By happy coincidence, in light of my last post, over breakfast this morning I was thumbing through the enormous Encyclopedia A-E, which is full of wonderful things, among them Alice Notley's excellent entry on Crime Fiction. The entry is seven and a half large pages long, and includes three samples of Notley's own poetic work inspired by her reading of "trash novels." Toward the beginning of the entry she suggests that the crime genre exemplified by writers of the past thirty or so years like Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Jonathan Kellerman, James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, et al., taken all together, functions like a collective poem:
A poem is more than a word machine: it is the experience of reading it and having it in one's head, thus an ambiance, a sensory-intellectual passage, a fluid room. Unstrictly speaking, this whole group of books is a poem, however badly or cynically most of the books are written.... Story-wise the demand is to repeat the old story. (I must have wanted this myself.) A story repeated becomes a poem. You already know what the salient moments will be like, so you skip much of the book and search for certain words, the ones evoking a city or locale and a protagonist's character traits, the crime, the anguish, the name of the murderer, the confrontation; some of these books I seem hardly to have read a word of. "Page-turner" actually refers to not reading but literally turning pages.
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Notley sets James Ellroy head and shoulders above the great mass of contemporary popular crime writers, applauding his prose as "fiction, and language, coded into music." Having recently read The Big Nowhere, I would have to agree. "When I discovered Ellroy," continues Notley, "I wondered why I'd bothered with that other shit, but after I'd read most of him I went back to it." She doesn't say directly whether she also reads much of the crime fiction of the decades preceding the ones she focuses on, but the quality in Ellroy she mentions, the sense of noir compressed noir music he manages to evoke so skillfully, is for me the dominant characteristic of the fiction I was discussing in my last post. Contemporary writers like Kellerman (whom Notley disses entertainingly) are by and large preoccupied with events unfolding, case developments (the plot thickens!), occasional violent confrontations and altercations. All these things happen in the older stories too, of course, but there they are continually in tension with something more like pure style, a dizzying tangle of moods and textures whose eventual resolution--or rather, the resolution of the plot elements they obscure--happens almost "under the table." Raymond Chandler was the master of this effect, but even the countless quickie paperbacks of the period share in it to a far greater extent than most of what is written today. Here is a passage from Wade Miller's Guilty Bystander (1947), chosen pretty much at random:
A buzz sounded at the squat switchboard against the wall and Smitty turned to it. The clean newness of the black panel with its metal-rimmed holes struck a jangling note in the hotel's atmosphere. The board silently gave notice that at times the Bridgway rooms housed--or hid--more important persons than waterfront bums and border drifters. The warped letter box atop the switchboard stared into the lobby with two dozen square sockets, counteracting the suggestion with bland disreputability.
And here's a passage from Jonathan Kellerman's Therapy (2004):
The Bartell house was ... a hulking, flat-faced wedding cake set behind a pitiful front yard that was mostly circular driveway. White fencing topped with gold finials shielded the property. A security sign promising ARMED RESPONSE hung near the electric gate. Through the fence, double doors with frosted-glass panes were backlit teal green. Above them, a giant porthole showcased a white-hot chandelier. No vehicles in front; a four-car garage provided ample shelter for automotive pets.
I think I've been fair to Kellerman here by selecting a passage that, to its credit, paints a convincing picture of a certain kind of suburban nouveau-riche architecture. The porthole is a nice touch. But this is as good as it gets. The bulk of the book is dialogue, as is true of most crime bestsellers in this genre now. And it's not interesting dialogue! Miller's paragraph, on the other hand, does all kinds of things at once: it sets a mood, it lays the groundwork for important plot points, and it sets the elements of the scene into an animated interplay of description and psychological symbolism. The chandelier behind the porthole in Kellerman is never more than a vivid snapshot; the letter box in Miller is practically a supporting character. And yet, nothing about Miller's prose is overwritten. It's all economical, tight, snappy. There is nothing in it like the preciousness of "automotive pets."
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Notley concludes her entry with a provocative meditation:
I see that living requires me to face the fact of the murder over and over. This is what I know, and this is a knowledge I share with crime fiction. Perhaps contemporary poetry has become too reticent for my taste.