanage to that moment in a London street, belonging nowhere.

 Later, when he’s well along in establishing his stolen identity, he is unexpectedly moved by a simple gesture from “his” Aunt Bee:

No one else had taken his hand in just that way. Casual but — no, not possessive. Quite a few had been possessive with him, and he had not been gratified in the least. Casual but — what? Belonging. It had something to do with belonging. The hand had taken him for granted because he belonged. It was the unthinking friendliness of a woman to one of her family. Was it because he had never “belonged” before that made that commonplace gesture into a benediction?

What Brat wants is not just to “belong” to a family but also to be part of the larger story Latchetts represents. Ashbys have lived there for generations: the estate — established but unpretentious, like its family (who will never change their traditional inn rooms for better ones when they attend the local agricultural fair) — represents the continuities and privileges of English country life. Brat is drawn into the scheme initially because he learns Latchetts is a stud farm and horses are his one love. This sets Tey up to include lots of horsiness in the novel, just for its own sake and for the fun of show-jumping and racing. But horses have histories, and thus they also embody that sense of lineage and tradition that Brat cherishes about Latchetts. He spends happy hours, in his new life as an Ashby, poring over the stud books: ironically, it’s his genuine passion for this part of the family lifestyle that makes him a better fit as master of Latchetts than Simon, the “brother” he displaced by showing up on the eve of Simon’s coming-of-age and bilking him of his inheritance.

Simon’s resentment at “Patrick’s” return from the dead is perfectly understandable, in the context of that displacement, and it stands to reason that as the one who loses the most by regaining his brother, he would be Brat’s chief antagonist — the chief skeptic about whether this young man who looks so much like him, and who knows so much about their family, their history, and their home, can actually be his long-lost brother. Surely it’s the heir who ought to represent and fight for the integrity of the line. That Simon’s resistance is both stronger and stranger than is completely accountable on those terms occurs, after a while, to Brat and to us, and thus the more sinister question arises: where was Simon when Patrick disappeared, presumably to his self-inflicted death? Could it be Simon himself who is the threat to the family and the estate? Is it possible that — what would it mean if — the interloper is a better Ashby than the one he supplants? How might Brat’s invasion become a tribute to the lost son of the house with whose life — and death — he increasingly identifies himself? “Out here in the open,” he reflects while riding the hills around Latchetts,

it had a reality that it had never had before. Up here, on that straggling path on the other side of the valley a boy had gone, so loaded with misery that this neat green English world had meant nothing to him. He had had horses like Timber, and friends and family, and a belonging-place, and it had all meant nothing to him.

For the first time in his detached existence Brat was personally aware of another’s tragedy.

“From being vaguely anti-Patrick,” he realizes, “he had become Patrick’s champion.” When he later confronts the man he holds responsible for Patrick’s death and is challenged to offer something “in return for my confidences,” he completes his transformation from invader to defender of the family:

“Who are you?”

Brat sat looking at him for a long time.

“Don’t you recognize me?” he said.

“No. Who are you?”

“Retribution,” said Brat.

But would exposure really be best — for the Ashby’s, for Latchetts, for his own hope of belonging? How can he prove his suspicions without revealing his own crime? And what’s to be done about the “sister” who arouses feelings in Brat that are not at all fraternal?

Some day the foundation of the life he was living here would give way; Simon would achieve the plan he was devising to undo him, or some incautious word of his own would bring the whole structure crashing down; and then there would be no more Eleanor.

It was not the least of his fears for the future.

Is there any hope that Brat can escape from the trap of his own making into a world where he really does belong and can be loved as himself? As Tey works her ingenious way through her story, the suspense of the crime plot becomes less interesting than the emotional and moral puzzle she’s created. And it’s beautifully fitting that the solution to that mystery, to “the problem of Brat,” turns on looking back through the records for connections and continuities that might turn a calculated deception into an unexpected restoration.

Holiday Reading

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! It is a beautifully crisp sunny fall weekend here: I treated myself to an amble through the Public Gardens on Saturday, where the gold-tinged foliage provided a lovely backdrop for the remaining bright flowers. The Gardens are my favourite spot in the city, a perfect place for “a green thought in a green shade.”

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For one reason or another, I was feeling pretty grim by the end of last week, so I decided to treat the holiday weekend like actual time off from my day job. This means that although today I have had to turn my attention back to reading for work (The Big Sleep and Jane Eyre are up next week), I managed to get through two books just for fun. They are polar opposites, too, which made it just that much more entertaining to read them one after another.

venetiaThe first was Georgette Heyer’s Venetia, which a number of Heyer fans I know have identified as one of their favorites. It also came up in a discussion here in the summer about whether Heyer’s books ever get sexy, as opposed to romantic. I thoroughly enjoyed Venetia: it is brisk and witty, which is typical, but also full of lines of poetry (which is not quite so typical). It also has a more adult heroine,  and it does have more of that frisson that I was wondering about: “She had not enjoyed being so ruthlessly handled,” Venetia reflects after the first, quite improper, kiss,

but for one crazy instant she had known an impulse to respond, and through the haze of her own wrath she had caught a glimpse of what life might be. . . . if Edward [her dull suitor!] had ever kissed her thus! The thought drew a smile from her, for the vision of Edward swept out of his rigid propriety was improbable to the point of absurdity. Edward was sternly master of his passions; she wondered, for the first time, if these were very strong, or whether he was, in fact, rather cold-blooded.

Meeting her morally problematic mother, Venetia is struck by her lacy lingerie:

It was not at all the sort of garment one would have expected one’s mama to wear, for it was as improper as it was pretty. Venetia wondered whether Damerel would like the sight of his bride in just such a transparent cloud of gauze, and was strongly of the opinion that he would like it very much.

Well! Hardly the ruminations I’m used to from a Heyer heroine! And much later, when the usual convolutions of the plot have been managed, she “melts” into her rakish lover’s arms:

He held her in a crushing embrace, fiercely kissing her, uttering disjointedly: ‘My love — my heart — oh, my dear delight! It is you!’

It was a bit of a relief to be able to enjoy the courtship plot without any shadow of concern that the heroine seemed just a bit too young and naive to play her part in it. But it was Venetia’s smart independence that made the book particularly delightful for me: she doesn’t appreciate anyone making decisions or speaking for her, and she doesn’t hesitate to do what she thinks is best to orchestrate the outcome she desires.

brokenMy other book was Tana French’s Broken Harbour. It seems odd to call it ‘fun,’ as it is just as dark and intense and frightening as the other books in her Dublin Murder Squad series. It’s also just as well and artfully written, with just as convincing and distinct a narrator and just as complex and psychologically fraught a plot. By the end, though, I found I was actually a little weary of the melodrama and the self-consciously brooding interiority, the heavy-handed revelations and insistent reminders of just how much the case resonated with (and screwed up) the detective. Rattling off my first impressions on GoodReads, I found myself wondering if my problem is related to the subgenre of crime fiction French is working in: I don’t usually read suspense novels or psychological thrillers, and Broken Harbour is as much of that kind as it is a detective  novel or police procedural. I found myself eventually skimming a bit through the confessions and backstories just to find out what had actually happened and what would come of it. This is my way of saying “it’s not you, it’s me,” I suppose! But the novel did seem too long (not unlike some of Elizabeth George’s more recent ones). There is an awful lot French does brilliantly though: setting, in particular, and the theme of people becoming desperate as they try to hang on to their dreams, or to reach the futures they yearn for — at whatever cost, it often turns out. French is definitely the best new crime writer I’ve tried in a long time — so thanks especially to Dorian for bringing her to my attention!

And now it’s back to work, though I will pick out something to read in the interstices. My book club has chosen The Talented Mr. Ripley for our next meeting, so it might be that, though I also recently picked up Beautiful Ruins (which looked like it might be refreshingly different).

What P. D. James Talks About When She Talks About Detective Fiction*

pdjamestalkingaboutI finally picked up P. D. James’s Talking About Detective Fiction, which I’ve been mildly interested in reading ever since it came out in 2009. I say ‘mildly’ because I’ve read all of James’s novels (some of them multiple times) as well as her autobiography and numerous interviews with her, not to mention essays, critical articles, and reviews about her work. I’ve also read quite a bit of historical and critical material on detective fiction more generally. So I didn’t expect any revelations from this little volume.

And there really aren’t any, although (because after all, James is both sharp and experienced!) her potted history of the genre is enriched by some interesting digressions on issues or writers of particular interest to her. She opens with a disclaimer — that she has “no wish to add to, and less to emulate, the many distinguished studies of the last two centuries,” aiming only at a “short personal account.” I actually wished her account had been more personal, as the survey material was so very familiar to me, whereas her commentary on, say, Ngaio Marsh, was more idiosyncratic and thus more thought-provoking:

Reading the best of Ngaio Marsh, I feel that there was always a dichotomy between her talent and the genre she chose. So why did she pursue it with such regularity, producing thirty-two novels in forty-eight years? . . . Marsh was a deeply reserved, indeed in some respects a private person, and she may well have felt that to extend the scope of her talent would be to betray aspects of her personality which she profoundly wished to remain secret.

 Her chapter on “four formidable women” of the Golden Age was in fact one of the most interesting parts of the book for me, along with her remark – made quite in passing – that if she’d begun her own series today “it is likely that I would choose a woman [detective]” as the main character. I find James somewhat evasive (here and elsewhere) on the gender politics of crime fiction. She says very little here about the woman detective she did create, Cordelia Gray (I think the only explicit reference to An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is in her discussion of setting), but I think it is widely agreed that in the second Cordelia Gray book she backed away from the feminist potential of the first, making Cordelia a much more conventional character and also much less effectual as an investigator. In the context of Kate Miskin, James has talked about the Met being a “very masculine organization,” though, and about the different experience women have of policing than men. In her chapter on the “four formidable women,” she emphasizes their work as “social history,” but also what they tell us of “the status of women in the years between the wars.” Then about Sara Paretsky (whom she calls “the most remarkable of the moderns”) she says,

No other female crime writer has so powerfully and effectively combined a well-crafted detective story with the novel of social realism and protest.

To me, James seems tempted towards a more explicitly feminist approach, but her Dalgleish novels, rich as they are as examples of social (and especially moral) exploration, have no air of “social protest.” It’s fun to imagine what kind of books — what kind of female protagonist — she would have given us if she had, as she imagines, started writing today!

But Talking About Detective Fiction is not the place to look for sustained analysis of either feminism and detection in general or of gender issues in James’s novels — or, indeed, of any aspect of detective fiction. Overall, the book is just an amiably brisk tour of the genre, and not even a very thorough one, as it spends a lot of its time on Golden Age figures, a bit on the hard-boiled turn, but none explicitly on, say, the police procedural (the subgenre to which most of James’s own novels belong). The discussion of recent developments in the genre has a haphazard quality because James draws her examples only from the writers she happens to have read –she makes the disarmingly honest comment that “new novels are being reviewed with respect, many of them by names unfamiliar to me.”

Still, if you didn’t know anything about detective fiction beyond the examples you yourself happened to have read, this would be a fine place to start, and it would give you lots of leads to follow up for further reading. (She completely convinced me that one Father Brown story is not enough.) And I admit that the absence of surprises or revelations was actually reassuring for me: it means I’m probably doing a decent job sorting things out for my Mystery & Detective Fiction class. As it happens, it turns out I’ve actually been using an excerpt from the book as the epigraph for my syllabus for many years — because I transcribed it from a lecture James gave in 1995 at the Smithsonian (once available online):

In his book Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster writes,

‘The king died, and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. . . . ‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development.

To that I would add, ‘Everyone thought that the queen had died of grief until they discovered the puncture mark in her throat.’ That is a murder mystery, and it too is capable of high development.


*I feel as if I should apologize for reworking this tired titling trope. That the book really is called Talking About Detective Fiction made the temptation irresistible, but I promise not to do it again. Twice is enough! And, as my penance for being so unimaginative, I also promise never to title a post with any variation on the “Keep Calm and Carry On” meme either — fair enough?

Binge Reading vs. Close Reading

dickfrancisI’ve undertaken to write an essay on Dick Francis this summer, in preparation for which I am reading through all of his 40+ novels. His first, Dead Cert, was published in 1962, and he basically published one a year until his death in 2010 (the last few in partnership with his son Felix, who has now taken over the franchise). That’s a lot! I’ve been reading them off and on at least since the 1980s; I own about a dozen (which used to seem like quite a few, until I really took stock) and when things are busy at work I often pick a favorite to reread, as they are both brisk and smart enough to be a nice diversion without requiring a lot of attention.

It’s always interesting approaching as critical projects books or authors I have previously taken for granted or read “just” for pleasure. When I started teaching the Mystery & Detective Fiction course, I went through that with P. D. James, Ian Rankin, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky (many of the other authors on the reading list are not ones I had read before, including Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett, so the effort there was always more academic). But what’s really different about this particular project is that I don’t typically read in bulk this way. Sure, when I find an author I like, I tend to follow up, but outside of genre fiction authors with 40 or more titles to their credit are rare, and I usually get restless after reading a few books in a genre series in a row. A good example would be Mary Balogh: when I discovered I could enjoy her books, I got a whole bunch from the library, but after racing through several, I just really wanted to read something different, and now I think of her as I had Francis, that is, as a safe option when I need some filler in my reading life. (A notable exception would be the Martin Beck novels: once I got hooked on them, I pretty much just kept reading. But there are only 10 of them anyway!)

What strikes me about binge reading is the different kind of attention it requires compared to the intense close reading I’ve done for most of my recent writing — any of my George Eliot essays, for instance, or for reviews including my most recent one of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life — or, for that matter, the reading I do for my teaching. For all of these purposes, poring over details is the essence. It’s not that I’m not reading each of these novels  carefully and trying to hang on to the key details that differentiate one from another. There are plenty of these, and they matter, often substantially. But the novels do have a lot in common, and inevitably they blur together or form, in my mind, one larger whole. Since the essay I’m working on is intended as a kind of overview (though with a particular angle on women and gender roles), that’s appropriate: I’m reading all of them at once because I want to be able to generalize about them, to discuss patterns, or themes and variations, connecting threads, tropes, motifs, whatever. The individual novel is less important than the collection of novels. The more I read, the more each one I pick up reads like part of that collection, if that makes sense: the deeper into the catalog I go, the more rapidly I subordinate the particular to the general. My major challenge is not so much interpreting as keeping track: this is the first time I’ve ever used a spreadsheet as a writing tool!

And yet every novel is different. (I joked on Twitter that so far my lede is “The novels of Dick Francis are both alike and different” –ah, the bane of the undergraduate compare-and-contrast essay!) You could say that this oscillation between similarity and difference is the essence of genre fiction: its predictability is as much the appeal as the ability of a talented practitioner to surprise. I’m reminded of Josephine Tey’s sly, self-reflexive jab at formula fiction in The Daughter of Time:

Even in that, you knew what to expect on the next page. Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then? Was everyone nowadays thirled to a formula? Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that their public expected it. The public talked about “a new Silas Weekly” or “a new Lavinia Finch” exactly as they talked about “a new brick” or “a new hairbrush.” They never said “a new book by” whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like.

I do notice that interchangeable widget quality as I read these books in relentless succession — and yet I always welcomed the appearance of “a new Dick Francis” precisely because I knew what it would be like but also knew that he was smart enough to mix it up, to really make it new.

Rebus is Back: Ian Rankin, Standing in Another Man’s Grave

rankingraveYes, Rebus is back, and it’s good to see him again, the sodden old crank. The Malcolm Fox novels have been fine, but I don’t find Fox as interesting a character as Rebus–though that could be because I’ve known Rebus for so long. Also, I had hoped that Rankin would take up Siobhan Clarke as his protagonist when Rebus retired. She has quite a prominent role in Standing in Another Man’s Grave, so my hope of that is renewed!

Rebus is back — and that seemed to me the major feature of this new novel. It’s a solid, well-constructed procedural on its own merits — Rankin is an experienced pro at this, after all — but it’s as a novel of character that Standing in Another Man’s Grave is most interesting. It doesn’t have the ambitious scale or political reach of the late books in the initial Rebus series, particularly Fleshmarket Close (which is described on the cover as a “state of the nation novel”–surely a variation on what I talk about in the 19thC context as a “condition of England novel”) or The Naming of the Dead. Both of these work their particular crimes up as symptoms of much wider social evils. By contrast, the case in Standing in Another Man’s Grave is mostly an occasion for Rebus to revisit and rethink his identity as a detective as he contemplates a move from the cold case unit he moved to on retirement back into active service (something made possible as a plot twist by changes in regulations). The case itself seemed a little perfunctory, except that in linking together old cases with new, it continues the preoccupation of all of the Rebus novels with the complex relationship between past and present.

Here, it’s Rebus himself who often seems like a relic of the past, something Rankin can make the most of because this novel is itself a kind of throwback. While Rebus was out of our sight, our world and his was changing, and his ways of doing things — always borderline inappropriate — are now conspicuously “old-school,” as Malcolm Fox’s colleague Tony Kaye points out. Rankin set Fox up to be in many ways Rebus’s antithesis, and here we see Fox determined to put an end to Rebus’s tainted career. “I know a cop gone bad when I see one,” he tells Siobhan, warning her to cut ties if she values her own career advancement:

Rebus has spent so many years crossing the line, he’s managed to rub it out altogether. As far as he’s concerned, his way’s the right way, no matter how wrong the rest of us might know it to be.

“You don’t know him,” Siobhan replies, and that’s what long-time Rebus readers would say as well: Fox’s summary is pretty accurate, except for his conclusion that Rebus’s disregard for rules, protocols, and lines proves him to have “gone bad.” Rebus’s methods may be unorthodox, but the law and the right do not always completely coincide, and Fox’s determination to put Rebus on one side or the other of that line shows his own moral limitations, or at least his own moral rigidity.

Standing in Another Man’s Grave is in some ways an affirmation of Rebus’s approach. As Kaye tells Fox,

Rebus got results the old way, without seeming to earn them. He did that because he got close to some nasty people in a way that you couldn’t. . . . Rebus specialises in something a bit different — doesn’t necessarily make him the enemy.

Rebus gets results here too, through “old-school” contacts, hunches, and the weary, dogged persistence that has seen him through so many cases before.

Standing in Another Man’s Grave is not quite a triumphant return to form for Rebus, though. Rebus proves himself still up to the job, but just barely — not so much because he’s bemused by new methods and new media, such as Twitter (a bit of an inside joke from Rankin, who is a frequent and adept user of social media — you can follow him at @beathhigh if you’re interested) but because he’s just barely hanging in there physically, and no wonder, considering he smokes and drinks incessantly. Even if his application to be reinstated is accepted, how long before he’s in his own grave? His ancient Saab, also on its last legs (wheels?), becomes a metaphor for his debilitated condition. “And the Saab didn’t break down?” asks Siobhan after one of Rebus’s long trips to check out leads. “Not ready for the knacker’s yard just yet,” replies Rebus, and the same seems to be true of him. Maybe there’s one more Rebus novel left in him before Siobhan gets her chance at the lead role.