Monday, November 19, 2012

Opinion — Crime Writing, How Long Do You Cook An Egg?

A smart writer doesn’t criticize critics. Smart or not, I haven’t and won’t. On a few occasions I’ve disagreed with a reviewer’s take on something he or she has written about other writers and about my work.  To be fair, there also were times when I thought a reviewer had given me the benefit of the doubt. 

Agatha Christie, Cozy or Soft boiled?
One of the very few times I was bothered by a review was when it was clear that the expectations the reviewer had were ones that I didn’t set. It was kind of like complaining that Marcel Marceau failed to project his voice adequately. The reviewer had pegged me as a writer of hard-boiled detective fiction. And in the book under review I hadn’t met the criteria.  The thing is I never considered myself to be hard-boiled and I never tried to write hard-boiled fiction. I like it, but it’s not how my brain works.   Then again, maybe I don’t know what “hard-boiled” is. Did I write it and not know it? The truth is I never thought about categories of mysteries or crime fiction.  I read what I read and I wrote what I wrote.

Hardboiled Mickey Spillane
After failing to meet what I thought to be the reviewers “hard-boiled” expectations, I started looking around, reading blogs and paying attention to reviews of other writers. More important, I think, I began to think of the crime books I read as falling into one category or another.  None of them, the ones I read after I started writing books of my own, seemed to fit what I understood “hardboiled” to be, though that’s how many of them are described.  In the early days I couldn’t get my fill of books by Gregory Mcdonald, Stephen Greenleaf and Robert Campbell.  Not a lot of gore. And the P.I.s weren’t really all that tough. To me the common denominator in what I was drawn to was humor and the vulnerability (lack of pure heroism), something I liked on television as well, with shows like The Rockford Files. Shanahan, my first series, certainly isn’t noir. None of my books are. I like noir but I don’t write it. Also I can’t see the Shanahans as hard-boiled — though it has its moments.  Parts of Asphalt Moon are tough enough, I suppose. And Good to the Last Kiss, a non-series book, could easily fall into the category. For the most part, I see what I write as having a less sensational, but more probable plot with, I hope, a heavy dollop of humor. Still, I’m not 100 percent sure where my books fall.  But what do I know?  I mean that seriously.  Can we see ourselves clearly?  Can we judge our own work?

But back to the subject — crime fiction categories.  There are a number of ways to go about this, I think. The first may be dividing crime fiction into mysteries, thrillers and suspense with the knowledge that they may all cross over into each other.  These categories may be further delineated into medical, legal, supernatural, romantic, professional sleuth, amateur sleuth, police procedural and noir. Again, happily, there are mongrels here as well. It wasn’t long ago that what we call “crime fiction” was under the “mystery” category.  I think calling it “crime fiction” was a smart move.  A mystery, to me, is a whodunnit.

Dashiell Hammett, Noir
But the basic breakout always seemed to be “cozy,” “soft-boiled,” “hard-boiled” and “noir.”  There are those who lump “cozy” and “soft-boiled” together and still others where the term “medium boiled” slips in between the other two eggs.

So, someone could look for a soft-boiled, amateur medical mystery.  Maybe there could be a hard-boiled, legal, police procedural with professional sleuth overtones, as in Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Possibly James Lee Burke’s Creole Belle could be a professional sleuth police procedural noir with supernatural touches.  This must drive librarians and bookstore owners crazy.  Though for these two books, one might simply put them in the bestseller section and forget anything else.  Do that and still the question of categorization remains.  And it’s not easy to answer.

JB Dickey, owner of the 22-year-old Seattle Mystery Bookshop illustrates how thin the lines between categories can be. I had always assumed that Agatha Christie was a writer of cozies.

“I wouldn't call Christie's Poirot books cozy,” Dickey said. “… guess they'd fall into more of a 'classic' or 'traditional' school, whereas you could make a case for her Marple books to be cozy mysteries due to their setting and tone. Same author, same time period, slightly different 'category.'”

Seattle Mystery Bookshop
If “medium-boiled” is a valid term — and it’s not legit for many knowledgeable people — then I suspect it is where most of my books belong.  And it might explain many things.  I write about private eyes, which is at the moment, not the most popular of protagonist types. And as the trends show at the moment, I see that readers tend to go either to the least or most violent, while I occupy the land in between.

In other ways, today’s tastes seem to be broad.  And the ease of publishing — which, like most advancement, can be helpful and detrimental — has broadened the concept of crime fiction still further.

“Years ago,” Dickey said,  “the rage was medieval mysteries, then the Southwest, then conspiracy/codes and now Scandinavian. Readers will follow a certain type for a while because a certain author becomes popular.”  He cites Ellis Peters, Tony Hillerman, Dan Brown and Henning Mankell.  But there is always something on the horizon, he says.  “Werewolves and vampires are big right now. Some are very dark and bloody —Scandinavian books or Urban Fantasy — and some are light cozies.”
It’s constantly evolving. Maybe the proliferation of categories makes the whole idea of categories unhelpful.  Add to this the reissues of everyone’s early books (mine included) as well as the classics.   

“Rue Morgue and Felony & Mayhem are bringing back whodunnits from the Golden Age and people are discovering them, or rediscovering them,” Dickey said.

Yes, yes, all that’s old is new again and we now have “urban fantasy” and “rural noir.” It’s kind of like the soda pop world or the number of flavors and colors of Yoplait yogurt. I searched the Internet for the definitive set of categories.  All of them, so far, seem insufficient.  Maybe we can’t get that categorical, after all.  But I’d love to hear your thoughts.  What do you write and read?  Why?


Richard L. Pangburn said...

Stephen Greenleaf, whom you mention, was a particular favorite of mine. Others were read, but I especially awaited each new Greenleaf. Why?

Vulnerability, you say. Yes, there was that, and in The Rockford Files too. But also the tone and the fine writing, it seems to me now, and especially because the writing voice was so civilized.

Perhaps I had an easier time identifying with the protagonist. Reading Greenleaf was always a comfort read because it let me know, yet again, that there were other decent, civilized minds out there.

Ronald Tierney said...

Thanks for commenting. I hadn't thought of the writing in terms of civility. I can see it. A writer's style is personal, I think. And it is this notion of "comfort" that really hits home. Spending time with a book, especially a series book, becomes like very much like being with a friend. There is a level of comfort that means a lot.

Teri-on-the-sandbar said...

You are not hard-boiled. You are not soft-boiled. You are poached, resting easily on a slice of Canadian bacon, lavished with Hollandaise and nestled on an English muffin. And mysteries, like Eggs Benedict, don't get any better.

Ronald Tierney said...

Thanks, Teri. I was thinking I was a little more scrambled than that......