Murdering literature


“When you have eliminated the impossible,
whatever remains, however improbable,
must be the truth.”
-Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle),
in the Sign of Four, 1890.
                                                                                                          sherlock holmes

The stories of Sherlock Holmes came to us as the first fascinating jolt that the world of grownups was sensible after all, as a tantalizing promise that growing up could be worthwhile too, and also as a hair raising awareness that life was awash with cunning, evil forces, although conquerable by the power of reason. The dog which did not bark spoke volumes; the state of heels of a person’s shoes told us where he or she had been and was in what profession; that every crime left clues to be discovered.

If not Sherlock Holmes, it could be the detective Byomkesh Bakshi in Sharadindu Bandhopadhyay`s 32 stories, Kiriti Roy in Nihar Ranjan Gupto’s nearly 200 detective novels in Bengali, or some other iconic jasoos in over 125 crime novels by Ibne Safi in Jassosi Duniya in Hindi/Urdu. It was the same story in other languages too, French, Spanish, German, Marathi, Mandarin, and so on. Every book shop in the world, from huge emporia in Oxford street, London to a plastic sheet on the pavement in Connaught Place, New Delhi, has a big corner of crime fiction books, at all times, for over a hundred years. Not accidental surely? Crime fiction calls to something deep in us.

Look at the date, Watson: 1890. What does it tell us of the Times? The fruits of industrial revolution were finally available to the masses. New, factory based economic activities had started; these attracted new laboring classes from the countryside to the cities, which expanded in area and character; roads were widened; railways had started; doctors and lawyers had emerged to address the health and wealth of the new urban citizenry, a lot of it women for the first time in history. In short, modern civilization had commenced. Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889 while the first the World Exposition in London had already been held in 1862. The colonial empires of Britain, Spain, and France were at their peak and spanning the globe.

All this was underpinned by mass education. The new citizenry was educated; it was fresh and optimistic while facing the new urban life; it wanted to know what was happening around it. The traditional “high” literature was geared for tastes of the upper classes and was distant, if not alien in every way. A new literature was sorely needed. Crime fiction was thus born, Watson — interestingly, at the same time as newspapers, magazines, photography, films, telephones and telegraphs – and automobiles soon followed.

The 1920s and 1930s have been called Golden Age of crime fiction. Dozens of new writers emerged nearly half of them women (unlike in high literature), led by the Three Queens: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. Other famous writers were F. W. Crofts, Michael Innes, G. K. Chesterton, Ngaio Marsh, Georges Simenon, Ellery Queen (actually pseudonym for two men), Austin Freeman, Josephine Tey, Anne Hocking, John Dickson Carr, etc.

New heroes emerged alongside Sherlock Holmes. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in over 30 novels was a domesticated and fuzzy version of the hard, diamond-like brilliance of Sherlock Holmes, while Miss Marple was probably her own self in about 12 novels. Inspector Maigret of Simenon`s nearly 100 novels was a Frenchified and rakishly brooding Holmes. Father Brown of Chesterton was the comforting, insightful local parish priest solving wicked mysteries which baffled all. It was best seller business. Publishing exploded. Books were filmed extensively. Murder on Orient Express based on Agatha Christie`s novel of the same name, for example, remains a often remade film till today.

It was an era of logical puzzles and whodunits. The world was basically a reasonable place, and writers left oodles of clues for the readers to guess the murderer, and the final outcome was logically just about possible. Classic templates for crime fiction were formed in that Golden Age. Corpse In A Sealed room, Two Suspects With Equal Motives, Murder By Vanishing Poison, Someone Else Posing As Murderer To Shield A Loved One, etc are still in robust use.

This Golden Age can also be called the Age of Hope, when there was hope of making out a reasonable life and investigation of crime usually involved exposure of criminals`collusion with local police, judiciary, business, and politics as regrettable but remediable exceptions. This subaltern, anti-establishment altitude has remained imprinted on the DNA of crime fiction till today; indeed it has become the norm . Hence its popularity.

“The law isn’t justice. It’s a very imperfect
mechanism. If you press exactly the right buttons
– and are also lucky –
justice may show up in the answer.”
– Raymond Chandler,
in the Long Goodbye, 1954.          

                                                                  raymond chandler

Note the date once again, Watson. The unprecedented scale of soul-shattering slaughter of WW I could have been shrugged off as a one-off bad dream but the even higher scale and ferocity of WW II dented permanently something deep in what was hitherto thought as mankind’s assured march towards civilization. Some iron entered its soul. As inevitable, crime fiction reflected this change. The long era of Hard Boiled crime fiction started in earnest, and to those born on the wrong side of 1980s it has not ended yet.

Wildly popular magazines played a big role in this era. Magazines like Black Mask, Dime Detective, and Detective Fiction Weekly had large circulation and helped spawn a wide spectrum of readers and writers, with centre of gravity shifting to America. Dashiell Hammett gave all-time classics like The Maltese Falcon introducing Sam Spade as the classic cynical, anti-hero private dick. The Thin Man followed, as did a dozen other novels. Raymond Chandler’s hardnosed, wry and unsentimental Christopher Marlowe, in classics like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, and The Little Sister remain the paradigm even today. James M. Cain gave perennial favourites like The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Double Indemnity. Micky Spillane gave us My Gun Is quick, Vengeance Is Mine, One Lonely Night. At the same time Graham Greene gave us the “Greeneland”, in his hugely popular “entertainment” crime novels like The Brighton Rock, The Third Man, A Gun for Sale, etc.

The tone and tenor had hardened. Crimes were now harsh, cruel, full of wanton violence; the mood was of cynicism, fast burn out, and blood-guts-and gore and the social setting was of pervasive corruption, sleaze, psychosis, serial killing and horrific sociapathy. Many sub-genres emerged from this Pulp Fiction, which is another name of Hard boiled. Legal strand popularised by Erle Stanley Gardner has writers like John Grisham, Steve martini, and Scott Turow. The forensic strand has writers like Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell, and Jeffry Deaver. A promising strand, of psychological crime novels, has writers like Dennis Lehane, Christopher Fowler, Jo Nesbo, James Patterson, Mo Hayder, and John Connolly. Medical thrillers of Robin Cook have spawned medical crime novels by Tess Gerritsen, Michael Palmer, Joshua Panogle, and Keith Baker. And finally, the police-procedural novels with writers like Michael Connelly, Martin Cruz Smith, John Sandford, and James Ellroy – a strand which has had an astonishing growth and has taken crime fiction well beyond the Hard Boiled era. Not coincidently, considering the contemporary zeitgeist many films were and continue to be, particularly in TV, anchored in hard boiled fiction. Some other famous writers of Hard Boiled / Pulp Fiction era – what might be called the Age of Doubt — are Sue Grafton, Chester Himes, John D. Macdonald, Walter Mosely, and Ross Macdonald. The Hard Boiled age had lost its innocence about the “system” but still had hope. This age is not over yet.

“On the one hand, everything is connected,
on the other hand, it is not”.
– Henning Mankell, in Before the Frost, 2002.          

                             henning mankell

Also note the tone this time, Watson. At the turn of the last century and the millennium, starting from 1990s an entirely new category has been added to crime fiction. Post Soviet Union, Post Berlin Wall, Post Hedge Funds, Post Bush-Blair-Putin, a new mood has emerged. While the Hard Boiled strands continue to be written, this new type has overshadowed it in today’s crime fiction market. The focus has shifted from the private eye to the police inspector, who is a loner, at odds with the police system, and with a dysfunctional family. He or she is undermined and so tagged by corruption not only in police-system and politics but also in society itself. He/she solves crime, yes, and at the same time is witnessing the globalization of crime, criminals and also of victims. Befuddled by new, post-millennial existential drift and lost in the moral ambiguities of the new century the police detective is a Hamletian creature. This new type may be called Unboiled Crime Fiction — of the Age of Disillusionment. This has caught today’s public imagination like fire. Not unexpectedly the centre of gravity has shifted out of anglo-american boundaries and has become globalized. Curiously, each writer now remains centered around a single city and keeps exploring its inner psyche.

This Unboiled crime-fiction has another interesting dimension, and pundits are chewing over it. The curious point is that this style, which merges the two types of literature, the literary fiction and crime fiction, has come at a time when “high” literature is at a low ebb. Let alone Joyce and Steinbeck, etc or even Mailer, Bellow, etc what high literature has to offer today is no higher than Coetzee, Mantel, or McEwan. Unboiled crime fiction is a fusion of both types which were hitherto considered separate. Readers of both genre are loving it.

Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels, which also gave a sparkling BBC films series( A Good Hanging, Set In Darkness, Complaints, Exit Music ) with dour, Scottish, despairing drunkenness of the criminal cityscape of Edinburg continue to be reprinted again and again. Henning Mankell`s Inspector Kurt Wallander novels – also a huge BBC film series – has Inspector Wallander working in the small Swedish town of Skane, uprooted completely in personal life, tackling globalizing crime with a brooding angst like an Ingmar Bergman character ( Before The Frost, The Man Who Smiled, The White Lioness, The Man From Beijing ). Michael Dibdin’s Inspector Aurelio Zen, both a pawn and a victim of corrupt Italian police and politics, can neither let go his pursuit of crime nor do it unhampered (Cabal, Dead Lagoon, Back to Bologna, A Long Finish).

Tantalizing and absorbing new literary locations have come to the fore. Robert Wilson with Inspector Falcon books centered around Seville, Spain and Inspector Medway novels centered around Benin, Africa have given us A small Death in Lisbon, The company of Strangers, and The Silent And The Damned. Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti`s charming novels centered around Venice are as much about the new Italy as about crime (A Death in Venice , Noble Radiance, Fatal Remedies ). Michael Stanley (duo) have given us Inspector Kubu novels like A Carrion Death and A Deadly Trade centered in Gaborone, Botswana with breathtaking elegance and sad insights characteristic of Africa. Andrea Camilleri`s likeable but unpredictable Inspector Montalbano, with staunch left-wing altitude, solves crimes in Sicilly with panache and humour (The shape of Water, The Terracotta Dog, The Scent Of The Night, etc). John Burdett’s startling and cynical novels have Inspector Sonchai Jitleecheep vainly tackling crimes of sex, drugs, and global politics in Bangkok ( Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts and Vulture Peak ). Arnaldur Indridason’s Inspector Erlendur explores the cold and dark landscapes of Iceland as much as crime ( The Draining Lake, Silence Of The Grave, and Jar City). Petros Markaris has his dictionary reading Inspector Haritos solving Athen`s crimes with cool aplomb ( Late Night News, Che Committed Suicide, and Expiring Loans ). Unboiled crime fiction has lost hope in the “System” and is just carrying on doggedly.

Indian crime writing is by and large imitative or stuck in the Hard Boiled mode or just plain whackiness – although a new bunch of writers is now taking up crime fiction seriously, as also a clutch of new publishers. Will Indian crime fiction finally come of age and become global in style and maturity? Time will tell.

But this new and expanding Unboiled crime fiction, now over 20 year old globally, has already launched the 21st century in its Age of Disillusionment.

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