In Salem’s Lot, Stephen King captures a tradition of horror writing in a handful of words. A man on a mission, a creepy house and a haunting presence give us an unforgettable line: “The basis of all human fears, he thought. A closed door, slightly ajar.” More than a sentence, it is a formula. The protagonist or protagonists against some creature or phenomenon, at first indistinct and hidden, revealed over time to the point where we almost wish it hadn’t been. Our longing for resolution – to learn what’s behind the door – in tension with the fear that we’ll find ourselves face to face with the thing. That’s what marks a good horror novel, jazz tune and crime story, too.
Tension and release – that’s the thing. A long tradition of mystery writing from the formulaic to the innovative. From Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes to Lucy Foley’s thrillers. From Raymond Chandler to Daphne du Maurier, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, S. A. Cosby, Agatha Christie, Michael Connelly, P. D. James, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Dorothy Hughes, Elliott Chaze, Roberto Bolano. United in tension, the lot of them. The salt, fat and sugar of your favourite dishes.
Maybe it’s heretical to lump so many authors and types of book into a single category. I call them all crime novels – which is to say, novels in which some crime is to take place or has taken place and must be resolved. It’s probably a little lazy. It’s certainly an oversimplification. What does Agatha Christie, the queen of the formulaic whodunnit and one of the bestselling writers in human history, have to do with the postmodern deconstructions of Paul Auster? What do Michael Connelly and his police procedurals have to do with the psychological explorations of Dorothy Hughes or Elliott Chaze? How do you unite in a single genre Ruth Ware’s potboilers and Raymond Chandler’s slow cookers? It’s tension – and, perhaps more importantly, the resolution of that tension – though one is satisfied to greater or lesser degrees depending on the author; more with Christie, less with Auster. All against the backdrop of a misdeed that calls for resolution.
A good crime novel requires more, of course. A solid plot that takes more to unravel than brushing up against a loose thread. Characters who live and breathe in three dimensions. Settings that stand out so that you can feel the heat off the sidewalk and see the shadows cast by neon lights. Literary allusions, thematic arcs, social commentary that transcends genre writing and sneaks in some sociology or philosophy in such density as to rival a great poem or a neutron star. Give a reader that and watch the magic happen.
The human capacity to project ourselves into some place we’re not and will never be is the philosopher’s stone that transmutes words on a page into a bodily experience. A good mystery, which isn’t to necessarily say a literary mystery, does just that. In Foley’s The Hunting Party, you can feel yourself walking through the heavy snow, one foot after the other, sunk deep as you search for the killer. Ditto Ware’s One by One. Every good locked-room mystery makes you feel like you may be sitting beside the culprit, just as every good Victorian detective story, from the original to the contemporary pastiche, has you passing alongside gaslit lamps in the fog. In Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, underrated and underappreciated, you know what’s coming – it’s in the title – but the environment meets you in all its bucolic promise as you walk around before it’s corrupted, as you always knew it would be, by death.
As you enter the world, you take on the mission of the detective, private eye or unlucky individual who just happens to find themselves in the midst of something sinister. What else are you to do but try to solve the thing for yourself? We are a species that likes to think ourselves clever and we love to be proven right. Sitting in a group watching a mystery, television program or film, we bite our tongues – we know where this is going. We’ve solved the thing! Does the person sitting beside me know it? Can I get away with saying, “He did it! Here’s how!” or do we have to wait for the reveal so as not to spoil it for everyone else who might not be quite as quick on the draw as we are? Will they believe us later when we say, “Ha! I knew it all along”? More of that tension, right there. So too with a crime novel, though typically we’re reading it alone and must resign ourselves to self-satisfaction.
Tension and resolution are the foundation of the crime novel, though not all resolution is satisfying. The darker tales are unsatisfying in their refusal to shatter a world only to piece it back together in the end and return to it a kind of beauty that compensates for the destruction. That isn’t to say they aren’t enjoyable, but rather that the resolution of tension is incomplete because it’s inconsistent with our belief that in the end justice of one sort or another ought to prevail. Sometimes, all you get is nothing. Sometimes, you end up worse off than before and there’s no silver lining, no didactic salvation, no comeuppance guaranteed by a just and moral god who makes a list of who deserves punishment and checks it twice. It’s just bad stuff and that’s all, folks. Such is life sometimes. The resolution is an end but not a catharsis.
Genre writing often gets a bad rap. Ignored or maligned by critics, dismissed ahead of time from the coveted category of literature, it’s set apart and kept in its place by thick, tall walls. Few break down those barriers. Chandler did, but it took time. Umberto Eco did, but backwards – literary first, crime second. Du Maurier probably counts – she certainly should. Most recently, Carlos Ruiz Zafon managed it with The Shadow of the Wind, which is one of the best books ever written. Regardless, the genre is thriving, even if much of it is driven by the pressures of churning out quick, forgettable reads to satisfy the marketing departments of the day and shareholders who expect dividends. But there’s nothing new about that.
If crime writing didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. It satisfies multiple longings, from the mundane need to pass the time to the deeper necessity of self-exploration, including ventures into the darker corners of humanity. Through building and releasing tension, it provides us a chance to get in a form of mental cardiovascular exercise and some escapism, too. In the coming years, the need for each isn’t going to diminish and, indeed, is sure to grow.
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