Thursday, January 27, 2011

Genre Fiction, Rennie Airth and the Blitz

During some sleepless nights this holiday, I found myself too tense to read anything with big words. Improving books about North Korea or the American Revolution satisfied for a paragraph before my mind drifted off, and I wound up turning pages with no clue as to their contents. Eventually, I settled on a trilogy of detective stories from Rennie Airth. After speeding through them over two nights, I felt what seems like a unique reaction to a trilogy of novels: that the second was by far the best of all.

Now, if you know a Star Wars fan or are one yourself, this is not necessarily a radical idea regarding film, but it's not something I've heard stated often about books (at least in part because good books rarely have a sequel and almost never have two of them). The argument in favor of The Empire Strikes Back is that it offers the richest character study, broadens the moral and spiritual parameters of its universe and increases the stakes for everyone. What's interesting about the Airth books, though, is that despite all of them featuring the same characters going over virtually the same plot for the same stakes, the second book tries the least to convince you of how grave they are and, in that process, creates a richer story for those same characters.

Of course, immediately after thinking of writing this down, I thought about a response I'd received to another piece I'd written about historical detective fiction. Midway through last year, I got in an argument on a message board with a guy who's read this site off and on. I suggested that a book he liked didn't really count as "literature," to which he replied (I'm paraphrasing), "What the hell would you know about it? All you do is review mystery novels." Ouch.

In spite of having reviewed history, public policy and literary fiction books before, I had to concede at least a centimeter of truth. (However, I later saw a picture of the guy, and evidently he has a 1:5 ratio of truth to eyebrows. It's like Joe Flacco giving sanctuary to a pair of caterpillars up there.) At the time, I'd taken a long break from writing up any verbally rigorous books. I'm a little lazy, and reviewing more sober fare elsewhere makes me disinclined to take things too seriously here. But I had personal reasons, too — ones emphasized again over the holidays — which I hadn't had a chance to go into anywhere.

Ever since I was a kid, a relative of mine has nurtured my reading habits. She kept track of my age and interests and slowly introduced me to accessible literature as soon as I was old enough to understand it. This not only gave me a head start on peers in school but also forged a permanent conversational bond between us. Talking about books just became an effortless default topic whenever we had the time. When I got to college, the flow of books started to go both ways, as we each tipped the other off about good content. She'd liked the Russians but had never heard of Babel, Bely or Bulgakov. I went through a spate of 1920s-30s literature and somehow never got around to Sinclair Lewis and Ford Madox Ford.

Sadly, though, a couple of years ago, she developed a condition from the Epstein-Barr virus.* Many people carry it latently, but once activated it can leave you permanently exhausted with little hope of relief, like having mononucleosis for the rest of your life. In her case, she went from being a person who could finish a 400-page history book in a day to someone who couldn't keep awake reading them. She'd nod off after 20 pages, wake, realize she couldn't remember the last two, start over and then fall asleep again. Wanting to to plow through books and keep relatively alert, she started reading higher-brow genre fiction, the le Carrés and PD Jameses of the literary world. In part because I wanted to keep the dialogue going, I gladly accepted whatever she wanted to give away and found myself coming home with great bags of hand-me-down genre paperbacks. Which brings me to the other part of my reason for doing so: I genuinely like genre fiction.

* — It takes me at least five minutes to remember what the condition is. Every time. I run through at least five different hyphenated proper nouns before I remember it. Helms-Burton. Klasky-Csupo. Bonham-Carter. Hale-Bopp. The last one makes the most appearances of all, which always leads to my thinking of finding my relative lying dead, wearing brand-new sneakers, her spirit long having left this plane to join a UFO.

Those who can go from reading Roland Barthes to John Barth to The Song of Roland without a stop in between for an unauthorized history of You Can't Do That on Television will always have my admiration. I have a few friends like that, and I look at the dead soldiers on their "finished" shelves with envy. At some point, though, I need to read about people punching each other or an heiress' one fatal mistake with a phial of digitalis. I've tried to keep my junktime reading respectable. Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis both wrote hysterical and light literature. Vonnegut works as a palate cleanser. I've written about PD James and Carl Hiaasen already. Then there's always non-fiction about sports.

But I do very much enjoy backsliding fully into private detective stories. I tell myself that this is a nobler form of slumming than reading "a wizard did it" fantasy, "the tachyon beams did it" sci-fi, Stephen King and his descriptive passages like "his jeans were so tight you could see the uncircumcized head of his cock straining against them" or, worst of all, Tom Clancy books about how Americans have to defeat the Japanese before they fuck all of our blonde women. (Surely I'm kidding myself part of the time. There are sci-fi and fantasy books that blow away all other genre fiction on a purely literary basis; I think anyone who finished Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle would proudly put it on any shelf in their library. Usually, though, I'm just not looking for books within these genres.)

I think this owes something to my suspicion that there is more challenge to writing a serviceably original, plausible and effectively crafted book within the bounds of detective fiction. Not only is it well-trod territory that exposes repetition, but it also has the fortune of being anchored in reality. Even if murder, alleyway beatings and adultery are extreme forms of human behavior, they are recognizably more human than night elfs, Klingons, supernatural clowns or Jack Ryan, which, at best, tend to take the form of one-dimensional avatars of tiny slivers of the human experience — or, at worst, something totally alien, like Jack Ryan.

This is not to say that I share Philip Guedalla and Andrew Wyke's observation that "the detective story is the normal recreation of noble minds," but I believe, of all the genres, detective fiction presents more of a challenge and also more of an opportunity to say something significant about people within the boundaries of the form. That factor, combined with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler's place in the American canon — as well as the increasing trend of serious authors writing their own potboilers for fun, sometimes pseudonymously — contributes to the most interesting part of reading and thinking about detective fiction: trying to determine on which side of the tenebrous barrier between genre fiction and literature to put it.

All this, of course, offers a long prefatory explanation for why, in the coming weeks, I might review a bunch of unserious books of genre fiction and devote a lot of thought to them. I visited family during the holidays and loaded up on hand-me-down books, and I want to be able to send back some thoughts as a kind of thanks. Also, I doubt I'll ever stop being fascinated by how we collectively allow books to approach the line of "literature," how Robert Harris' Fatherland and Enigma will never be le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Erskine Childers' Riddle of the Sands — how Hammett's luck in being present at the creation will always give him greater purchase on the "literature" title, despite, say, Hiaasen's works representing a populist, sometimes moving and creditably socially responsible muckraking stab at Florida's culture of plunder and corruption.

Given the above, it's a pity that Rennie Airth's The Blood-Dimmed Tide only flirts with literary qualities without really meeting them. I know why I picked the book out of the pile but wish now I'd opted for something with more literary upside. (There was at least one compelling reason for my choosing it that I can't bring myself to mention yet, but another was that the name "Airth" immediately made me think of all the Final Fantasy jokes I've seen people make.) This conclusion was only reinforced by reading the preceding and subsequent books in Airth's series — River of Darkness and The Dead of Winter, respectively — and finishing both off rapidly after reading the second installment. Being suddenly and comprehensively familiar with his detective universe made me wish it had been better constructed.

All three plots are well-paced and pleasantly uncrowded. One of the biggest errors of detective fiction is authors' capitulation to the intensity of television shows and the compulsion they seem to suffer to make the body counts high, the murders unspeakably horrible, the risks most dire and the detectives the most damaged. Even with a creditably building urgency throughout each text, Airth's books employ many of the best traits that make English detective fiction work: creating a sense of community and place, the investment of the main characters and a world that works without the ruthless clockwork of "the next body will be found under a gibbous moon before midnight." His stories are not so ponderous as something out of PD James or all those Inspector Morse-style tales, but one never gets the sense that each chapter could open with the Law & Order doink-doink.

Discussing the books' plots in an absence of details will inevitably make them seem more plodding than they are, which doesn't do any of them enough credit. That said, while they may not reach the heights of a literary effort, they fall enough between the cracks of strict detective fiction and a "literary effort" that it's probably easiest to both avoid key plot details and to talk about what the books do positively and negatively, by looking at what they are not.

From a positive standpoint:
As regards Tide and Winter, though the second and third in a series, they are not dependent on the first book either for intensity or emotional heft. On a basic plot-enjoyment level, they spoil little at all of their predecessor(s), leaving readers able to go back and not feel cheated of a decent experience from earlier in the fictional timeline. This also does them credit from a craftsmanship standpoint. The books can stand on their own, perhaps enriched by the earlier installments but independent from them in terms of pacing and psychological heft.

All three avoid dragging in historical characters for punch or cheap dramatic weight, one of the easiest and commonest sins of historical detective fiction — or any historical fiction, really. Regardless of the opportunities that, say, Germany and 1933 offer him, Airth skips out on introducing a finger-wagging prescient Churchill or importing a few Germans about to become famous as Nazis. They inspire some foreboding, but one can't detect any immediately obvious omniscient-narrator insertions of ironic revelations, incipient character comeuppance or tacky namedropping.

Despite ample modern techniques available to detectives and detective-fiction authors, Airth resists the attempt to create some archaic antecedents to advanced criminal profiling and CSI-style forensics. Admittedly, he does involve a psychologist character, perhaps the weakest structural link in the first two books, but he should be commended for doing a better job than most for not overplaying that hand.

Airth populates his book with the familiar English villagers, pub owners, laborers, plods, detectives, purblind police-department higher-ups and headline-starved glory hounds. That said, he seems pretty self-aware about the shortcomings of his own writing chops. These people are plot devices. At no point does he wander into PD James' territory and attempt to make them walking commentaries on Englishness or English socio-political life.

From a negative standpoint:
Tide's one overriding sense of psychological urgency emerges between the former inspector and his doctor wife. She feels an intense protectiveness over him, one that former officers and commanders likewise feel. They all ignore it for the sake of the investigation, including her husband, and it doesn't matter. It's like joining a mid-season episode of a long-running sit-com where the wife hates how her husband goes out drinking, then the camera smash-cuts to the bar. He says, "Whoa, fellas, I can't have that, because the Missus doesn't like me carousing." Then smash-cut again to his buddies and him out on the town, getting 'faced, then his slinking back home, where she grudgingly invites them all in for omelettes. Tide tries to suggest that a second case will "destroy" the protagonist, but then he solves almost everything with aplomb and phlegm — so, like, okay, whatever.

Both the former inspector and his doctor wife are extremely tolerant of itinerant laborers on their farm property, irrespective of Gypsy or Irish traveller blood. The former inspector also displays tremendous fondness for poor people from crummy families, bending the rules to change young lives. It feels like a lot of retrospective social ennoblement for the main characters, like Spike Lee's "Magical Negro" concept whitened to be something like, "The Magical Social Liberal." The inspector is already psychologically attuned and open-minded about emotional motive in crime. His wife is already psychologically attuned to the effects of the Great War. They are very progressive people for the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Adding another layer of progressiveness is expedient for the plot but also feels a little like wish-fulfillment and latter-day superimposition of values on characters to make them likeable.

The psychologist. Caleb Carr probably set the standard for historical psychological fiction with The Alienist, when he went back to 1890s New York to have then-Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt deputize a clandestine group of individuals to solve a serial-killer case. The novel featured excellent period detail — albeit with indulgently relied-upon real-life personages for plot beats — but even the most forgiving perspective couldn't help but feel like it was a modern FBI profiling book taken back in time. Profiling is inexact. It's not a science at all; it is, actually, often guesswork where the results confirm guesses and help us to disconfirm and then erase — via confirmation bias and the wishful thinking of celebratory history — the wrong guesses. The Alienist is a fun book, but it hangs a large shadow on books like this one. And this book is content to remain in that shadow. By chance, a famous Jewish contintental psychiatrist who studied under Freud happens to give a lecture in the first novel and become a family friend in the second. He also correctly apprehends the sexual and developmental dynamic of the killers in the first two books, despite the fact that the information given him could support a dozen different and equally plausible conclusions. It's a little pat, convenient and unscientific, making it a little disappointing that this book relies on it. Then again, so does the modern FBI, so at least bunk is timeless.

As said, all three books feature virtually the same plot. A grisly murder takes place, followed or preceded by another similar murder, and the same cast of characters has to convince The Powers That Be that the cases are connected. In each novel, the murderers leave almost no clues to their identities save the patterns of their murders, so tracking them down requires understanding the signatures of the murders to see how the crimes make unconnected victims relate to one killer. Halfway through each novel, a group of heretofore unmentioned and unrelated characters are introduced, showing them living idyllic and undisturbed lives of stunning pointlessness. From then on, chapters alternate between focusing on them and the investigators until it becomes clear that the happy unrelated peoples' imminent murder will converge with the course of the investigation. (Can they be saved in time? Who knows? Read faster.) Two conclusions see the protagonist in a building fire; two see him stupidly on his own, at the moment of greatest danger.
These minor positives and negatives tend to cancel one another out for the most part, leaving serviceable and efficient plots with fairly appealing characters. Airth might overreach when trying to paint his protagonist and wife as terrified of the emotional consequences of a case, but he doesn't lard background characters with obvious social commentary. The plots might follow the same beats, but their historicity never even nears the criminally anachronistic level that many books of their ilk achieve.

However, the books still suffer two major problems, and it's one of them that helps establish the second book as, oddly, the best of them all.

1. What I didn't realize when I looked at the Charles Todd series of Ian Rutledge novels (which fell off the fucking cliff in terms of quality, after starting out with a book with a lot of potential) is that World War I seems to have become a psychological cottage industry in terms of historical detective fiction. There are at least three detective series that I know of that are reliant on the war either for setting or for (varyingly) cheaply/soberly allusive emotional substance.

I'm not sure why this happened, but if I had to guess, I would say that World War II has simply become played out. It's been such perfect fodder for historical fiction for so long — clear bad guys, good guys who do immoral things (the atomic bomb, America turning away Jewish refugees, carpet bombing, the Katyn Massacre, etc.), more technology, more occupied nations — that just about everything has been covered. Alan Furst alone has seemingly written all that can be written about espionage in Europe, while the excellent Foyle's War has covered historical detective fiction, on television, with such fidelity and superior writing that one can't imagine anyone trying anything like it again.

Fictional obsessions go in cycles, though, and it's WWI's turn again. And what a wonderful subject it is. There's no clear reason why the war started, and there are no clear good guys or bad guys. One can make a historically reasonable case for just about any interpretation of its causes and moral worth, and because of that moral ambiguity, the cost in blood is peerlessly senseless and dear. The First World War broke everything: it was a categorical shattering of order, from the psyche, to the home, to the workplace, to the social atmosphere, to the state, to the structure of Europe. You can point to almost anything important in the human experience prior to 1914, and the war probably profoundly altered it forever. Which, naturally, makes it wonderful fodder for detective stories — after all, how do you enforce the social order and protect it from murder when the entire nation was revolutionized in pursuit of killing for four years?

Unfortunately, none of Airth's books ask that question, nor do they even sidle up to it. The third, which takes place during WWII, manages to operate in a kind of morally hermetic space, where coppers still investigate things all coplike and there is a war going on, as if emphasizing the conjunction makes the two unfold in mostly discrete universes. The first two, which involve people who served in WWI, merely use the war as an opportunity to elaborate on (and obscure) preexisting pathologies. The most devastatingly empty slaughter in human history is just background color.

Yet because of the profundity of the event, Airth feels the need to make a stab at understanding its horror in the first novel. Supposedly he was inspired to write River of Darkness by finding an old scrapbook belonging to an uncle who served in WWI, and one gets the sense that he tried to pay tribute to the damage inflicted on him. It results in passages that are too redolent of high school and college students' attempts to rewrite Remarque on their own terms: too effortfully sincere, too familiar, too adjectival, too many of the same damn nouns. For instance, here is the book's fifth chapter, in its entirety:
[The inspector] lived with ghosts. They came to him in dreams: men he had known in the war, some of them friends, others no more than dimly remembered faces.

Most were the youths with whom he had enlisted, shop assisants and drapers, clerks from the City and apprentices. Together they had marched through the streets of London in their civilian clothes to the bray of brass bands, heroes for a day to the flag-waving crowds, full of pride and valour, none dreaming of the fate that awaited them in the shape of the German machine-guns. Valour had died on the Somme in the course of a single summer's day.

One of the few survivors in his battalion, [the inspector] had mourned the death of his comrades. For a time their loss had seemed like an open wound. But as the war went on he ceased to think of them. Other men were dying around him and their deaths, too, came to mean little. With no expectation of staying alive himself his emotions grew numb and by the end he felt nothing.

He never spoke of his time in the trenches. Like many others who came back, miraculous survivors of the carnage, he had tried to put the war from his mind, doing his utmost to block out all memory of it. Offered his old job back, he had hesitated before accepting. His decision to leave the Metropolitan Police before the war had been taken in the hope of finding a new life in the familiar surroundings of the countryside. And although he came to accept the choice he had made, finding in the day-to-day demands of investigative work at least a partial shield against the charnel house of memories that threatened to engulf him, he could not shake free from the cold hand of the past. Always he sensed the abyss at his feet.

Sleep brought no respite, for what he kept from his mind by day he was forced to relive in his dreams where he was haunted by the faces of old comrades and by other, more terrible images from the battlefield, and from which he would wake, night after night, choking on the imagined smell of sweat and cordite and the stench of half-buried corpses.

For a while he had hoped all of this would pass. That his memories would grow dim and peace of mind would return to him. But he lived in the long shadow of the war, and as time passed and the shadow deepened he came to see himself as permanently injured, a casualty of the conflict which had failed to kill him but left him nonetheless damaged beyond repair.

Increasingly solitary, he saw his life as all that was left to hm: a tattered sail that might bear the wind but would bring him to no haven. (31-2)
Leaving aside all the easiest digs to make — the metaphor salad of a "charnel house" that "threatened to engulf him" as he could not "shake free from the cold hand of the past," being numb and yet haunted, the evidently comprehensive bingo card of WWI references Airth seems to have checked off — this presents an extremely bad case of telling without showing. Many of the details could have emerged in dialogue. (For example, the psychiatrist character is Austrian and thus might not have known of the severity of British losses at the Somme. Many Austrian intellectuals were extremely patriotic about the war. Freud himself said that he devoted "all his libido for Austria-Hungary.") The stench of corpses could greet him after a fitful sleep full of nightmares, waking to it still in his nostrils, wondering if it came from the crime scene or his imagination. Instead, the reader gets an entire chapter of outright emotional declarations, along with several fraught moments of the book (including epilogue) that recapitulate them.

This is what instantly makes the second book so much better: Airth feels no need to repeat the purple expository prose and instead relies on the much lighter touch of allusion. Presuming his audience started with book one, he makes only the necessary references to his inspector's past, trusting that mentioning being scarred by WWI will be enough to give him a semblance of depth for new readers and avoid forcing fans to cover the same ground again. Other characters get similar treatment, with brief glosses on their background, trusting that their conduct over the course of an investigation will fill in the gaps for anyone reading. It's as if the first book were necessary for him to commit a lot of basic literary sins before getting on to a second book where an efficient faithfulness to the needs of the story allowed him to craft the same revelations in a more naturalistic way.

Interestingly, while this more economical approach to character continues in the third book, it lacks the psychological urgency of the first two. The inspector confronts his demons in the first and avoids falling prey to them in the second. Having found stability and happiness, the third story comes off much more like a "we're getting the band back together!" plot. All the principals are still around, and they all still love each other, having (in defiance of human nature) all come to love and respect each other more, without any hitches along the way, over the course of 20+ years of careers, families, wars and privation.

To return to movie analogy, it feels a lot like one of the last two Lethal Weapon movies. In the first, Mel Gibson's character, Martin Riggs, was a suicidal special forces sniper with deadly karate training. In the second film, he found out who murdered his wife and was mostly just a borderline crazy guy who shot a lot of stuff. By the third and fourth movies, all the edgy professional-killer and martial arts elements were effectively gone, and he was just the daffy guy in a big lovable extended family. By book three, Rennie Airth's protagonist is a good father and man of the land who solves a horrible crime with equanimity, for all his good friends, without any real emotional stakes involved at all. We all hate crime, but we love seeing each other again!

Now, I realize it may seem flip to mention the Lethal Weapon movies and Airth's protagonist in the same breath, but that kind of pop-culture comment neatly brings us to the second major problem of each novel:

2. The protagonist is named John Madden. I know very well that there were people named John Madden before the John Madden, but I just don't think there can be a fictional character with that name anymore.

Really, it's not even an especially obscure name. The Super Bowl is watched by about a billion people, and Madden was a color commentator on a lot of them. Once you add his other appearances in pop-culture (The Simpsons — which is probably more exported than the Super Bowl — countless impressions, his extraordinarily popular video-game series, which is over a decade old), there's really no excuse for coming from an English-speaking country and not thinking the name is at least slightly familiar. I mean, even though America exports far more television to England than vice-versa, I would still expect a book editor to suggest that the names Michael Parkinson, David Frost or Terry Wogan were bad names for a New York beat cop.

But the worst thing is that every time he introduced himself as "John Madden" I spent at least the next two pages hearing all his dialogue as John Madden. This is the reason why you don't use famous names as the names of a main character in a new book. George Wendt isn't a widely known name, over a decade of Cheers aside, but I defy you to read a book about Detective George Wendt and not ignore all personal details about the character and instead just picture Norm Peterson doing everything.

For that same reason, I was repeatedly and unavoidably taken out of the flow and tone of the novel. I kept finishing passages on my own comic terms. None of these are real quotes, but you get the idea:
The constable looked at Madden quizzically. "Should I ring Hertfordshire or Scotland Yard?" Madden pointed to a number on the page.

"Now I will warn you all," Sinclair said, stiffening his back at the podium and jutting his chin out, "this man is armed and to be considered VERY DANGEROUS. I have authorized the armory to issue a pistol to every man who will be joining the raid. I want to make sure that none of you come to any harm. If the man doesn't surrender, you are ordered to shoot to kill." Madden held the pistol up high.

Madden crashed through the underbrush, eventually feeling the splash of water on his sock as he accidentally stumbled into the bank of the creek. The girl's back lay on a stone, her hair floating like an anemone in the slow current. Her clothes were strewn about the bushes, lying where they had fallen after the killer ripped them off her. One shoe stood upturned a dozen paces away, while another lay on its side near scuff marks in the soil, where it must have dragged and slipped off her shoe.
I kept wondering why anyone stumped by the evidence didn't just mash the "ASK MADDEN" button. They'd be sitting there, wondering what everything meant, and then BOOM!—epiphany. Maybe this is immature of me, and maybe this is unfair. I stand by my opinion, and if it comes to that, I'm willing to be drowned in a charnel house. I feel the abyss at my feet. I'm out!

River of Darkness 3
The Blood-Dimmed Tide 3.5
The Dead of Winter 2.5

I hate to be so critical of Mr. Airth because, all complaints aside, I enjoyed goofing off and reading his mystery novels on a couple of nights when I otherwise might have stayed awake, worrying over things neither profoundly important nor resolvable at a late hour. However, he set out to write the best books he could, and I think the differing quality of them, as well as their structural similarities, shows how he succeeded or failed. As said, the first novel is unnecessarily freighted with exposition about WWI that would have been better inferred or alluded to. Still, the story is unique and enjoyable, and it neatly introduces a group of characters. If you are the sort of person who likes more than one book in a series, it's best to start with it. Nonetheless, the second book just works unmistakably better because the author relied more on reference than exposition and trusted in his characters to do more work on their own. The third book in the series is a mostly bloodless affair that reunites everyone on thin pretexts and borrows story elements from both its predecessors in a way that improves on neither. It has a subplot about Madden's daughter that goes nowhere and reveals nothing germane to the story or the characters, and the ending is both saccharine and (in the case of a policewoman) possibly anachronistic. All three are satisfactory library choices, but if you're looking for a gift for someone, skip the third and aim for either the first or second book based on whether the person in question is the sort who enjoys sequels or who can deal with a stand-alone novel in a series. Again, the second can be enjoyed completely without any knowledge of the first.