Monday, March 17, 2008

Greatest Writers: Hardboiled/Noir vs Mainstream/Cozy

In the wake of the Daily Telegraph list of must-read crime/thriller authors,The Rap Sheet decided to create their own. I was looking at the discussion about it on Crimespace and came back to the same question I've pondered before:

Are hard-boiled/noir books better written than cozies/amateur sleuth/mainstream books?

Before I explain where I'm going with this, readers of this blog will know I prefer darker subject matter. To me, that is a question of taste, not quality writing. It does stand to reason we often read more in the spectrum we write in, or to our tastes, and that means when I start recommending books they tend to be darker police procedurals, hard-boiled and noir offerings.

However, that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of great books that fall outside the scope of one's usual reading.

The reason I raise the question is because list after list in the crime fiction community, it seems that the classics cover Chandler, Hammett, Ed McBain, Charles Williford and modern masters of noir such as Ken Bruen. Although Michael Connelly writes police procedurals, they lean on the dark end of the spectrum as well.

We still see Agatha Christie named... but who are the modern cozy/amateur sleuth/mainstream classic writers? Why don't we often see historical crime fiction on these lists? And what of foreign masters and translated works? In the wake of the surge of popularity of noir/hard-boiled, have we settled on the conclusion that this part of the genre isn't as good?

Despite my own reading preferences, I don't believe this to be true. For one thing, I would classify Laura Lippman solidly in the mainstream camp, and I think she's a great writer. I would also consider Reginald Hill to be mainstream, and personally, I think a good chunk of what Val McDermid writes actually falls in that part of the genre: A Place of Execution; The Distant Echo.

I've floated my own theories in the past. In the same way that the academy awards honour dramas and neglect to nominate comedies and animated films the majority of the time, whatever is serious tends to be treated with more respect. Noir and hard-boiled works, in general, delve into very serious subject matter.

I'll readily admit this is part of the reason I have misgivings about these lists. For one thing, I think every person on the planet creates their own "things to do before I die" list, and they vary greatly. That doesn't make them right or wrong. I certainly don't feel compelled to tell all readers they absolutely must read any 50 books before they die. Reading is something I do for enjoyment, stimulation, for work... But for the most part, I think readers dive into books they think they'll enjoy reading. That's the key factor. As long as someone is reading, and enjoying themselves, isn't that all that matters? Of course as an author I hope people will read my work and enjoy it too, but that isn't the point here.

I don't think anyone should dictate to readers any list... Particularly such a generalized one. Authors, sure. If you want to be a writer, you need to be a reader first, and you should know your genre.

My thoughts on this seem have drawn criticism. The cycle here is that it's okay to question the Telegraph list and create a new one, but apparently it isn't okay to question whether there should be such a list to begin with, or how it should be structured. Honestly, I'm more concerned by any suggestion that involves blatantly ignoring discussion about the list, and an endorsement to specifically seek out input from those who clearly favour one part of the genre. (This is posted on a forum and we aren't allowed to discuss it? Since when did the community become a dictatorship? I mean, if I don't like a discussion I can walk away... But the answer here is if you don't like some of the feedback, ignore it and talk to more compliant people?)

For any such list to have real merit, it needs to have a limit on it. It should also be divided into sections. If we want to represent the mystery/crime/thriller genre then all segments should be represented. There should also be a list for classics and contemporary offerings. This list won't be a good genre representation if it heavily features noir books, or if 75% were PI books, or if 68% were police procedurals. In order for a list to be meaningful to readers, it needs to identify their reading preferences and highlight the books for them. In the same way that someone who reads noir/hard-boiled/horror would probably not have a favourable response to Louise Penny, no matter how great the writing, someone who prefers cozies/amateur sleuth offerings and doesn't like violence would probably have a hard time with THE WIRE IN THE BLOOD or SAVAGE NIGHT. As much as I love those books, I know I'd never give them to my mother to read, for example. They would be so far outside her comfort zone the reading would certainly not be enjoyable, or beneficial on any level.

Now, I'm throwing questions out for public debate. What are the modern classics in the cozy-mainstream-amateur sleuth end of the spectrum? Why are 'must-read' lists filled with darker offerings? Are we guilty of the same sin of discrimination as the academy awards, by favouring dark fiction when we dish out our highest honours, or are we okay with saying that more mainstream works aren't as well written or timeless?

Opinions wanted. I'm half tempted to contact some of the cozy writers and let them weigh in on this in Spinetingler...

(And a very Happy St. Patrick's Day. I'll talk more about the parade and such in the next few days, I'm sure. I saw the real-life Carcetti, and Neurice.)


norby said...

Personally, I say contact the cozy writers and let them have their say if they want to. My mom prefers the cozies and it is a shame that they're overlooked whenever these lists are put together.

They're not my taste, but it doesn't mean that they're not well-written or worth reading.

Randy Johnson said...

I don't like must read lists either. I read for enjoyment, of course, as anybody who reads does. A lot of the stuff I read you wouldn't like and vice versa. There is considerable overlap of course. But we're all different. I read most genres(being disabled and retired I have more time on my hands than most people). I like Lee Goldberg's books. His Monk books are fun reads, a nice change of pace, and his The Man With The Iron-On Badge was a fine mystery with a bit of humor.

angie said...

I don't have a problem with 'must read' lists - in fact, I really enjoy them. I'll either be reminded of something I haven't read yet or prompted to seek out something new. These lists do tend to reflect what the current trend is (darker crime fic. more heavily rep'd than cozies), but that doesn't particularly bug me, either. People make choices based on what they know now, not what they'll know at some point in the future. Ask again in 10 or 20 years and while some author names will remain, others will be dropped and new ones added. That's the challenge of historical review. Chances are, some of the Scandinavian authors, along with crime fiction writers from Australia, Asia, Italy, etc., would make the list in the future. Problem is, most of them are still relatively new to the English-speaking (and reading!) public participating in this instance of list-making.

A list is incapable of 'dictating' anything to anyone. Good grief, it's just a guide, a suggestion, a roll-call of what the list's creator thinks is important. I mean, hello?! Readers ain't sheep - never have been, never will be. But sometimes it's nice to sneak a peek at somebody else's road map and see if there are some destinations I've missed out on.

The discussion on Crimespace wasn't intended (as far as I can see) to be some intellectualized debate about whether or not a list is a good idea, whether or not certain authors deserve (and what exactly does that mean, anyway?) to be read more than other, just an invitation to share what books/authors would be on YOUR list. Several members chimed in with books/authors that I don't know, or read in the past but didn't like. Yes, there were some lists with 'cozy' writers, which was kinda the point. What books are important to you personally that you'd like to see on a 'must read' list?

Personally, I think if you want to discuss whether or not making a list is valid, then that's another topic entirely - freakin' make a new Forum post to discuss it if it's that important. As for the instances you referenced, I'm sorry, but aggressive, inflammatory comments will lead to (you guessed it) some angry responses. When you participate in a community discussion, it is generally expected that you will follow the social conventions of the community. That's not unreasonable. What IS unreasonable is to expect a group to completely alter their way of interaction to accommodate your preferred style.

Sorry, but this issue hurts my head and I'm tired. I'm tired of rude and aggressive comments, of folks not wanting to take responsibility for their actions ('but how did this happen?!' 'Um, you were flicking matches into an open container of gasoline, wtf did you expect?'). Mostly I'm sick of these intellectual mind games that seem more interested in proving how 'right' or 'important' or intelligent someone is than in meaningful conversation.

Sorry, complete rant-a-thon. Again. Tired. Sick of it. And I've got some writing that needs my attention, so I'm going to let go of 'SOMEONE'S WRONG ON THE INTERNET' and get back to it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Hey Norby and Randy, I'm in agreement with you. And I bet you guys read a lot of stuff off my radar, some of which I might actually enjoy if I tried it.

Angie, I never intended to be rude. I did state an opinion about my concern about lists. Personally, I don't consider an open-ended list to have much merit, the more I think about it.

But I'm raising a valid point here, with a question about why we don't see a greater range of books on such lists. And you can't say it's because of what we don't know right now - trends have changed, you and I are of the younger readers in the genre and for freak's sakes, the people who are two or three decades older than us have been exposed to a great number of other things.

Really, if people want to make a list, and if other people want to follow it or read it or discuss it - well, look at the second comment I made over on that thread: that's the point. The point of any God-damn fucking list about books should be to get people talking about lists. Slam slam slam the Telegraph's list, as has been done to the nth degree. I may not agree with it either but it did its job - it got people talking about books.

End of story.

No, create a new list, because it's going to be better. Really? In whose opinion? Maybe mine, maybe yours... not likely in the opinion of those who created the list for the Telegraph.

Now, Pepper actually posted an interesting thought about the "why" behind what ends up on these lists, and that was the point of my blog post.

IF it was felt that my statement about my concern with such lists was inappropriate, or inappropriately placed at Crimespace, then I DAMN WELL EXPECT the same courtesy everyone else who missteps gets there - that is, the post removed and notification about why. You're a moderator there and you're coming to my blog to say the comment was inappropriately placed, when my point was that some people don't seem to think we should even have the discussion.


Back to the original question of why it is that we don't see more of a range represented on these lists - I don't buy the 'what we know now' line: Hammett and Chandler and the like almost always seem to be represented, while certainly over the decades there have been significant numbers of authors who've written in the various subgenres and we don't see them.

If it's rude for me to be curious about why they aren't there, then I'm okay with being a first-rate bitch, but really, I think if the lists are ever to have any real merit at all they have to cover picks of all subgenres. Otherwise, it's saying that you MUST read mainly noir/hard-boiled, which hardly serves as a good cross-section.

Not that anyone has to read a damn thing.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"The point of any God-damn fucking list about books should be to get people talking about lists."

Of course, the last word on that should have been books.

angie said...

Okay, I wasn't talking about you at all - though I do think a thoughtful look at whether or not lists serve a useful function or not would be better served as a separate topic. For the record, I've never known you to be rude on forums, or anywhere else for that matter. Mostly, I was talking about a trend I've seen lately where folks are overly aggressive and downright rude in comments on forum discussions. It seriously bugs me.

All that said, I completely and utterly miscommunicated and I take responsibility for that. My bad, my apologies.

So, I'm dropping this hot potato (the list question), 'cause I think we'll just have to agree on some points and not others. And really, it's not that big a deal in the grand scheme o' things.

John McFetridge said...

You know, it's actually nice to see people with passion for something.

A friend of mine is a very, very talented cartoonist and on his web page ( he has this quote:

"Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process." - E. B. White

But still, I want to talk about stuff I like. I want to hear about stuff other people like and why they like it. If a list gets people talking, so be it (Sandra's SO is right).

And to answer your question, yes, cozies are under-represented. These lists are often made by men - go figure.

But here's why I think cozies are often even darker than noir: a cozy usually takes place in a closed community, a small village or involving a group of people who have known each other a long time and will continue to hang around with each other after the story. Therefore, that one element people always say they are looking for in mystery fiction - order restored, murderer caught - actually works better in noir where the hero (or whatever) walks away and the people involved never see each other again.

In a cozy - take Louise Penny's "Still Life" - the most recent one I read - order is never restored. The people who knew the victim continue to see each other all the time, now with a hole in their lives and the murderer (someone everyone liked) is now also missing from their lives making it impossible to simply moving on with their lives.

At the end of a cozy the characters involved usually have to completely reasses a realtionship they had, having now discovered it was based on lies (often - I haven't read a huge amount of cozies). So, the potential is there for some real resonance in characters' lives. Subtle, often, and certainly not in every cozy, but it's in the really good ones.

(sorry to go on so long, but Sandra, I think you pose very good questions on your blog and for once I'm actually trying to answer one).

Graham Powell said...

I think that darker material lends itself to a more "epic" treatment, whereas cozies tend to be smaller in scope, though that's not universally true.

Take the works of Richard Stark, for example. Although hardboiled, these don't seem to be intended to say anything about the human condition - they're just stories, meant to entertain and good at it.

I've gotten a bit worn out with the grand pretentions of some modern crime novels. I mostly read books from the 60s and 70s now. I'm currently reading a pair by John Dickson Carr, written in the 1930s.

craig said...

IMHO, one reason hard-bloiled books tend to dominate those type of lists is that a good cozy is harder to write.

Spillane (who is one of my favorites) could move the plot along at break-neck speed with action and surly dialogue (which set up more action). A lesser writer who can write clean declarative sentences can write a pretty decent procedural.

A cozy depends more on the writing and writing of a special type--sometimes arch, generally good-humoured, often with some witty or funny dialogue. Not many writers can pull that off. A lesser Sayers ends up sounding tinny and forced.

Anyway, just one guys opinion.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Angie, no worries. As we've already said privately, I think I also reacted more to something someone else did.

And I'm with you on the whole frustration thing.

Part of the reason I stated it there was because of something pointed out to me from a reader, about all these people who don't comment on blogs and then start their own blog discussion on hot topics. Even think back to last year's torture porn thing - the original post must have been on at least three different sites right off the top of my head that I can think of. It's ridiculous. The discussion becomes fragmented, and in order to get a full perspective you're bouncing all over half of creation.

And I'm guilty of it as well. There are a lot of places I won't comment because I don't feel comfortable. I don't want to participate in hostile environments. In fact, I feel rather done with most forums anymore, because of all this nonsense. FBS and Crimespace are the only exceptions. There are a couple author forums I've been on for years, and like, but I don't feel comfortable there either now, for a variety of reasons I won't dish on publicly.

And in light of the latest abuse of my e-mail address I've gotten a new private e-mail address I'm giving out selectively and will be screening my messages more carefully in the future. I've sort of had enough.

Enough ramble.

John... wow. Interesting thoughts. I don't mind long at all, but that could be a whole other post topic. You make good points.

Graham, interesting as well. Do you think crime fiction is getting too haughty? Just curious.

Craig, one guy's opinion more than welcome. I see the validity in your point - I think that it's incredibly hard to write good humour, and as a result, I can see how that applies to cozies as well. Similar issues. In other words, it takes a real talent to write a good cozy.

spyscribbler said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head. People don't view comedy as "great writing," or at least rarely.

One wouldn't first think of Janet Evanovich as being one of the greats, but if you take some time to study her techniques, you see that she wields her words with a definite power and skill. Why is that any less impressive, just because it's comedy?

John McFetridge said...

Okay, I thought of something else. Cozies share a lot of the same basic structure with most post-1950 literary fiction. I'm back to that closed community thing, but it's like John Updike or John Cheever or Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood or more recently Tom Perrota or Rick Moody - very small village or suburb, a lot of people who know eavh other well.

In a cozy it's the same basic set-up but instead of a mid-life crisis it's a murder. The very best cozies would sometimes also be very much literary fiction.

So maybe, for a lot of the people who make these kinds of lists, they're thinking 'crime' as something seperate from these settings, something different from literary fiction.

Or not.