“…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Raymond Chandler.
This is the detective fiction I’m talking about. Where something deep within the American psyche hungers for the solitary individual who struggles against all odds.
What’s strange about this is the depth of that emotional desire. This, despite the mythology which underlies it. And it really is a myth. Our country was not formed by individual good guys taking on the bad. Our history has never been one against the many—though we’ve always been more than willing to position ourselves as the “white hats.” I mean, we were just helping Native Americans who refused the “American Way” and therefore defined who they were as the “enemy” in order to virtually exterminate them.
And really, we were just making our country the way it was supposed to be when we bought, sold, enslaved, and slaughtered defenseless Black people. Hey, they were only worth three fifths of a white. Good versus less than human, right?
And the more one reads about The Pinkerton Detective Agency, the less one can believe in honorable detectives struggling against “bad guys.” Hell, for the most part they were the bad guys.
Even our war history is one of aggression and usurpation of other peoples’ lands. Just ask Mexico. Plus, during the First and Second World wars we rode the back of the wave while other countries took the major hits. Hardly the brave society leading the way down those mean streets.
World War 2 Total Deaths (Approximate):
Soviet Union 23,954,000
Great Britain 449,800
United States 418,500
So really, detective fiction (of the kind I write, and am writing about here) has a whole lot less to do with who we are than a romanticized fantasy of who we would like to be.
So how the hell does a detective fiction writer create a strong, believable reality which, at its heart, is just a fairytale? Obviously a ton has to do with a believable plot that keeps a reader turning pages. But, at least in my thinking, plot, while critical, is only one factor in the creation of something out of nothing. It takes more to fashion a readable authenticity that feels like the honest present, but emerges from a myth.
For me that begins with the major character. In my Matt Jacob series, that’s of course Matt. But for detective fiction to be experienced as real, the other characters have to be recognizable as well. Too many false notes in any of the book’s personalities trash the suspension of belief which is absolutely necessary to maintain interest. Kinda like spotting a fly in the ice cube of your bourbon. Ruins the moment—and the drink.
So we got plot, lead character, other characters. And there’s more.
Relationships. Despite the popular misconception that mysteries (or genre books in general) occupy a lower rung on literature’s ladder, I think writing honestly about relationships is critical for any novel. And especially for those books that are considered “throwaways.” In fact, I sometimes wonder whether the sloppiness about relationships that often exist within many genre novels is the reason people don’t take them seriously. Which is a damn shame. Because great writers in any genre write great books. Including Romance. And there’s more.
A sense of “place.” Not for nothing is the best of the best detective fiction located in an area (usually a city) that is an actual one (with or without accurate street names and neighborhoods), or one that feels absolutely real. If a reader can’t imagine the place in which the book’s characters reside, they just won’t believe anything else about the novel. Why should they? (An aside—Richard Russo, a contemporary author (not a detective fiction or mystery writer) is exquisite when it comes to defining “place.” I urge anyone who wants to learn how to make a town or area sing with a life of its own to read his work. He’s just that good). If someone can’t “see” where the characters live or how they interact with their environment, a major building block of any story is terribly compromised. Nothing that any serious author wants.
When I look at this post everything I’ve written seems pretty elemental and basic. But like everything else, the devil is in the details and it’s the writer’s responsibility to create those human details that allow for the reader to ignore our actual reality and engage and believe in the detective fiction myth. Not too different than “literature” is it?
At least half the mystery novels published violate the law that the solution, once revealed, must seem to be inevitable. Raymond Chandler