The Spectator

Not the Usual Suspects

Three detective novels that restore pleasure to reading.

Maybe it has something to do with my recent crusade against The Reader. (I’m taking credit—undue I’m sure—for stopping it from winning best picture; Kate Winslet, I know, was unstoppable.) But I’ve been thinking about reading a lot these days, perhaps because, for the first time in a long time, I’ve found myself reading three contemporary novels with enormous pleasure.

Until these three novels—instances of the “genre novels” oft relegated to a secondary place in the canon—rescued me, I thought I’d have to give up on contemporary literary fiction, even at its best. Enough with buying books raved over by the literati only to find I can’t get past the first 10 pages without throwing them against the wall. (The books, not the literati.)

Take the example of the late David Foster Wallace. There is no one on the planet who could be a more devoted admirer of his nonfiction, precisely because of the pleasure of his voice and the pleasure of watching his insanely brilliant mind at work. Everything from the well-known cruise ship tour de force (which I used to make the first mandatory assignment when I taught writing at Columbia, NYU, and the University of Chicago) to the more arcane book on the mathematics of infinity. Even though I suspect the despair of staring into infinity’s infinitely deepening mysteries may have contributed to his final personal despair. He took it too much to heart. But that’s what I loved about his work, his nonfiction, anyway.

But then there’s his fiction: the infinitely (to me) disappointing Infinite Jest,which (ironically indeed) is about a work that gives too much pleasure. It’s a book whose repertoire of derivative, post-Pynchon, oh-so-tiring tricks made me furious. They diminished DFW. They made it seem that the less talented among the literati had convinced him that fiction was a higher form than the transcendent reinvention of nonfiction he was engaged in, convinced him that he should channel his far-superior talents into an exhausting performance in an exhausted form (the postmodern novel) that was an all-too-sterile strain at profundity that—despite its title—contained not one laugh. This, in contrast to the effortless inimitable joyful comedy of his nonfiction, which surpassed in pleasure (and profundity) many of his contemporaries’ novels.

Remember pleasure? The pleasure of reading? Believe me, this is not one of those pleas for “old-fashioned” novels with conventional plots and “characters you can identify with.” I hate characters I can identify with. I read to escape myself; I’m tired of my identity.

And this is no plea for novels that aren’t “difficult.” Pleasure doesn’t equate with easiness. The pleasures of Shakespeare, I’ve argued, are sometimes there on the surface, but always only partially; they always subsist as well on a deeper, more difficult, unfathomable level. Reaching it requires reading and rereading the entire body of work, the whole giving an almost unbearable thrill to the part.

Perhaps more to the point, my two favorite novels of the past half-century are two of the most experimental: Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. These books aren’t good because of their experimental form. They’re good because the illusion of difficulty is just that; they are treasures of pure pleasure once you ignore the surface strangeness.

And if we’re talking the esthetics of ease, difficulty, and pleasure (and we are), we can’t forget Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which I’ve often argued renders all of postmodern fiction’s desperately frantic antics and self-conscious self-consciousness shamefully or ignorantly derivative, even plagiarized, utterly repetitive and unnecessary, because unlike Shandy, that’s all they have to offer.

In part because the voice of Shandy’s premodern unreliable narrator is also an irresistible source of pleasure, not a humorless postmodern bore. In 1759 Sterne anticipated and transcended every possible postmodern formal gambit, making them all seem sadly second-rate to anyone who’s read T.S. Indeed it drives me crazy that it’s somehow regarded as a mark of philistinism, a lower order of artistic virtuosity, to offer pleasure when the true philistinism is the abandonment of the source of literature’s primal power for sterile word games.

So pleasure doesn’t have to mean book-clubbability to me. It just has to mean that nothing you’re doing (alone, anyway) can possibly be as important as getting it done with and getting back to the pages that have you spellbound, rapt, wrapped in their serpentine coils and squeezing you in a way that’s pleasurable but somehow threatening as well: Pleasure in literature is not without an aura of danger, like “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” leaving you, when done with you, “alone and palely loitering.”

It’s all about being put under a seductive spell, an erotics of reading, the pure lust pleasurable books arouse that is like nothing else except perhaps impure lust.

For instance, I can barely stand to continue writing this column because it’s taking me away from finishing The Silver Swan, the second novel by “Benjamin Black” (a pseudonym for Irish novelist John Banville) about a Dublin pathologist in the frowsy, drowsy ‘50s that I swear surpasses Joyce’s Dubliners and, aside from certain mad genius patches, Ulysses, too. (Admit it, Stephen Dedalus wore out his welcome in Portrait with his jejune maunderings and appeals only to intellectual adolescents of all ages and is nothing but a bore in Ulysses.)

Before The Silver Swan ensorcelled me, there was Philip Kerr’s A Quiet Flame, about a Berlin homicide detective among Argentina’s neo-Nazis in the 1950s. A book I liked so much—too much—that I lost the ability to separate reality from fiction and made a dreadful mistake when I sought to blog about it (more about that later). And before that, there was Year of the Dog, the second novel by Henry Chang about a detective in New York’s Chinatown, particularly a tiny, seedy, infinitely complex chunk of it a few blocks below Houston Street. I’ll defer to Richard Price, one of the few contemporary novelists worthy of such deferment, who describes the “uniquely urban melancholy” Chang conjures up, giving us a Chinatown with “a loving specificity … that has rarely if ever been encountered in fiction before.”

What these books have in common, of course, is that they are formally genre novels, literally detective stories (you’ll recall, I know, that Pale Fire is a kind of murder mystery, too), yet they surpass both in artistry and pleasure every highly praised sophomoric attempt at literary fiction I’ve thrown against the wall in the past few years.

When did pleasure (and mystery) take a back seat to the empty innovation that plagues us now? I actually think that one can find a precise dividing line (not the only one but a serviceable one) in the gulf between John Barth’s brilliant, hilarious, grand, mock-epic, contrarian 1960 novel of America’s founding, The Sot-Weed Factor (please read it if you haven’t yet, and I will forever be in your debt), and Barth’s 1967 follow-up: a massive postmodern mistake of an academic novel called Giles Goat Boy, many hundreds of pages beating one stale joke to death. (The university is like the universe, a conceit that only an academic could take pleasure in.)

I actually almost flunked out of college because of the pleasure I took in The Sot-Weed Factor. I was failing a freshman physics course—”physics for poets,” they called it at Yale—that was hard to flunk, and yet when I had my last chance to eke out a passing grade through special tutoring and, uh, study, I just couldn’t stop reading TheSot-Weed Factor to save my soul (and me from a term at summer school). I failed the course but changed my life. I realized that self-destructive pleasure is the best there is. It makes you realize there are no limits to your love and what you’d sacrifice for it.

Or if you want another dividing line—and this will cause howls of anger and anguish—how about the one between Pynchon’s first two novels, V and The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow, which reads like an accumulation of transcendently brilliant riffs that seem designed to give pleasure more to the author than the reader.

Another one: The difference between Robert Coover’s show-offy postmodern novel about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, The Public Burning,and E.L. Doctorow’s luminous tragedy on the same subject, The Book of Daniel. Doctorow’s book ismore traditional in form but light-years ahead in offering tragedy’s incarnation of pleasure: catharsis, the absence of exhaustion of pain.

Pleasure: It began to disappear in the days when everyone was writing second-rate imitations of Raymond Carver or—as Tom Wolfe memorably put it—novels by Iowa Writers’ Workshop fellows who move to a corn belt state exurb and have five conversations with a plumber named Lud and think they’ve had an epiphany about the American soul that makes for the weak-tea post-Carver “mall-fiction” we had to suffer through for so long, the fiction in which depression was the true, most deeply felt literary emotion.

And, by the way, I’m not holding up Tom Wolfe as a model novelist, either, or defending his screeds. Don’t try to saddle me with that rap. (God, the misapprehensions you have to fight your way through to get to making a point on this subject.) In fact the very difference between Wolfe’s amazing, still-vital nonfiction (don’t argue with me until you can prove you’ve read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and his lackluster novels further proves the point.

Which was: I can’t take contemporary fiction seriously, and, what’s worse, I can’t even finish it. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed reading a contemporary nongenre novel, and I’ve even exhausted my favorite genre, the espionage thriller: How many times can you reread A Coffin for Dimitrios, the inspiration for the works of Alan Furst, without seeing how cruelly second Furst is?

It was really Philip Kerr who rescued the detective novel for me some years ago with his amazing “Berlin Noir” trilogy—about a homicide detective in the incipient homicidal hell of Berlin in the early ‘30s—and the two recent add-ons: The One From the Other,whose astonishing mashup of moral ambiguity and Chandler-esque pleasures I’ve written about, and now the forthcoming fifth one, A Quiet Flame, which is just so utterly unexpectedly spellbinding I want to put a gun to Kerr’s head and force him to stop writing any other kind of book. (He’s got a line of literary fiction himself.)

It also almost made me want to put a gun to my own head because of the terrible mistake I made reading the galleys of AQuiet Flame, which—notice how I’m going to (entirely unfairly) blame Kerr—had me so spellbound I lost track of the distinction between the historically real sinister “Directive 11” promulgated by Argentine anti-Semites before World War II—a ruling that refused Jews sanctuary in the country—and an even more sinister but (probably) fictional “Directive 12,” which Kerr’s detective Bernie Gunther discovers to his horror in Nazi-fugitive infested postwar Peronist Argentina—a South American concentration camp somewhere in the remote outback.

After posting about Kerr’s “Directive 12” as though it were real, I had to apologize to him and my blog readers because Kerr was so damned skillful—and because the directive he imagines is not at all beyond contemplation. It was almost unfair of him to write so well.

But while I was finishing the utterly disorienting but uniquely pleasurable Kerr book, Henry Chang’s Year of the Dog arrived in the mail from Soho Crime, and I found The Silver Swan just out in paperback at Barnes & Noble—in each case the second novel in what are so far just two in a series. And suddenly my life became an orgy of reading pleasure as I switched between three compellingly seductive and pleasurably sinister works.

Chang owned a world I’d lived a few blocks from for years but had known really nothing about, and he makes the subtle distinctions among its inhabitants utterly riveting. He paints, in miniature, a harsh world of neon and shadows but doesn’t slight the Big Questions. But the Banville/Black Swan may be the best novel of any kind I’d read in years.

You may know Banville for the work he does under his own name, which has won him the Booker Prize (for The Sea). I’ve always admired his Anthony Blunt-based fiction, such as The Untouchable. The Silver Swan opens with the apparent suicide of the proprietress of a Dublin beauty parlor called the Silver Swan, and the investigation of her death by Banville’s troubled pathologist (known only as Mr.—no first name—Quirke). Following Quirke’s inquiries and the interlinked lives of the victim and her troubled relationships was like falling into a dizzying whirlpool with no bottom. I kept asking myself, “What? What kind of novel is this? What is happening to them (the characters)? What is happening to me? OK, did I hear you say you want to play the game of “it’s a cross between”? It’s a cross between Wilkie Collins at his most sinisterly sinuous ( The Woman in White, for instance) and Edith Wharton’s most erotically inflamed sublimations ( The Custom of the Country, for one).

You’ll see what I mean when you read it. Nothing is what it seems, and yet the solid furniture of the world, the flash and filigree of human feeling, is rendered with astonishing precision.

I don’t know if I want to tell you anything more than this: Don’t disappoint me and pass these three books up. Go on, get them all at once. The world is collapsing around us. You deserve the pleasure. I have prepared for you a three-course feast. I could have kept them to myself.

But I’ll close with a word about Banville/Black. What is it about The Silver Swan? In part it’s what makes all great detective novels cosmic inquiries: The real mystery is the mystery of human nature. The unsolved crime is not the death under investigation but why we die in the first place—the mystery of mortality—and since we do, the question of how we make such a homicidal hash of living, with the exceptions of a few flashes of stoic nobility most often found in the detective, however corrupt he is, his sense of his own failings his greatest asset.

I also never tire of the questions these novels ask about human nature, how many secrets we hide from one another, how hard it is to figure other people out, how hard it is to figure ourselves out. The traditional simple-minded detective story, your Agatha Christie mystery, is about the puzzle of plot and exists at the level of parlor tricks. But Banville, Kerr, and Chang take genre fiction to a deeper level, focusing on the mysteries of the human mind that a murder brings to light in those with some connection to the deceased. Mysteries, quirks, that might otherwise lie buried, but that subtly define who we are.

And to bring it back home, to the failings of the postmodern project, here’s Banville, in an amazing quote from an LA Weekly interview, being way too modest but revealingly so about the difference between his detective novels and his “serious” ones, a difference he discovered when he happened upon the detective novels of Simenon:

I was really blown away by this extraordinary writer. I had never known this kind of thing was possible, to create such work in that kind of simple—well, apparently simple—direct style. … Looking back, I think it was very much a transition. It was a way of breaking free from the books I had been writing for the last 20 years, these first-person narratives of obsessed, half-demented men going on and on and on and on. I had to break out of that. And I see now in retrospect that Christine Falls [his first “Benjamin Black” novel] was part of that process. Because it’s a completely different process than writing as John Banville. It’s completely action-driven, and it’s dialogue-driven, and it’s character-driven. Which none of my Banville books are.

And, he could have added, it’s immensely pleasurable and far more profound than the typical postmodern effort he describes so (unfairly) self-deprecatingly well: “these first person narratives of obsessed, half-demented men going on and on and on and on.”

Yes! That’s what I’ve been trying to get at. Where’s the pleasure in “on and on and on and on.” It’s on-anism, you might say, pleasuring only the writer, not the reader. Thank you, Mr. Banville, for The Silver Swan. Thank you, Mr. Kerr and Mr. Chang. Get their books, and you’ll thank me.