Thursday, 22 November 2012

Of 'Grim Realism' and the Modern Crime/Mystery

As a one-time list maker, one devoted to compiling needless top ten favourites on all manner of unexacting subjects, I am now, much like a born again Christian or an old ‘fag hag,’ puritanical in my practices.  Puritanical is the wrong word. Puritanical implies something rather crabby and fusty and I am neither. But I knows what I likes and I knows what I doesn’t. And making lists of my top ten favourite albums, singers, artists or even authors no longer interests me as it did.

If my juvenile habits have shrunk then my tastes in other things have grown. In terms of music I listen to a broad spectrum of sounds; everything and including pop, folk, rock, dubstep, jazz and classical. The same goes for literature. I knows what I likes and I knows what I doesn’t.

For me imagination is key. I especially enjoy fiction when invention is coupled with vivid characterisation.  There is, and has been for a number of years, a thought process that demands ‘realism.’ Being real is a western concept and is vastly overrated. Too often it is nothing more than applied grimness.  Rows of grey curtained windows hiding women lacking make-up sporting facial hair. Balding men with bulging bellies all eating plates full of pizza belching as they swig from beer bottles. It may be representative of by small degree but it misses the nature of humankind entirely.

I like my tomes riddled with the fantastical I like my characters to reflect those I have met in life. Odd at times, a little cranky with a sense of humour. Concentrating wholly on one aspect of faux reality turns life’s colours to drab monochromes forgetting the fact people are luminous.  I like fiction that fizzes, that bubbles with the incredible for life are precisely that, incredible.
Real life has a curious mix of the gritty, the cruel, the surreal, the violent, the mundane, the comic, the romantic and all happening at once.  Few mystery novels manage to achieve this as they are busy developing goodies with more flaws and traits than a Tory member of parliament and villains not only dark and sinister but moribund with morbidity. The incredible complex personalities that I have met over fifty years or so are seldom seen in mysteries. Nowadays we like to present people as being idle or down at heel or just downright drab. Being poor, living in poverty doesn’t always equate to dumb. Nor does it mean grey.

There are far too many detectives driving cars none of which, apart from Morse, holds any interest for me whatsoever. So many of them, often well written, concern themselves in dressing down the plot to include tiny aspects of life, normally in an overtly serious manner, forgetting to reveal the gallows humour that accompanies such situations, in fact excluding any form of humour at all.  It all amounts to a dearth of creative thinking that is being eroded by a constant flood of pseudo-realism. It is all too much alike for my tastes.

And now I, like a lifelong alcoholic, having claimed to have given up making lists am about to make yet another, one last one, one for the road as it were. This though is less a formal list and more a series of reference points. It also should be noted that I am merely passing an opinion. I am not making judgements on other writers. It is, after all, just a matter of taste. Here then are some of my personal favourites from the mystery/crime genre.

One of, if not my top best crime/mystery novel is Peter Ackroyd’s “Hawksmoor.’ Such divine imagination, so well-conceived a plot which is then executed with concise skill. ‘Hawksmoor’ is nothing short of miraculous. The split time theory is a clever tool, it seamlessly stitches two psychopaths into one in an almost Daliesque paranoia-critical way. It is one of the few novels of this genre that I would re-read again. By the time you finish the book you have become a part of the tangled intrigue. So much so you have to question your own sanity. 

J.G.Ballard’s ‘Cocaine Nights’ is another. Less glum glum stick in my thumb I’m another serial killer and more bright, thought-provoking material that is, dare I it say far more real than 99% of other published crime fictions Provocative at times but dour.  It relies less on melodramatic pauses, less on the pathological insanity that consumes other mysteries with muddy clarity, and invites the reader to partake in the tale rather than being led. This story sparkles with life, with intellect and ingenuity. It is a story of provincial death in exotic climes.

“Kennedys Brain” by Henning Mankell has been criticised as being too like that of a John le Carré novel. If it is then plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery. This book isn’t a copy. It is similar too but of its own creation. It is austere, blunt, without romance or compromise and doesn’t have a good ending. It is remorseless in its pursuit of the commonplace, relentless in its dissection of what makes humans the way we are. It notes down the idiosyncrasies that exist then draws out a drama that is taut, terrifying but highly creative. It is very European, very architectural in design but also heartfelt and very, very good.

If you need realism, true to life and without compromise then look no further than John le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” It is, without a doubt, one of the most remarkable mystery stories I have read. Le Carré wrote the novel in one day which is remarkable in itself. If anyone writing crime, spy or mystery thrillers needs somewhere to research how to write in a manner that truly depicts life, warts and all then look no further than this book.  It is the epitome of realism whilst being a masterful work of fiction.

The king of ‘hard-boiled’ fiction, with a firm nod to ‘pulp’ was Raymond Chandler. He distilled from reality a quasi-other world, a parallel reality infused with elements so akin to our own that it seemed real. His characters, Philip Marlowe especially, grew out of the page filling the imagination with someone hard-nosed, secretly tender but above all larger than life. I have worked with men who, if not the same, were like that. Chandler’s legacy lives on because it was life-like not because it was real.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón wrote, and still writes, a variety of fictions catering for children to young adult to adult mystery. His two latest works are the ones I like best. Filled with dazzling prose they display stories that come littered with events that almost defy description yet ably describe life at the edge of acceptable reality. Nothing is bogus about them; there is no shying away from logic. The stories they tell, both related, are consistent with real life even if events stretch belief. The books are ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ and its prequel’ ‘The Angels Game.’ They glisten like raindrops in a field of green leaves.

Fred Vargas is not a bloke. She’s is very much a female and, to make this Englishmen’s pulse race, a French Female.  Rather than following sheep like the modern accepted route so many crime writers go down, Fred or Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau to use her full name, bends every damn rule in the book. Her work has received many awards but not for its determination to rigidly adhere to the current trend of presenting ‘grim reality', but in her desire to portray the anomalous, the unorthodox, the unconventional and the downright eccentric. Her work throbs with the offbeat. She has written several novels all of them best sellers. Her central character, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, goes against the grain of modern day detectives. He eschews evidence espousing instead instinct, insight and intuition. The dialogues are fascinating, the characters, like those of Jean-Pierre Jeunet sparkle with life. Fred’s books are a revelation.  Without any doubt my favourite contemporary writer of crime fiction.

all words and art are copyright © of Russell 'C.J' Duffy.To view my books on Amazon/Kindle go here: -- For another side of CJ go here: sOMeThiNg For tHE wEeKeND, SiR?

1 comment:

Russell 'C.J.' Duffy said...

Nowadays blog is connected to a multitude of internet sites including facebook. This from Lorna:

Lorna wrote: "Not a genre I usually like much, but your recommendations made me want to try. I agree about the grim realism--Oscar Wilde complained about it too. To me the most ironic thing in its current incarnation (at least on TV) is that it is usually clothing very conventional middle class, family values, soapy sentiment."

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