Friday, October 26, 2018

The Relevance (?) of Crime Fiction Escapist Literature in Twenty-first Century USA

The following was presented by Manuel Ramos at the 8th annual Conferencia Internacional de Literatura Detectivesca en Español (CILDE), also known as the International Hispanic Crime Fiction Conference, on September 22, 2018, on the campus of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.


©Manuel Ramos

I thought that today I would offer my views on the relevance, and the possibility of the lack of relevance of genre fiction in today’s chaotic world. Or, as Edmund Wilson said in his infamous essay, “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?”

 More specifically, the genre I’m speaking about is crime fiction, and even more specific than that, I’m focusing on Latinx crime fiction:  mystery or detective fiction centered in the North American communities of Latino culture.

Not that my opinions are any more legitimate than anyone else.  But I do have history with the crime fiction genre: I’ve published in this genre since 1993 -- numerous short stories, ten crime novels, several presentations, panels, Q&A’s, and a lifetime of reading mysteries, detective stories, noir novels, thrillers, and almost every other category of genre fiction that ends up on the book shelves.  My comments are rooted in that history.

Brutal, violent crime, unfortunately, is as old as the human race. And so is mystery storytelling.  The first murder, the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, was quickly investigated by an amateur detective who tried to solve the mystery.  According to the Book of Genesis, God questioned Cain about his missing sibling.  He was suspicious from the get-go.  After all, at that time in Earth’s history, there was a limited number of potential victims and likely suspects. Apparently, the interview, the original third degree, was so intense that the killer was reduced to whimpering, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” As if to say, “Why is everybody looking at me?”

The story of the Cain and Abel fratricide contains several constructs that a good reader of mysteries should recognize.
For example, jealousy provides the deadly motive.  Envy can cause brotherly love to turn into brotherly hate, with bloody consequences.

Or, how about the act itself?  Uncontrolled rage results in a cruel death. The killer tries to cover up his sin by acting as though all is calm and peaceful, and feigning ignorance of anything out-of-the ordinary.

The tough-talking detective solves the crime from scarce but important clues, a keen knowledge of human psychology, and the killer’s own mistakes. Punishment is administered, and justice prevails.

So, we could say that not only has crime existed since the human race began.  The mystery story itself is just as old.  And, of course, the major theme of all crime fiction was there at the beginning:  good vs. evil.

Edgar Allan Poe is often credited with inventing the modern detective  in his short story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841.)  He created Aguste Dupin, a professional detective who uses deductive reasoning to solve a particularly horrific crime, the gruesome murder of a mother and her daughter in a locked upstairs room. According to Ross Macdonald, the North American crime writer who adroitly explored the conflicts and contradictions of middle-class Southern California in the first half and middle decades of the Twentieth Century, Poe devised his detective story as “a means of exorcising or controlling guilt and horror.”  Dupin solves the crime with logical reasoning, which seems out of place against the terror and fear generated by the murders of the women. But because he does solve the crime, the balance between good and evil is restored.  In a way, civilization triumphs over primitive savagery.  The chaos of evil is conquered by rational thought and ingenuity.

Crime fiction can do that. 

I think we can agree on some of the other reasons why we read and enjoy crime fiction.

For one, our sense of justice is appeased if the bad man or woman pays for his or her crimes at the end of the book. A satisfying ending gives us closure, resolution, finality. These concepts often are missing in our day-to-day lives of repetitive appointments, missed deadlines, and ever changing, ever expanding schedules.

Also, we can easily see ourselves in the starring role of detective as we go from page to page, clue to clue, chapter to chapter, with the secret desire, maybe not so secret, that eventually we ourselves will resolve the mystery and beat the fictional detective to the punch.  Identifying the killer before the final paragraph is a reward for careful crime fiction readers.  Just as long as the puzzle is not solved too quickly, or too obviously.

And there is the thrill of danger and risk that crime fiction often provides, even if these insecurities exist only in our imaginations, spurred on by the author’s skill.  But who doesn’t like a little paranoia at midnight?  Who can resist the sense of foreboding brought about by a well-written crime story, the kind of foreboding that has a reader checking the doors and windows, and jumping at every unknown sound or unusual rattle?  We like to be anxious, for a few minutes.  We even appreciate fear, as long as we know we can close the book, take a deep breath, and make ourselves a drink.

Franz Kafka is not known as a crime fiction writer, but his thoughts on reading and books were certainly hard-boiled. He wrote:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us.  If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?  So that it will make us happy …?  But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.  A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. 

That's dark!

Raymond Chandler wrote about another reason we like crime fiction, although his observation went beyond the mystery story.

I’ll quote from his famous essay, The Simple Art of Murder.

All … who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional reality.  … [People] must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts.  It is part of the process of life among thinking beings. It is one of the things that distinguish them from the three-toed sloth …. I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape …. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.

But here is where the contradictions inherent in my role as a writer of escapist fiction become most apparent, which results, for me, in an inner struggle about my role as a writer, and a measurement of the value of what I create as a writer.

 Let me be frank about the context from which I speak. Just for a few minutes I’ll talk about the political situation and the danger that threatens some of our basic assumptions about the United States.

I believe that in the Twenty-first Century, the United States faces a serious and perhaps existential threat from radical political groups and individuals that have marshalled their forces and are engaged in a dismantling of many of the institutions, principals, and beliefs that this country has long supported and promoted.  Freedom of speech, religion, and of the press are under unrelenting attack.  Racism, in all its various ugly formats, literally parades across the landscape, and in more sinister, subversive acts by powerful men and women.  Decades of progress on issues such as gender equality, environmental protection, educational reform, and international relationships have been abandoned, ignored, or reversed.  The government has turned its official back on the concept of providing for the general welfare of its citizens, and instead is focused on meeting the needs and desires of the financial elite and the corporate power structure.  Lies have become the truth, and facts are irrelevant.  Perception controls the stage.  Too many of our neighbors, the people next door, hear only what they want to hear.  They are too eager to buy into the latest outlandish appeal to the lowest common denominator because such appeals are easier to accept than the painful realization of the phoniness and dishonesty, and threat, of the current reality.

 When I sit at my computer, and I try to imagine the next story line, or the latest twist for one of my characters, or the conflict that will move the plot forward, it can be too easy to come to a sudden stop.
It can be too easy to say, “What’s the use, why bother?”

Or, I can tell myself, “These are only stories, fictional creations that mean nothing in the bigger scheme of things.”

Or, “How can I spend my time working on a new book, when there’s so much else to do?  I should be organizing on the streets, teaching in the schools, speaking up at meetings, volunteering for actions against the repressive forces that line up against everything I believe in.”

I remind myself that even the mighty Chandler thought crime fiction was merely escapist literature, without any “higher purpose,” and no one was more critical of his art than Chandler himself. He wrote in a letter, “How could I possibly care a button about the detective story as form.  All I’m looking for is an excuse for certain experiments in dramatic dialogue.”  Talk about being cynical.

On the other hand, I’m also reminded that great art, including literature, has been created in other times of crisis, such as the Great Depression, World War II, the presidency of Richard Nixon.

I also know that Chandler wrote until his death. He drank himself into a fairly early grave, but he didn’t give up the idea of creating, as he said, “emotion through dialogue.”  Despite his cynicism, he needed to create.

And so I often find myself, in the late night, the only light in the house radiating from my computer screen.  Earlier, I listened to yet another day’s news of the latest crime against decency committed by the president of the United States and his following of parasites, sycophants, and demagogues.  I am, again, tired, frustrated, and insecure. But I tell myself that I need to write a story, maybe a chapter.

Where do I find it, and how do I justify the effort?

One place to start might be in the conclusion of Ralph Rodriguez’s seminal study of Chicana/Chicano detective fiction entitled Brown Gumshoes:  Detective Fiction and the Search for Chicana/o Identity. Professor Rodriguez says the following:

There can be no doubt that one reads detective novels, in part, for pleasure.  These novels also serve, however, as a significant index of the social, political, and historical features of a culture. 

Rodriguez adds to and explains his statement with the rather broad conclusion that “detective novels are about discerning the mysteries of identity.  At the heart of their narrative … is the quest to reveal who the criminal is.  In a diverse array of mystery novels, however, time and again the detective also unravels a mystery about him- or herself.  The novel is as much his or her story as it is the story of the crime.”

And I would add that the best crime fiction is not about crime, but about the people touched by the crime, whether it be the detective, the criminal, or the victim.

Ultimately, my decision to write or read crime fiction must rest on a personal set of values.  As a writer, I believe I am obligated to write the stories churning in my head. Fundamentally, I have no choice, and these stories must be honest and real.  They must create the emotion that Chandler talked about.

One motive is selfish.  I derive satisfaction from creating characters, settings, and story lines that readers will spend time on. Writing satisfies one of my creative urges.
On a bigger scale, away from the personal, crime fiction can reveal the truth, at least as the author understands that truth.  One book or one writer cannot express the complete story.  We must tell our immigrant stories and our coming-of-age metaphors.  We have to write the histories of our communities, praise the unknown heroes, and document the universal and singular passions that are undervalued, or ignored, in today’s United States.

But, sabes qué, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what form the writing takes. We just need to ensure that the writing continues.  Our story is too big, too important to be limited to one form.  That’s why it is so important for Latinx writers to produce all manner of literature.  From children’s’ books to multi-volume memoirs to gritty noir tales from the underground of existence. 

Creative energy in the form of writing, including popular culture and genre fiction, can oppose the dark forces loose in the world -- wars, oppression, racism, hatred.  The old good vs evil.

Crime fiction can be a form of resistance.  In an indirect way, the author can expose social issues confronting the characters. The characters can directly oppose the current situation.  A clever writer can blend plot and characters into a view of America that is not the view espoused by the hacks and flim-flam artists who think that America needs to be made “great again.”  The writer’s fiction can be part of the resistance.

On a subtler level, crime fiction is inherently revolutionary.  The detective, whether a police officer, private investigator, or accidental sleuth, battles against the status quo simply by trying to solve the mystery.  In the classic crime fiction manner, the detective knows something is not right and it must be corrected.

In the noir variation of the classic form, the decision to change the situation usually results in serious, and sometimes deadly consequences for the detective, or the anti-hero.  Still, he or she plods forward, sometimes aware of the encircling doom, sometimes caught off-guard.
And so, I too will continue to plod forward, struggling with my conflicting emotions, searching for the right character, the best plot, the ultimate caper.

It’s what I do. 

Manuel Ramos writes crime fiction.  His latest book is The Golden Havana Night:  A Sherlock Homie Mystery


sramosobriant said...

Love it! Can't wait to read your latest book.

Manuel Ramos said...

Sandra, Hope you enjoy The Golden Havana Night, Gus Corral's latest adventure. Thanks for the support.

Daniel Cano said...

Manuel, I am late to reading your piece, but I was thoroughly engaged. I wonder, though, if all stories are crime stories. Often the difference is crime fiction is explicit, as in a dead body appears; whereas, other fiction the "crime" is implicit, such as internal murder, murder of an idea, a way of life, an intimate relationship, the end of a day. I think a novel that covers all of it is "Crime and Punishment". A psychology professor once told me that he could teach Intro to Psychology and use nothing but that one novel. "It's all there," he said.