I live a double life. By day: student/teacher in the hallowed halls of higher education, kingdom of the highbrow literati. By night: hack writer of seedy, violent crime stories. I’m like a double-agent in the perpetual war between champions of literature who think crime novels are shallow and sensationalistic, and noir fiends who think “literary” means dull and pretentious. Luckily, I’ve met plenty of people who recognize that some great novels live in the gray zone between literature and pulp.
Let’s face it: some crime novels are flat and hokey tales drawn from the same tired blueprint as a million books before them. Similarly, some literary novels are aimless, annoyingly ironic slices of clichéd suburban ennui. Neither camp has a monopoly on hack jobs. But in the world of contemporary crime fiction, there are superstars like Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, James Ellroy, and Joyce Carol Oates (when she writes in the genre). For years I’ve been admiring their works, and for just as long I’ve been seeking articulate explanations for why these masters rise above their crime and literary contemporaries.
Most mystery readers would agree that the best mystery books deliver a riveting plot with reversals, revelations, and generic innovations (like Michael Connelly’s The Poet), and only a fool would disagree. But plot itself is simply a framework, a vehicle, a surface-level skeleton that binds together all the muscle that gives a book its weight. Focusing merely on plot is like driving a pimped-out ride through an endless flat desert. Sure, it’s got good horsepower, but there’s not much to look at, not much that’ll make you want to take the same ride again.
Great authors embed their plots with ever-deepening layers of association—various planes of reference that resonate with each other in harmony and in dissonance, that compete with each other for the reader’s attention at such a level of complexity that no single reading could possibly ring every note. Some people see thrillers as a form of escape from life’s difficulties, but the best ones I’ve read have instead immersed me into the depths of life’s difficulties, all the way down to its most demanding philosophical and metaphysical conundrums. I don’t mean to imply intellectual stuff. These “layers of association” are generally emotional and difficult to articulate with logic. They make us feel several different ways at once. They offer no “message,” no “theme,” no “point,” no politics—because such offerings are reductive. They are full of questions that spark imagination, but they rarely offer any answers.
My friend and fellow crime writer Jason Pinter (The Mark) has noted the interplay of murder mystery and a neighborhood gentrification story in Lehane’s Mystic River, and I would add that this milestone novel also confronts us with the limits of friendship, the pressures of adulthood, the cyclical relationship between trauma and violence—and much more. James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential offers a similarly complex meditation on manhood and corruption. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—my vote for the greatest novel of all time, much less the greatest crime novel ever—is such a complex web of associations that the narrative literally folds in upon itself several times over. It addresses the limits of truth and reality, the limits of love, old Europe versus ‘Fifties America, the history of literature, its own authorship, and even lepidopterists—somehow weaving all these elements together into the chilling tale of a murderous (and oddly charming) pedophile.
Similarly, T.C. Boyle mentioned at a reading in Atlanta that his new novel Talk, Talk (a stolen-identity thriller of sorts) explores the relationship between identity and language on several planes: the protagonist is deaf and uses sign-language, the antagonist steals identities, and there are allusions drawn from the famous French story of the “wild child” who never learned to speak. All are combined to give the narrative depth and dimension. Incidentally, Boyle went on to note that he dislikes most genre fiction precisely because it fails to create dimension. His words struck me as more of a challenge than an indictment.
What’s essential about dimension, I think, is that the levels should connect. They should influence and expand each other. L.A. Confidential isn’t just about manhood on one level and corruption on another; it’s about how a character’s understanding of manhood influences his attitude toward corruption, and vice versa. When you multiply these two levels by the many other associations in Ellroy’s novel—all of them interrelated—you see how profoundly woven a great author’s work can become.
After plot, most people cite compelling characters as key to a good book. This point makes perfect sense, since it’s through these characters, these surrogate selves that we readers experience our proxy emotions. Still, the best writers know that the meaning of “compelling” isn’t simply “flashy” or “quirky.” Sure, flashy and quirky are great, as Tarantino has shown, but by themselves they’re also too easy, a cheap laugh. A detective who is an obsessive-compulsive! is ten years old! a robot! a cat! Psychopaths who are also psychiatrists, brain transplant patients, hermaphrodites, and, of course, fiction writers. These quirks might get you turning the pages, but they probably won’t keep you contemplating the characters for years—not unless the story delves deeply into being, forcing you to confront character on ever-deeper metaphysical levels until one being’s particular struggle with the meaning of existence is laid bare for you. This is the case with Jonathan Letham’s noir novel, Motherless Brooklyn, where the narrator’s Tourette’s Syndrome is more than just a quirk; it’s a catalyst for all sorts of philosophical and psychological character exploration. A great novel like this begins on the surface of personality, and then allows it to blossom petal by petal until it is in full bloom.
A great character almost necessarily hurts and haunts the reader because, like in any meaningful relationship, getting to know a great character is a deliciously painful undertaking. Not coincidentally, master novelists often wring their own psyches while probing the depths of their imagined beings. Certainly Jimmy Marcus and David Boyle from Mystic River are two of the crime genre’s most devastating characters. Danny Upshaw from James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere haunts me to this day, as do nearly all of Joyce Carol Oates’ characters, particularly Iris from Because it is Bitter and Because it is My Heart, and Alma from The Tattooed Girl. And then there is the despicable antihero of Lolita, Humbert Humbert, a gentleman psycho whose skewed vision of the human condition is a nightmare I’ll never escape (thank goodness).
In the simplest terms, good novels show us what characters want in a practical sense: to catch the bad guy, to rescue the girl, to solve the crime, etc. Great books do this, too, but they also gradually reveal to us what characters want within their souls—that elusive, unarticulated force that truly drives them. It’s what they need from existence to make them whole. I’ve read a dozen “how to write” guidebooks that repeat that same old advice about how protagonists should have clear desires. I don’t know: a completely clear desire is rather one-dimensional, isn’t it? Sure Terry McCaleb wants to catch a young woman’s killer in Connelly’s Blood Work, but I’ll be forever probing the decidedly unclear depths of what McCaleb’s own life begins to mean to him once he uncovers the real motive behind the killing.
McCaleb’s realization is one of the best I’ve ever read in a mystery—not only because it’s a great twist, but also because the twist suddenly adds much more metaphysical depth and complication than I could possibly comprehend at one moment. Assassin John Rain from Barry Eisler’s Rain Fall faces another knotty philosophical dilemma when he falls in love with the daughter of a man he has killed—and toward the end of the novel Eisler further complicates the meaning of Rain’s life when he connects this dilemma to a similar one in Rain’s past.
At its most fundamental level, depth of character is another aspect of “dimension,” since character is one tool for developing associations. Characters are symbolic correlatives, living emblems of the prevailing meanings in the book—and the meanings in turn bolster the emotional effects of the characters upon the reader. In each of his best books (The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand), James Ellroy uses a triptych of protagonists to view various associations from three different perspectives, like using three lenses to find new angles on the same image. To oversimplify, Confidential sees manhood as brut force through Bud White, honor through Ed Exley, and manipulation through Jack Vincennes. The three angles are not exclusive; instead, they combine to form a three-dimensional picture. And, importantly, this picture does not stay the same. As the novel progresses, these three men belie their simplicity, creating more and more dimensions of reference.
One of the reasons I’m attracted to the crime/mystery genre as a writer, reader and viewer (let’s not forget film noir!) is because it is a naturally fertile ground for some of the human condition’s best metaphysical associations. Motifs about amnesia, mistaken identity and disguise can easily generate associations with the meaning of “self” and its mutability and multiplicity. Think of all the philosophical games that have been played with memory (see movies like Memento, Mulholland Drive, The Usual Suspects). Espionage and double-cross plots can segue into meditations on the meaning of truth and reality. Killers and antiheros are always good for an exaggerated focus on reality, guilt, civility versus barbarism, the animal instinct inside us all. And, of course, the very nature of mystery itself is rife with ideas about logic’s limitations and the frustration/beauty of knowledge (or the lack thereof).
There seems no limit to these associations, and great writers are always finding new avenues into them. There are of course other elements beyond riveting plot, dimension and character depth that make for great, memorable novels—that is, lasting works of art rather than disposable commodities—but we’ll save those discussions for some other time. I also wonder how conscious and deliberate “dimension” really is for an author, how much she thinks about her associations while writing and revising. Often I suppose that if an author were truly in conscious command of all her dimensions and how they interplay, then there will probably be some lack of depth and magic in the finished product. I think the true beauty of a mysterious universe is that it remains partly a mystery even to the author who created it. •