Posts Tagged crime fiction
Some of the cultural highlights of my year – a year of working at home, long train journeys to long meetings which gave me more time to read, less time to go to the cinema or the theatre. However, I did manage a few outings…
- Twelfth Night at the Crucible – a real delight. I’d been disappointed that we weren’t getting a tragedy or one of the problem plays, rather than a comedy that I’d seen on stage before, but that feeling evaporated very quickly indeed. The performances were excellent, the staging imaginative and suggestive of darker undercurrents (the cast appearing at windows almost like the undead, the showers of rose petals – see also Poppeia).
- Brilliant opera at Leeds Grand – La Boheme, and The Coronation of Poppeia. And another Boheme, this time in Graves Gallery, from Opera on Location.
- Music in the Round – I’d pick out the Schubert octet, Tim Horton’s bravura performance of the Prokofiev Piano Sonata no. 7 (described by the Guardian as ‘ferocious’), Charlie Piper‘s WWI suite, The Dark Hour; works by Schulhoff & Haas, and consort of viols, Fretwork.
- Once again we celebrated Tim Richardson’s life and passion for learning and teaching with the 24 Hour Inspire – 24 hours of lectures on a host of topics, from WWI poets to insect sex, from biogeography to Mozart, from underground science to fairground history – ok, you get the picture. Once again a host of people stepped up to help, everything ran smoothly, and we were able to donate to Rotherham Hospice and Impact Young Heroes. We’ll be doing it again on 16-17 April 2015. Tim’s charity, Inspiration for Life, goes from strength to strength.
- I revisited the City Ground after far too many years, for the first home game of the season, and Stuart Pearce’s first game as manager. That was a great game. We’re in a slump at the moment, and that early euphoria has dissipated. If it was anyone but Psycho in charge I suspect the calls to sack the manager would be ringing out right now, but few Forest fans would want to deny him the chance to turn things around. I hope he can. I really, really, hope he can.
Top TV of 2014
No attempt at ranking. How could one decide on the relative merits of a gritty cop drama and a comic book fantasy? So, what do all of these shows have in common? First, excellent writing, and great performances. Essential to have both. So many big budget dramas skimp on the former and blow the budget on the latter, but even the best actors can only do so much with a script that clunks. Second, great female characters. All of these programmes basically kick the Bechdel test out of the park. It’s not just about having ‘strong’ women. Not all women are strong, and no women are strong all of the time. It’s about having women characters who are rounded human beings, fallible and flawed, but not dependent on men to make decisions or to solve problems. Some of these women do indeed kick ass, but they don’t all have to. So, to Nazanin Boniadi, Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, Amelia Bullmore, Lauren Cohan, Clare Danes, Siobhan Finneran, Danai Gurira, Keeley Hawes, Elizabeth Henstridge, Gillian Jacobs, Suranne Jones, Nimrat Kaur, Sarah Lancashire, Melissa McBride, Vicky McClure, Tatiana Maslany, Lesley Sharp, Allison Tolmin, Ming-Na Wen and the rest – cheers, and thanks for giving us images of women that are as diverse and complicated as actual real live women are.
- Fargo – I was decidedly unconvinced beforehand, but it turned out to be funny, gruesome, and touching, with one of my favourite women cops in Allison Tolmin’s Molly (not just a re-run of Frances McDormand’s marvellous Marge from the film, but a character in her own right), Billy Bob Thornton as a grimly hilarious killer and Martin Freeman as a weaselly one, and a wealth of other characters, some of whom we came to care about so much that at tense moments there was much yelling at the screen as we thought they might be in danger.
- Line of Duty – I wasn’t convinced about this one either, mainly because the first series had been superb, and I wondered if they could match it. They did, and it was Keeley Hawes’ performance that clinched it. Whilst I’d watch Vicky McClure in anything, Keeley wasn’t in that category for me, despite Ashes to Ashes. But in this she was riveting, absolutely mesmerising. The rest of the cast was superb too.
- Happy Valley was perhaps the most ironically titled programme of the year. This valley was pretty damned grim. But Sarah Lancashire as cop Catherine Cawood was wonderful, and the story was compelling and moving.
- Scott & Bailey maintained its form in series 4. The three central women (count them! three central women!) are all convincingly real, sometimes infuriatingly so.
- The Walking Dead opened series 5 with an episode so gripping that I really could neither breathe normally nor speak for quite some time. It’s maintained that tension (more or less) whilst varying the format, to focus on different subsets of the characters, and different locations. Carol has been central to this season’s episodes so far, and her character is one of those that has been allowed to develop and deepen throughout. There’s no shortage of other interesting characters, and the plot allows for philosophical, political and ethical speculation as well as for gory shocks and suspense.
- Agents of Shield got past a slightly wobbly first series and got its pace and tone just right. It fits right into the Marvelverse, but stands alone perfectly well. And it features girl-geek Simmons, a Sheffield lass, and there’s just a hint of South Yorkshire in her accent from time to time.
- Community made me laugh more than anything else this year. Just when you think it is as bonkers as it could be, it ups its game, to be even more meta, and even more daft.
- Doctor Who I have spoken of elsewhere. I have a deep love for this programme, and whilst this regeneration has been unsettling at times, uncertain in tone perhaps, I have great hopes for Capaldi and Coleman in series 9 next year.
- Homeland redeemed itself. Gripping stuff, with Clare Danes acting her socks off and getting us deeper into what makes Carrie tick.
- Orphan Black is one of the most criminally underrated programmes of this (and last) year. Tatiana Maslany inhabits each of the characters she plays so well that I forget – disbelieve almost – that there is just the one actress involved. And when she’s playing one of them pretending to be one of the others…. Cracking plot too.
Films of the year – I leave the in-depth cinematic reviews to Arthur Annabel who promises an extensive blog on this topic soon. I simply note these as films which have delighted and/or moved me, in no particular order. Worth noting that whilst the programmes on my TV list get A* on the Bechdel test, the films are considerably weaker on that front. Nonetheless, some fine performances, and Nicole Perlman was the first woman with a writing credit on a Marvel movie (Guardians of the Galaxy).
Women of the year:
Jack Monroe – for enlivening my repertoire of meals to feed the family, and campaigning about food poverty
Professor Monica Grady – for being emotionally, exuberantly passionate about science
Laura Bates – her Everyday Sexism project helped to give women a voice, to tell their stories, to shout back.
In 2014 I’ve blogged about refugees, genocide, football, W G Sebald and Michel Butor, Kazuo Ishiguro, everyday sexism, Tramlines, Josephine Butler and Doctor Who. I got a bit personal on the subject of depression, and was inspired by Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl to present my manifesto – a plea to just be kind. And my blog about reading the last of the Resnick series of detective stories won the approval of the author, John Harvey, who linked to it on his own blog, and republished my jazz playlist!
Amongst the blogs I’ve followed, or at least tried to keep up with, I would particularly note Searching for Albion. This is the record of Dan Taylor’s four month cycling trip across the British Isles, talking to people he meets, by plan or by chance. A fascinating project, beautifully documented.
To all of those who’ve shared some of the above events, obsessions and enthusiasms with me, who’ve given me support when I’ve needed it, who I’ve learned from and with, thank you. I don’t know what to expect from 2015 – but see you there!
We go back a fair few years, Charlie and me. Pretty much instant, the connection, the attraction too. We had things in common – places (though I lived near Nottingham as a teenager, so my Nottingham wasn’t his – it was the Playhouse, Goose Fair, the City Ground, and the shops), music (listening to Miles as I write this), cats (ours was called Mingus. RIP), football (I was on the Trent End, still loyal to the Reds to this day, glory days long past, whilst he’s a County man).
Never very lucky in love, our Charlie. But attractive to women, no question. That crumpled, rumpled melancholy hard to resist – had we met in person, I’d have spectacularly failed to do so – but making it work in the long term, a lot tougher. He nearly found that, so very nearly, and it broke my heart when… but I won’t say, in case you don’t know, and if you don’t, you need to go back, as I’ve just done, to Lonely Hearts, and make his acquaintance for yourself, and follow him through the years, through to Darkness, Darkness.
I won’t say much about Darkness, Darkness, except that, as so many reviewers have already said, it’s a fitting coda to the series. It focuses on the miners’ strike – an event which still reverberates in Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire, so that Nottingham football supporters still get called scabs by Yorkshire football supporters, though in both cases their parents were toddlers, if that, at the time of the strike – but it encompasses so much more. It’s an elegy really, a blues for Charlie.
So many of the cops whose investigations we follow on screen or on the page seem to be constructed according to a formula. A bit of (preferably traumatic) back story, a few quirks (an addiction, past or current, an obsession), and a tendency to go off piste, to break the rules. That can work – Rachel Bailey comes storming off the screen and the page (in Cath Staincliffe’s excellent novels) and into real life, so that when she (inevitably) does something monumentally daft, we, along with her long-suffering colleagues and friends, want to yell at her, shake her into common sense. The best ones, the ones we re-read even when we remember exactly who dunnit, where, why and how, turn that formula into someone we can invest in, not just in their ability to put the bad guy behind bars, but in their humanity, their vulnerability, their emotional life. And Charlie is one of the best, no question. Of course he has a back story (a broken marriage, nothing out of the ordinary), and a few quirks (his tendency to wear his most recent meal on his shirt front or his tie, for example). But he’s a rounded (and that’s not a crack about his waistline), nuanced, complicated character,
And so many of the narratives of crime and punishment that we consume rely on convoluted plots – plots not just in the sense of the narrative arc, but machinations, devilishly clever serial killers, hidden identities, etc. All very enjoyable, but bearing, one imagines, little relation to the day to day of policing. We suspend our disbelief, accept for the duration that in the picture postcard villages of Midsomer a deranged serial killer lurks behind every cottage doorway, or that the academics of Oxford are busier plotting their next murder than preparing their next research bid. The volume and the type of crime here is a tad more realistic, Charlie’s cases are more likely to involve cock-ups than conspiracies, individuals with chaotic lives committing chaotic crimes, often with consequences they could never have imagined. It’s not that there aren’t any serial killers, or any conspiracies, but they are interwoven with the mundanity, the banality, of ‘normal’ urban crime.
The other trope that those of us who watch the detectives can get a bit weary of, or even sickened by, is the reliance on sexual violence as a plot device. Again, this does feature in Charlie’s caseload over the years, as you’d expect. But there’s nothing sexy, nothing titillating here. The reality of rape and the fear of rape, the murky areas of human sexuality, the casual violence of language used towards women, are all shown clear-sightedly and compassionately, through Charlie’s eyes. It’s not that he’s so very PC. But his attractiveness to women isn’t just about his crumpled melancholy, it’s about his instinctive respect, his empathy. Even when he’s getting it wrong (as he does, often), fundamentally he’s a good man, someone you could lean on, trust. Those murky areas, and how fiction deals with them, are not just sub-text either – in both Living Proof and Still Water we confront them head on.
There’s so much humanity in these stories. And there’s music of course, flowing through them. There’s Millington’s regular assaults on the Petula Clark songbook, the bands at the Polish Club where Charlie dances with Marian, or the Otis Redding track that was playing when he met Elaine… But it’s the jazz that’s vital. It’s integral, it’s the atmosphere, those blue notes echoing Charlie’s melancholy, bringing out the noir on Nottingham’s mean streets. It’s the soundtrack to what we see of his life, to the daily grappling with petty crime, dysfunctional families, and the viciousness and brutality of which human beings are capable, and with the politics of policing, the admin, the power play. He goes home, and he finds a record, a track, that echoes his mood and as the music is described we can almost believe we’re hearing it too, the descriptions so vivid, so perceptive.
And so it seemed fitting, as I re-read the books, focusing less on the plot and more on the atmosphere, the background, the soundtrack, to put together a little playlist. One song for each novel. I hope Charlie would approve.
‘He’ll be okay. He’s got a flat white and yet another version of ‘Blue Monk’ to keep him warm’ (Darkness, Darkness, p. 416).
I’ll not worry about him then, and lord knows I have done sometimes, wondering if the sadness and the loneliness in him would take him over. But he’ll be okay. Cheers Charlie.
A Resnick playlist
Lonely Hearts (1989) Billie Holiday – (I don’t stand a) Ghost of a Chance (with you) (Music for Torching, 1955)
Rough Treatment (1990) Red Rodney Quintet – Shaw ‘Nuff (Red Rodney Returns, 1959)
Cutting Edge (1991) Art Pepper – Straight Life (Straight Life, 1979)
Off Minor (1992) Thelonious Monk – Off Minor (Monk’s Music, 1957)
Wasted Years (1993) Thelonious Monk – Evidence (Thelonious Monk at the Blackhawk, 1960)
Cold Light (1994) Duke Ellington Orchestra – Cottontail (The Carnegie Hall Concerts, 1943)
Living Proof (1995) Stan Tracey Duo – Some Other Blues (Live at the QEH, 1994)
Easy Meat (1996) Billie Holiday – Body and Soul (Body and Soul, 1957)
Still Water (1997) Miles Davis – Bag’s Groove (Bag’s Groove, 1957)
Last Rites (1998) Sandy Brown – In the Evening (In the Evening, 1970)
Cold in Hand (2008) Bessie Smith – Cold in Hand Blues (1925, The Bessie Smith Story, Vol. 3, 1951)
Darkness Darkness (2014) Thelonious Monk – Blue Monk (Thelonious Monk Trio, 1954)
What we don’t know is more interesting than what we know, both in the sciences and in the arts. The classic detective story is a puzzle which must, to satisfy its readers, provide a solution, tie up loose ends, arrange retribution, and restore the natural order of things (typified in many of the TV detective series I recall from the 1970s by the postscript where they all go home and have tea, and a bit of a laugh, no matter how traumatic the preceding events have been). The satisfaction of the tidy ending can simultaneously be a disappointment. The final ‘reveal’, the scene where someone (the brilliant detective’s slightly dozy sidekick, perhaps) says, ‘But what I still don’t understand is…’, allowing the brilliant detective to resolve that last apparent anomaly, leaves the reader or viewer little to ponder on once the book is closed or the credits have rolled.
To be fair, the best examples of the genre, whilst making use of its conventions and tropes, also stretch and subvert them. The detective novels that have remained in print for decades are those which have more to satisfy the reader than merely the solving of a riddle. We might re-read or re-watch a lesser work once, just to spot where the clues were if we’d been bright enough to pick them up, or even in the hope of finding a continuity error or plot hole, but we’re not likely to revisit them repeatedly. In my many re-readings of, for example, Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, in contrast, it’s not the plot, but the characters, the quality of the writing that give repeated pleasure.
If the classic mystery, the ‘roman enigme’, is a puzzle to be solved, and, like a completed crossword, of limited interest thereafter, the ‘roman noir’, is a more complex and nuanced narrative. Tellingly, it flourished in the ’40s and ’50s in France, often taking the Occupation as subject and setting (Atack, 2010), providing a medium in which the ambiguities of the era could be explored, but has also been used more recently by such writers as Didier Daeninckx, to stage ‘complex crimes that to be solved involve precisely a return to the past, to the hidden history of State and/or establishment criminality’ (Gorrara, 79) (see Daeninckx’s Meurtres pour Memoires, which uncovers two dark and hidden areas of France’s past, the massacre of Algerian demonstrators in Paris in 1961, and the wartime deportation of Jews, events linked by one man, Maurice Papon).
The roman noir takes the reader well off the tourist map, into a city of shadows and secrets, into the realm of the uncanny. In this labyrinth, the detective wanders the streets, as shadowy and ambiguous a figure as those he tracks – indeed, as Butor said, the flaneur-detective and the criminal ‘are at bottom identical. The second places his steps in the footprints of the first who remains unaware of him, although the former is without knowing it the initiator, the guide of the second’ (Histoire extraordinaire, p. 33). Walter Benjamin drew on Baudelaire‘s fascination with Poe’s ur-detective story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, to link the flaneur and the detective when he wrote that ‘No matter what trail the flaneur may follow, every one of them will lead him to a crime’. This is highly ambiguous – is the flaneur a detective, tracking down transgressions and transgressors, or a criminal, whose wanderings are themselves transgressive and/or may lead him into crime/to commit crime? (McDonough, 101).
Michel Butor’s Passing Time isn’t a detective novel, though one critic described it as of the fusion of this genre and the experimental novel. But his Bleston is the perfect setting for a ‘roman noir’, a place of shadows and labyrinthine streets, a place where fear and suspicion are in the air. Butor was ‘devouring’ detective novels at this time, and right at the heart of Passing Time, he places an exposition on the principles upon which they are constructed. Crime novelist George Burton (alias J K Hamilton) argues that every detective novel is based around two murders, the crime itself, and the (symbolic or actual) destruction of the criminal by the detective when they are exposed, killed by ‘the explosion of truth (143-4). The detective’s role is to ‘disturb and probe, to expose and alter things’, to tear off veils and masks, abolish errors, ignorance and lies, to cleanse ‘this small fraction of the world’ from its offence and the defilement that the murder brings with it. According to Burton, he is:
‘the true son of the murderer Oedipus, not only because he solves a riddle, but also because he kills the man to whom he owes his title, without whom he would not exist in that capacity (without crimes, without mysterious crimes, what would he be?) because this murder was foretold for him from the day of his birth or, if you prefer, because it is inherent in his nature, through it alone he fulfils himself and attains the highest power’ (145)
The detective novel superimposes two temporal sequences, that which begins with the discovery of the crime and concludes with the discovery of its perpetrator, and that which leads up to the crime, which is reconstructed by the detective (not necessarily emerging in a linear form, but usually presented to us as such at the climax of the novel). Similarly, Passing Time has a linear time frame beginning in May when Revel starts writing his journal, and ending in September with his departure from Bleston, but his journal narrative begins in October with his arrival, initially linear but gradually becoming ‘a desperate attempt to account for several months simultaneously, ending as the narrator leaves the town with the awareness that no year can ever be completely recovered, as the lack of time to describe the events of February 29 so symbolizes’ (Lloyd, 2005, pp 143-4).
Just as there are (at least) two time frames, there are (at least) two texts, that which gives the true version of events, which the guilty party has erased, or tried to erase, and the alternative version of events which has been superimposed upon it. The detective’s goal is to uncover the true story from the traces left behind, to decipher and restore the palimpsest.
The detective novel itself, a green Penguin crime title, with a blank space where the author photograph normally appears, is the trigger for most of the events in the narrative. (I should say, the books themselves, since Revel buys two copies, and Ann a third.) Revel is attracted by the ambiguity of the title – Le Meurtre de Bleston could refer at the same time to a murder committed in Bleston, and to the murder of Bleston, thus allowing him ‘to enjoy a small private revenge against this town’ (54). But it becomes ‘an auxiliary so precious that I can almost say that a new phase of my adventure began at the instant when … I read for the first time those opening words which I now know by heart’ (55). The precision with which the author describes the city and its monuments suggests to him that the story might be based on real events, leading him to attempt his own detective work when the book’s author is injured in an ‘accident’. More than that, Revel feels that he’s being led along:
‘through a newspaper poster I had discovered J C Hamilton’s detective story, The Bleston Murder; through reading this I had discovered the Murderer’s Window, which in its turn had given rise to this conversation with its closing words of advice to visit the New Cathedral. It was as though a trail had been laid for me, at each stage of which I was allowed to see the end of the next stage, a trail which was to lead me hopelessly astray’ (80).
The book(s) wander(s) through Bleston just as their owner does. Linking all of Revel’s contacts in Bleston (his landlady, the two sisters with whom he consecutively falls in love, his colleague Jenkins, his compatriot Lucien) with the single exception of Horace Buck, the African worker who befriends him, and linking via the sisters to their friends and thus to the suspected real life counterpart of the book’s perpetrator, it is passed on, lost, replaced (in a second-hand version with an indecipherable signature), and reappears in a bewildering sequence.
The re-reading of detective novels is expounded upon here too. Revel justifies his re-reading of The Bleston Murder on the basis that it is ‘a precious guide for a newcomer among the perplexities and misunderstandings of that city’ , but for Jenkins, an aficionado of the genre, ‘they take on a kind of transparency. As you trace out the illusions of the beginning, you glimpse the truth that you remember more or less clearly’ (88).
Revel becomes a detective, to unravel his own past and reconstruct it. But his quest is doomed to failure, there is no final revelation. For the writers of noir, and the nouveau romanciers, the Borgesian imminent revelation often remains imminent, unrealised, or reveals a new mystery. If the narrator/hero finds a path through the labyrinth, ‘it is only to discover that the exit is really an entrance, that the labyrinth solved is no more than a labyrinth within a greater labyrinth’ (Porter, 256). And so nothing here is finally resolved. Revel’s feud with the city ends with an uneasy truce (‘We are quits’ (249)), the ‘accident’ that fuels his guilt and his suspicions appears ultimately to be just an accident, the only murderers he encounters are fictional or mythical. There is no return to the harmony of an established order. But the process of interpreting the palimpsest, reconstructing the past, following the trail and making the links does start something, not contained within the arbitrary parameters of the narrative:
‘Thus each day, evoking other days like harmonics, transforms the appearance of the past, and while certain periods come into the light others, formerly illuminated, tend to grow dim, and to lie silent and unknown until with the passage of time fresh echoes come to awaken them. Thus the sequence of former days is only restored to us through a whole host of other days, constantly changing, and every event calls up an echo from other, earlier events which caused it or explain it or correspond to it, every monument, every object, every image sending us back to other periods which we must reawaken in order to recover the lost secret of their power for good or evil’ (283)
Margaret Atack, ‘Representing the Occupation in the Novel of the 1950s: Ne jugez pas’, Cincinnati Romance Review, 29 (2010), 76-88
Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London: John Calder, 1961)
– Histoire Extraordinaire: Essays on a Dream of Baudelaire’s, translated by R Howard (Jonathan Cape, 1969)
Didier Daeninckx, Meurtres pour Memoires (Paris: Gallimard, 1984)
Claire Gorrara, The Roman Noir in Post-War French Culture: Dark Fictions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)
Louise Hardwick (ed), New Approaches to Crime in French Literature, Culture and Film (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009)
Rosemary Lloyd, Shimmering in a Transformed Light: Writing the Still Life (Cornell UP, 2005)
Tom McDonough, ‘The Crimes of the Flâneur’, October, 102 (2002), 101-22
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, Selected Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
Dennis Porter, The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (New Haven; London: Yale UP, 1981)