“3 Reasons a Good Mystery Is as Good as High-Lit” by Lawrence Light

The author of a series of crime novels featuring financial reporter Karen Glick, Larry Light is himself a writer and editor for CBS MoneyWatch. His award-winning journalism career includes work for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Business Week, and other publications, but for this post, he chose not to talk about the world of finance. A voracious reader of both literary fiction and crime fiction, he offers his view of why crime fiction deserves to be held in critical esteem. EQMM’s founding editor, Frederic Dannay, said that one of his goals for EQMM was “to raise the sights of mystery writers generally to a genuine literary form.” He would have agreed, we think, with Larry’s perspective on the two fields. In case you missed it, Larry Light has a story (“Dysperception”) in the current issue of EQMM.—Janet Hutchings

“It transcends the genre.”

How many times have you come across that backhanded compliment in a review of a mystery novel? The underlying assumption of this loaded phrase is that mysteries are cheap amusements, empty calories that a truly discerning reader should disdain.

But really, there’s no demarcation line between the very best mysteries and literary fiction, and that’s been true for years. Graham Greene, the Nobel-winning author of venerated titles such as The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair, also produced novels he called “entertainments.” These were spy and crime stories that some judged to be of lesser caliber than his other offerings. Indeed, the entertainments also had an enormous amount of literary merit—well-written works offering deep characterization and acute observations on humanity.

Take his Brighton Rock, a 1938 thriller that revolves around a gangster named Pinkie Brown, who has murdered a reporter wise to the local rackets. On the surface, the book is a typical quest to find the killer. But the story is really about the nature of evil and morality. Augmenting the tale is the conflicted nature of Pinkie, a homicidal sociopath whose Catholicism nevertheless torments him because he knows his heinous activities damn him.

I find that mysteries often are more fun to read than current high-lit because they tend to be better plotted and more tightly written. Three examples. I loved All the Light We Cannot See, which depicts World War II’s horrors and shows how common decency is found between two strangers on opposite sides. Could Anthony Doerr’s book have benefited from a trimming? Probably. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest? Masterful, but exhausting at over 1,000 pages. Don DeLillo’s Libra? The alternative telling of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life, had a meandering pace that did it no favors, although it told an interesting story.

Celebrated mystery writer Laura Lippman likes to point out that “high-lit is a genre, too.” As Greene’s work attests, the difference blurs between top-notch mysteries and literary novels. Raymond Chandler, Dennis Lehane, P.D. James, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block—you can match these authors and many like them with high-lit’s worthies.

Sure, not all mystery novels even attempt to scale the literary heights. But the best mysteries are on a par with high-lit because they: 1) provide a crucial insight into human existence where things are often not what they seem, 2) illuminate important social issues, and 3) are captivatingly well-paced and well-written.

One of the best-known exemplars of crime fiction has a secure berth in the literary pantheon: The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic delivers on the three reasons that make a good mystery shine above all else.

He gradually unveils how his main character, the corrupt, nouveau riche Gatsby, is actually driven by love; shines a light on the ways the arrogant wealthy “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money”; and nourishes the soul with fine flourishes of writing. To wit: “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

When looking at the very best mysteries, you’ll find that what elevates them to the exalted levels of high-lit is some or all of these factors:

Offering a Key Insight Into Existence. Frequently, what the eye sees is deceiving. Finding out what we don’t know is at the core of much great literature, as in the line from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Who committed the crime and why are the primary elements of any mystery, whether the villain is Hamlet’s uncle or Pinkie Brown. So is how the perp can be stopped. Once we at last find the truth, it’s immensely satisfying.

Getting to this resolution is a tantalizing puzzle. Take The Silence of the Lambs. FBI Agent Clarice Starling is flummoxed about how to find the serial killer, Buffalo Bill. Then the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter, who has a soft spot for her, tells the agent that the man’s impetus to kill and skin his plus-sized female victims is that he “covets” something. And he adds: “We begin by coveting what we see every day.” So Clarice eventually figures out that she must focus on Bill’s first victim, as he likely knew her.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the iconic spy novel, is a wonderful mystery that turns on the quest to unmask the Soviet mole at the heart of the British Secret Service. Author John le Carré’s hero, George Smiley, is in charge of the investigation but initially is blind to the culprit’s identity due to animosity concerning his unfaithful wife.

A similar affliction besets Rusty Sabich, in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. Rusty is an adulterous prosecutor who is charged with the murder of his lover. One of the last people he suspects of being the true murderer is hinted at early, in a catalogue of that killer’s strange interests—one of them is artificial insemination.

Tackling Societal Issues. As the French author Jean-Patrick Manchette put it: “The crime novel is the great moral literature of our time.”

The connection between crime fiction and burning issues that beset the world is strong. For a powerful portrayal of the drug trade and its corrupting power on our nation’s urban life, read Don Winslow’s The Force. Its antihero, Detective Denny Malone, justifies taking bribes as society paying its dues to ensure he does its dirty work.

In Alafair Burke’s The Wife, sexual harassment is examined in a way that demonstrates how the he-said-she-said version of reality has more nuances than some may imagine. And Greg Isles’ Natchez Burning trilogy delves into old crimes and race relations in the Deep South with harrowing, deeply affecting brio.

Fine Writing. Among the all-time hits are Raymond Chandler’s description of the Santa Ana wind, in his short story, “Red Wind”: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch.”

James Lee Burke’s lyrical touch is always at the ready, as seen in his latest novel, Robicheaux, where his recovering alcoholic hero smells booze as it is poured into a glass over ice: “My defenses were down, the smoky smell of the Scotch like an irresistible thread from an erotic dream you can’t let go of at first light.”

Alice’s Sebold’s The Lovely Bones starts in a way that stills your heart: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”

Crime fiction. With authors like these, you’re keeping superb company, easily the equal of anything on the bookshelf.

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2 Responses to “3 Reasons a Good Mystery Is as Good as High-Lit” by Lawrence Light

  1. V.S. Kemanis says:

    Excellent post. “Genre” has never been my favorite term. The petty side of human nature is inclined to categorize, pigeonhole, and stereotype. Resist! “There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art…” (Raymond Chandler, essay “The Simple Art of Murder”).

  2. pauldmarks says:

    In the sense that one can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, as the old saying goes, the same can be said for genre writing as opposed to high-lit. If one writes genre stories that tackle societal issues, as you mention, they might reach a greater audience than those who read hi lit so the message gets through to more people.

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