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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Well, umm, that should stir up a reaction here. :)

I'm no fan myself, so I wonder, too. But our leisure reading (as distinct from literary reading) is very much a matter of taste, and the fact that the books frequently are easy reads and page turners is what makes them leisure.

Now to give you an example: I'm a reasonably well-educated woman. Beside my bed at the moment are two books. One is Hilary Mantel's highly acclaimed historical novel WOLF HALL; the other book is Ian Rankin's HANGING GARDENS, a mystery. Sometimes I read a few chapters in WOLF HALL, but most of the time I reach for Rankin. Both are very good of their kind, but Rankin (though not noir or hardboiled) is an easier read. Tolstoy is definitely slow. Can't speak for the language since it's translated, but presumably the translator would follow the original. The complexity comes from Tolstoy's observation of the human condition through event and character. If you don't pay attention, you miss the point.
Thank you for your reply. It didn't mean to "stir" anything. I asked the question sincerely. I probably should have inserted some "with all due respects" in the post. No offence was intended. But, I was hoping someone would tell me what they enjoy/get out of these novels.

I don't distinguish between leisure reading and literary reading. I don't think Tolstoy is slow. And Tolstoy's characters are definitely multi-dimensional and rife with human weakness and emotions. But when I referred to his talent for describing scene and environment I had these two excerpts, which were the first two I could locate on such short notice. There are even more moving descriptions elsewhere in the novel: (I don't quite understand how to attach a file to this so I will just paste).

War and Peace, Part II (Chapter 6)

It was a warm, rainy, autumnal day. The wide expanse that opened out before the heights on which the Russian batteries stood guarding the bridge, was at times veiled by a diaphanous curtain of slanting ran, and then, suddenly spread out in the sunlight, far-distant objects could be clearly seen glittering as though freshly varnished. Down below, the little town could be seen with its white, red-roofed houses, its cathedral, and its bridge, on both sides of which streamed jostling masses of Russian troops. At the bend of the Danube, vessels, an island, and a castle with a park surrounded by the waters of the Danube covered with pine forests, with a mystic background of green tree-tops and bluish gorges. The turrets of a convent stood out beyond a wild virgin pine-forest, and far away on the other side of the Enns the enemy’s horse patrols could be discerned . . . .

War and Peace, Part Eleven (Chapter 20)

Meanwhile Moscow was empty, there were still people in it, perhaps a fiftieth part of its former inhabitants had remained, but it was empty. It was empty in the sense that a dying queenless hive is empty.

In a queenless hive no life is left though to a superficial glance it seems as much alive as other hives.

The bees circle round a queenless hive in the hot beams of the midday sun as gaily as around the living hives; from a distance it smells of honey like others, and bees fly in and out in the same way. But one has only to observe that hive to realize that there is no longer any life in it. The bees do not fly in the same way, the smell and the sound that meet the beekeeper are not the same. To the beekeeper’s tap on the wall of the sick hive, instead of the former instant unanimous humming of tens of thousands of bees with their abdomens threateningly compressed, and producing by a rapid vibration of their wings an aerial living sound, the only reply is a disconnected buzzing from different parts of the deserted hive. From the alighting-board, instead of the former spirituous fragrant smell of honey and venom, and warm whiffs of crowded life, comes an odour of emptiness and decay mingling with the smell of honey. There are no long sentinels sounding the alarm with their abdomens raised, and ready to die in defence of the hive . . . .

So in the same way Moscow was empty when Napoleon, weary, uneasy and morose, paced up and down in front of the Kammer-Kollezski rampart, awaiting what to his mind was necessary, if but formal, observance of the proprieties—a deputation. . . .

The coup de theatre had not come off.
If Tolstoy is "literary," you can have them all. And I love that you pick paragraphs of over-written description as an example of their "great" writing. Wow. Most mystery writers I know work harder on their words and sentences than Tolstoy ever did, at least judging by the result. Good writing (communication of ideas and events) is clear and concise.
So you read mystery writers because the writing is tight and gets to the point--doesn's waste your time (very 21st century) we only have so much spare time. How would you tighten the Tolstoy passages above?
I like your style, Joyce. If Tolstoy sucks, I should be able to edit it, huh?

Okay, what the heck. I'll edit Tolstoy, although it's more like a boil down.

It was a warm, rainy day. The Russian batteries guarding the bridge were at times veiled by a curtain of slanting rain. Masses of troops jostled through the little town of white, red-roofed houses, a cathedral, and the bridge.
So the virgin Pine Forest and the convent are unnecessary? I liked the contrast between peacefulness, purity and the brutality of an impending battle.
If the convent is important to the story, I goofed. If the convent is to remind me war is hell, I say keep your insight, tell me the story.
Got it! Convent was not important to the story.
I read crime novels for the same reason I read all novels. I love to be told an engaging story. Sometimes the narrator's voice is so appealing, I finish stories I don't really like -- The Horse Whisperer comes to mind -- but at least with so-called crime novels I can count on the story involving my two favorite topics, love and death. That's what I write about, too. I think I'm writing about my times and my world. Agents, publishers, and bookstores say they are crime novels.
You either like and appreciate the genre. Or you don't. If you don't there's nothing in the world going to change your mind. Read Tolstoy and most of the 'classic' Russian writers. Can't say I was particularly impressed. Read a number of 'literary novels' most critics deem as great literature. But note; that's their opinion.

Read Raymond Chandler. He comes as close as anyone can in creating a verbal painting of a human being and their emotional status. And let me offer this observation; If Tolstoy and Chandler were alive today, it would be Chandler who would be published and Tolstoy receiving the rejection slips.
What do you think of Dostoyevsky? Was his first person telling of his crime non-noir? Was the overwhelming guilt he felt antithetical to the relaxed sociopathy of the noir characters? As they all do, he was discovered and punished, but he repented. A noir character would never do that. These books often begin with some criminal looking for a new caper.
My goodness you are so correct. A novel the size of War and Peace could never compete with movies, T.V., and 2.0 social lives. No reader today would understand the shame of Anna Karenina's behavior and why this creates such problems for her and permeates the lives of others.
No, here we disagree, Joyce. Dostoyevsky wouldn't be published today not because a modern day reader isn't looking for Anna Karenina's shame, nor for our 'relaxed sociopathy of the noir characters.' Dostoyevsky wouldn't ber published today because he's godawful pretentious. Wordy and pretentious.

Other writers--modern writers within the noir spectrum--can generate the same emotions Dostoyevsky tried to create in a reader and do it with far less words and far more vivid reality.


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