When I was a teen
bandaged heads scared me I read a lot of crime fiction. I wrote a book report on the granpaw of Scottish Noir, William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw. I read a bunch of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. And I got into Parker because he was asked to finish the Marlowe novel, Poodle Springs. And I loved Chandler.
Not that one.
I remember holidays in the north of Scotland devouring the Philip Marlowe stories. The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The Lady in the Lake, The Long Goodbye, and Trouble is my Business and all the other short stories. I was reminded of this old passion last week, as it seemed I was surrounded by crime fiction. First, Longsufferinggirlfriendoftheblogbeth and I attended the launch of LitLong: Edinburgh, “an interactive resource of Edinburgh literature emerging from the Palimpsest project.”
LitLong is super cool. It’s a website and a mobile app that allow the user to “explore literary Edinburgh from the inside – through the invocation of the many places of this wonderful city in nearly 550 novels, stories, memoirs and journals.” So if, say, you’re walking through Stockbridge, you could call up the app and find that it’s logged 4 books that mention Raeburn Place, from William Sime’s Haco the Dreamer (1884) to Irvine Welsh’s Filth to Alexander McCall Smith’s Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers.
Anyway. While we were there, we got to meet Doug Johnstone, who was there to present a writing prize, and read a passage from The Dead Beat, about a young intern who is “[p]ut straight onto the obituary page” and “takes a call from a former employee who seems to commit suicide while on the phone.” Sounds like good stuff.
The previous week, I had a meeting with my dissertation supervisor, who endorsed my plan to lay a crime plot over the structure of what I feared my otherwise be an unengaging summer semester novella.
Notwithstanding the popularity of Tartan Noir, the literary option course in which I’ve been Exploring the Novel doesn’t touch upon crime, or genre work generally. And that’s fair enough. We’ve had enough on our plates racing though the canon, and realism and modernism and post-modernism.
But novelist Alice Thompson did spend a seminar discussing the crime genre with us, kicking off from pre-class reading of the opening chapters of Agatha Christie’s The Hollow and Chandler’s The Big Sleep. The first chapter of The Hollow is interesting in that it’s part of an extended portion of the story before Christie deemed that she ruined her own novel by introducing the “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep” that was Poirot, and as such, not at all in the vein of what I expected.
This was followed by the sheer pleasure of returning to Chandler. There’s his line in pithy lines for a start. I think Phonefinderoftheblogbeth – the sort of girlfriend “to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window” – would like what Marlowe had to say about L.A.
Retaining, after all this time, an affection for the crime novel, I got Paw a copy of Val McDermid’s latest, The Skeleton Road, for Christmas. And this past week, I returned to her recent article contrasting crime fiction and thrillers. In it, she expands upon an observation by Ian Rankin that the current preoccupations of the crime novel lean to the left, while the thriller tends towards the conservative.
[The crime novel] gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world – immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old… The thriller, on the other hand, tends towards the conservative, probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down, the idea of being stripped of what matters to you.
That feels right, I think. The crime novel is a vehicle to explore the world, hopefully with a subtlety that won’t, as McDermid puts it, turn off readers in their droves. And with Chandler, of course, there’s a simply beautiful, disciplined writer as well. Consider this letter at the wonderful Letters of Note, in which he both bemoans his writing and demonstrates its power:
She was the music heard faintly at the edge of sound. It was my great and now useless regret that I never wrote anything really worth her attention, no book that I could dedicate to her. I planned it. I thought of it, but I never wrote it. Perhaps I couldn’t have written it.
Phew. Something of the romantic that Marlowe tries to keep beneath his armour; the chivalrous P.I. who keeps getting knocked down, and keeps getting back up again. I’m reminded of strolling the streets of British Columbia twenty-five years ago, unsuccessfully working on the case of finding a t-shirt bearing an image of Bogart as Marlowe.
Good preparation, maybe, for having the shit beaten out of me twenty-three years later by a dozen angry scribbles, and left in the hospital for a couple of months….