Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Prose by Any Other Name

I’ve run a number of posts over at Crime Always Pays aimed at developing a working definition of crime fiction. It’s just a bit of fun, mainly to exercise the gray matter, although the process can be useful when it comes to separating novels that are dedicated crime fiction from those that employ crime and/or criminality as a narrative device.

Responses as to what constitutes crime fiction have varied wildly, from those who say that if a crime is central to the tale (Crime and Punishment, for example) then it’s crime fiction, to those who reckon that a book must be deliberately conceived and executed as a crime novel to qualify.

I’m currently working on the theory that a novel fits into the crime fiction category if its story collapses when you remove the crime elements; if it doesn’t, then it isn’t.

It may sound like gratuitous nitpicking, but it’s a contentious point in Ireland at least, where some authors would be surprised and perhaps even horrified to be described as crime writers. Recent examples of crime-infused fiction include David Park’s The Truth Commissioner, in which a truth commission is set up in Northern Ireland to deal with the consequences of the abduction and murder of a teenage boy some 20 years previously; Aifric Campbell’s The Semantics of Murder, in which Campbell’s fictional author investigates an apparent murder; and Gerard Donovan’s Julius Winsome, wherein a man takes up his father’s gun to avenge his murdered dog.

Should I include these novels on Crime Always Pays, which concerns itself with Irish crime fiction? Or are these authors entitled to baulk at the idea of being considered genre writers, and demand that their work be considered literary offerings?

It’s not just a recent development either. Eoin McNamee, who writes thrillers under the pseudonym John Creed, has penned a number of novels with crime narratives set during Northern Ireland’s “Troubles,” among them Resurrection Man, The Blue Tango, The Ultras and, most recently, 12:23: Paris. 31st August 1997, his fictional imagining of the events surrounding the purported assassination of Princess Diana. Another Northern Ireland writer, Brian Moore, wrote crime novels under the pseudonym of Bernard Mara, and published literary crime narratives such as Lies of Silence and The Colour of Blood under his own name.

Patrick McCabe’s breakthrough novel The Butcher Boy, a tour-de-force in spellbinding first-person narration, has every right not to be considered a dedicated crime fiction offering, even if it concludes with a shocking murder. And yet if its internal monologue detailing charismatic, psychotic insanity could be compared with one other novel, it’s the classic 1952 crime narrative, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.

Even more troublesome is John Banville, who has recently started publishing dedicated crime titles under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Banville’s The Book of Evidence is a fictionalized first-person account of a real-life murder. The protagonist, Freddie Montgomery, kills a young woman and goes on the run in 1970s Ireland, but Banville takes pains to disassociate himself from the crime genre. With 40 pages to go, just as a traditional crime narrative should be quickening towards its climax, he has Freddie chafing at his boredom: “But all the time, behind all these agitations, there was that abiding, dull, flat sensation. I felt disappointed. I felt let down. The least I had expected from the enormities of which I was guilty was that they would change my life, that they would make things happen, however awful, that there would be a constant succession of heart-stopping events, of alarms and sudden frights and hairsbreadth escapes.” None such occurs; as in the real-life events, the novel culminates in anti-climactic absurdity.

In The Untouchable, Banville created the character of Victor Maskell, who was based on the real-life Soviet spy Anthony Blunt. Slow of pace, rich in detail, the novel nonetheless can be read as a Le Carré-like tale of intrigue, betrayal, and reversal in the hothouse atmosphere of the Cold War. “Like so many of my generation,” wrote Banville in The Guardian in 2006, “I had been, and indeed still am, fascinated by the Cambridge spies. Their commitment, their daring, their sangfroid--and Blunt was the sang-froidest of them all--brought me back to the days of boys’ comics, of Bulldog Drummond and Maugham’s Ashenden. Philby and Burgess and Maclean--these chaps were the flower of English manhood, cultured, handsome, dashing, the very spirit of heroism, and yet they had so despised the establishment and its values that they had systematically gone about setting a secret charge of dynamite underneath it.”

But is it crime fiction? Or even a thriller?

Most awkward of all, however, is the great Flann O’Brien. A master of satire, a genius of post-modernism, O’Brien is a writer to equal James Joyce, and he’s hilariously funny to boot. In The Dalkey Archives, for example, his hero Michael Shaughnessy not only sets himself the task of tracking down James Joyce, who is allegedly still alive and well and working as a barman in the Dublin seaside resort of Skerries, but he must also foil the mad scientist De Selby’s plot to destroy the planet by removing all the oxygen from the atmosphere. First published in 1964, it is a parody of the crime genre of the first order.

O’Brien’s masterpiece, however, is The Third Policeman, published posthumously in 1967. “Even with Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake behind him,” claimed The Observer, “James Joyce might have been envious.” According to its blurb, the tale encompasses the following: “A murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic vision of eternity, the story of a tender, brief, unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle, and a chilling fable of unending guilt, The Third Policeman is comparable only to Alice in Wonderland as an allegory of the absurd. Distinguished by endless comic invention and its delicate balancing of logic and fantasy, The Third Policeman is unique in the English language.”

Flann O’Brien, along with all the other serious literary authors who dabble in crime narratives, would not have considered himself a writer of straightforward crime fiction, although it’s likely he would have been more amused than horrified by the suggestion. But O’Brien wholeheartedly embraced the crime genre, celebrating it even as he mangled its tropes, and made it the beating heart of his finest creation.

Sadly, O’Brien would never see The Third Policeman published. Longman’s, the house that had published At-Swim-Two-Birds, turned it down, declaring: “We realize the author’s ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this new novel he is more so.”

The Third Policeman is fantastic, in all senses of the word. If there is one novel that makes a mockery of any attempt to define the parameters of crime fiction--or, indeed, fiction itself--then O’Brien’s final offering is it.


seanag said...

I appreciate the attempt to sort all this out, Declan, though I'm not sure if there will ever be a consensus.

However, you've inspired me to read The Third Policeman, which is just sitting here forlornly on my bookcase. I read The Dalkey Archive after visiting Ireland and reading Ulysses and all of that, and found it delightful.

Anonymous said...

My reaction to The Third Policeman is similar to that of a young boy who watches his first horror movie thinking it won't be such a great deal and then has nightmares for months.Or that of those guys who have the terror of clowns.
Under the paint of humour and satire,it is one of the scariest and most depressing books I've ever read.

Patrick Lennon said...

A very interesting post indeed. I was just about to be clever and say JP Donleavy's 'The Ginger Man.' I've changed my mind now, though it remains in my top 5 lifetime books.

Declan Burke said...

Cheers, folks ...

The Third Policeman, for some reason, tends to divide people very sharply ... some people think it's rubbish, others that it's genius. Strange, that ...

Patrick - The Ginger Man as a crime narrative? An interesting idea, squire ...

Cheers, Dec

Juri said...

Didn't Flann O'Brien write a Sexton Blake story at one point of his career?

The Third Policeman is a great novel. There was a great punk-funk band called that in Finland in the late eighties and I might take some credit for that name, since I introduced the then-new translation to the boss of the band. (Actually it was Kolmas Konstaapeli, the title of the Finnish translation.) If you're into weird Finnish stuff, you'll be delighted to hear that Circle and Deep Turtle were built on the remains of Kolmas Konstaapeli.

Declan Burke said...

Juri - I'd imagine Flann O'Brien would have been delighted at inspiring a 'punk-funk' Finnish band ... that's hilarious. Does it get any more post-modern than that? Cheers, Dec