I hope my newness on this site does not betray too much naivete, but I was wondering why crime/pulp/detective/noir novels are read.  I haven't actually read too many until lately, but my husband has been reading them and re-reading them since he was a pre-adolescent (1960).  I recently wearied of only dusting and organizing them and decided to try to understand them. 

 

We have worn stacks of John MacDonald and Ross MacDonald paperbacks--Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiassen, Ian Fleming, W.E.B. Griffin, everything Michael Crichton every wrote, everything Tony Hillerman ever wrote, James Thompson's books, a few James Ellroy, everything John Le Carre ever published, and many, many more whose names escape me at the moment.  We have several copies of The Maltese Falcon--the yellowed paperback I have been carrying around lately was published in 1972. Yet, if asked, my husband would answer that his favorite author would be either H. L. Mencken or Tom Wolfe.  We don't seem to have any of the obscure earlier 20th century paperbacks frequently reviewed through this blog, but I just know those must be the ones his sisters told me he would as a young boy read in a day.

 

I am just wondering what you get from reading these books, especially the aforementioned obscure novels.  They are all fast reads--no breathtaking and beautifully crafted descriptions of scene and environment like Tolstoy gave us.  They are all written in short cropped sentences--no amazing page long sentences to lose yourself in like Faulkner.  The same salacious, needy, lazy, compromised, amoral, uneducated, greedy, and evil characters appear in all of the novels.  And the novels are simply morality plays told with irony.  No matter how and when the plot twists, in the end the good guys win.  Quite frankly, they could be considered comic books for grown-ups.

 

Is reading one of these books a learned way of escaping for awhile?  Is the predictability comforting? Do you enjoy seeing how the author is going to tell the same story differently and describe the same characters provocatively?  Do they tittleate?  Do they revive a memory?  Do they kill some time?  Does reading them make other people leave you alone?

 

It is easy to understand why anyone writes.  For many, it is just a natural craving, a way to express oneself, the hope of notoriety, additional income, a challenge, an outlet, fun.  But, you seem to be writing these novels for one another.  So I ask:  why do you read these books in the first place?  What do they do for you?  How do you feel when they end? What makes you pick-up another?  What am I missing in this assessment? What is their value as literature?

 

 

 

 

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Thanks. good advice. And, Anna Karenina was written by Tolstoy.
OK, there you have it in a nutshell. Description is a particular bete noire for many mystery writers and readers. There are lists of rules where "Never start a book or chapter with description or weather!" ranks at the top. The business with the modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) is another horror to many mystery fans. They consider them empty words. And then, of course, we come to the "show, don't tell" business, which in this case means dont' tell about the scene in narrative. It forces some writers to use dialogue to get that sort of thing in. And that, of course, is entirely the wrong thing to do. Stories are told!

Now, I thank you for taking the time to quote the Tolstoy passages. They are both very beautiful and carry meaning. We tend to forget the function of story telling too easily. It's also about what one sees and hears that matters and that can add significance to the coming events. For that matter, I appreciate the visual beauty of the first example. But then I'm still used to visualizing when I read. Not sure many people still do that.
I didn't think I was writing genre until my publisher put the words, "a mystery" on the cover. there's no mystery in m books and the 'good guys' don't win. I write about crime for the same reason literary writers of the past wrote about crime - I'm trying to undestand the world I live in.

Sure, there's a lot of genre fiction that's comfort food where the good guys always win and there's a lot of literature that also simply reinforces preconceived ideas - the good guys get crushed ;). Chances are the literature that you love today you wouldn't have loved when it was first published and was controversial and meat to upset the status quo. It wasn't comfortable then.

Tolstoy's prose reflects his world. He captured his world in his writing so it has resonance for his readers. It doesn't capture any world I've ever had experience with so it doesn't do anything for me. I probably see more visual images in one day that Tolstoy's original readers saw in years. If writers today are still trying to describe with words what their readers have seen thousands of times they're not making the best use of their words.

I agree too often the good guys win and order is restored - that's the biggest problem with crime fiction for me. And sometimes the flowery prose ;)

But for me, the worst thing that could have happened to literature, to art, is the way it's been co-opted by the mainstream, by the status quo. We're afraid to write about politics, we're afraid to take sides. all that 'great literature' was fully involved in its world, in the moment. It was never really about the pretty words.

So, you mention Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy. They really don't fit your list. They don't write mysteries about detectives in which the good guy wins. They're literature. Their characters happen to be working-class instead of well-educated and they allow the characters' voices to tell the stories.
Well, maybe "the bad guys lose" is a better way to say it. I just finished Elmore Leonard's The Swag and the bad guys, who are the tellers of the story, and with whom we sympathize, because they aren't as bad as the worst guys (SPOILER) are, in the end, betrayed by the girl and walked off to jail in handcuffs. They murdered the really bad guys, but that did law enforcement a favor. And, true, I have found that the criminals in his novels are just like all real-life criminals I have ever heard of: lazy and compromised.
I am actually a bit afraid of James Ellroy. My husband advises that he betrays his really sad childhood in his books. But, I am eager to indulge in some of his unique writing technique (sounds almost Joycian). But, are you sure the good guys don't win in his novels? They did in the movie which compiled several of his books: L.A. Confidential.
The LA trilogy is good, particularly White Jazz, but frankly terms like, "good guys," and "win" and "lose" don't really apply. The books aren't really about the crimes, they're about the circumstances and values that allow the crimes to be committed. The police are corrupt but not stupid and it's clear they simply work for more powerful people.

The American underworld trilogy might be more Joycian in that Ellroy uses an unusual prose style but again the books are about their themes and don't have particularly tight plots.

We'll know if Ellroy is literary in fifty years when the academics tell us ;)
John says, "I probably see more visual images in one day than Tolstoy's original readers saw in years. If writers today are still trying to describe with words what their readers have seen thousands of times they're not making the best use of their words." That's an interesting observation, but then the only thing that distinguishes our seeing from Tolstoy's or his readers' is the fact that we have film, TV, and computers where we surf the Internet. We are familiar with lots more visual images. But the "seeing" is still the same, and the world may be "seen" in many different ways now as it was then.
For that matter, the author's seeing implies the act of selection.
Yes, I think i'd call it the, "art of selection."

And I think we (or a lot of us) travel more than Tolstoy's readers did. Or maybe it's just that people from many different walks of life travel more today. And we have more context for information - that often mkes it more confusing, not less, but it does open things up. And we hear many more voices. On TV and online, sure, but we hear them.

I read crime fiction for the same reasons I read any fiction.
I like Tolstoy, but I prefer Chekhov. I like Faulkner, but I prefer Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I like Proust a lot, but I also like Joyce. I like Raymond Chandler, too, and consider him one of the mid-century's greatest writers. I don't think Proust ought to write like Chandler, or Chandler ought to write like Tolstoy. I'm content to enjoy different kinds of books for different reasons. I don't much like comic books, which may be why I don't like Lee Child.
I couldn't agree more. And, I would be willing to bet every crime writer prefers Hemingway over Faulkner.
But, I continue to hear about "writing" crime novels, not why you sit down for a few hours in a comfy chair and "read" them, or even why you think your readers read your work.
Because many of us are writers; we're exchanging tips and expertise on writing. We already know how to read.

I also prefer Steinbeck over Faulkner and Hemingway, but that's beside the point.

For breathtaking and beautifully crafted descriptions of scene and environment, try James Lee Burke, though he knows better than to go on for pages at a time about it.

Ellroy can counterbalance your "No matter how and when the plot twists, in the end the good guys win." count, because he doesn't really have any stereotypical good guys, just some characters who aren't as bad as others. Not sure why you'd be “a bit afraid” of him after implying crime fiction is too superficial for your tastes. You want to get down in the weeds of human suffering and depravity, Ellroy’s your man.

Why do I read them? A lot of them are artfully crafted by wonderfully talented writers. Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, James Lee Burke, Declan Hughes (to name a small handful), are writing stories of life in the 20th and 21st Centuries that happen to have crime as the delivery vehicle, though they’re writing much more about the effects of crime on people than about people committing crimes. Just yesterday I finished reading Timothy Hallinan’s yet to be released The Queen of Patpong, which is listed as a thriller, though it bears as much resemblance to a book by Dan Brown as Julia Roberts does to a mailbox.

How do I feel when I’ve finished one? Depends on the book. Not all crime fiction is good, just as there’s a lot of self-indulgent literary navel-gazing out there with beautifully crafted sentences and nothing else to recommend it. I’ve read crime fiction that left me feeling stunned when it was over, so that I took a few days off from reading to cleanse my emotional palate before starting another.

Can they be considered “comic books for grownups?” Some, yes, absolutely. But the percentage of crime-related fiction made up by such books is probably no higher than the percentage of books whose authors like to think have “value as literature” that are little more than exercises in masturbatory typing, written for the author's self-defined peers so he can lament his lack of sales to a public that lacks the depth to understand his greatness.

Why do I read them in the first place? I'm not sure how Joyce would describe it, but crime fiction is delightfully short on snobbery.
I suppose I did imply crime fiction was superficial; However, I also implied, that I am a newbie and trying to learn. I want to identify the audience. (I sure don't want to engage in self-abuse.) And, take care, to dismiss classic literature might be considered reverse snobbery by some.
Thank you. Your thorough response helps me tremendously. You are very consistent, also. Steinbeck's writing certainly wasn't for snobs--even though he was a wealthy grower's son whose orchard was over-hanging the Pacific. Nevertheless, his writings did raise the ire of a lot of snobs, back in the day.
Coincidentally, Steinbeck is my favorite author. But, usually Faulkner and Hemingway are pitted against each other. And, I don't know why. As far as I can tell, William Faulkner never left Oxford, and Hemingway traveled the world, joined wars, lived a life (as they say). Nevertheless, Faulkner is my favorite of the two, and not just because I am a Southern girl.
So--so far I have learned that crime novels are expected to be terse, yet adequately descriptive, must have a good and obvious plot all conveyed by the dialogue of the multi-dimensional characters, who are mostly (we assume) bad (typical American Puritanism raises its head, again)--the anti-hero of the '70s is still among us. And these characters reveal to the reader how crime has/does affect/affected their personal growth or corruption as human beings.
I guess I am afraid Ellroy will leave me "stunned when it is over. . .with a dirty emotional palate"; and, I am not that crazy about depravity--a bit too empathic. So I am avoiding as long as possible. From what I have read of him he can be quite an A-Hole. So I somewhat resent giving him much of my precious time (But, Steinbeck was a 4-wife, drunk, so why should I care?) I want to learn--and expand my literary knowledge beyond the novels of Jane Austen.
I was a reader of mysteries before I became a writer of them. You will find that mystery readers specialize in certain subgenres, and the nature of the subgenre is why they read the books. I don't like hardboiled or noir, which to me is stereotypical and further removed from reality than, say, the police procedural. The most remote subgenre is the cozy. I read mostly police procedurals, where crime takes on a certain urgency and is seen as a social problem. And, yes, I want the good guys to win. I like to believe in modern-day heroes who set out on a quest every day of their lives and a great cost to themselves.

But the common denominator for all readers is that the books they read are an escape for them from the boring and unsatisfactory lives they lead.

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