Friday, August 14, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“Modus Operandi,” by Robin W. Winks

(Editor’s note: This is the 60th installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Stephen Miller, a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet and a contributing editor at January Magazine. He has worked as a columnist for Mystery News ever since 1999, writing about new authors.)

For many readers of crime fiction, reference and critical works seem to fall into fairly broad buckets. First, there are the unabashed valentines to this genre, exemplified by Dilys Winn’s Murder Ink, or Raymond Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the tiresome (but blessedly less frequent) diatribes about the frivolity of whodunits, and we present as Exhibit A the pedantic hissy-fit thrown by American writer Edmund Wilson in his 1945 article, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” (Despite a lifetime of serious work, this remains Wilson’s best-known work, a piece of poetic justice for the ages.)

Between those extremes lie more modulated works--serious pieces of literary criticism that consider crime fiction at face value, neither as special-needs books requiring an exuberance of nurturing nor as imposters in the House of Literature. One of those books is Modus Operandi (1982), written by the late Robin Winks.

A historian who studied British imperialism and race relations, Winks joined the Yale University History department in 1957, remaining there until his death in 2003. His mystery reviews were a staple of The New Republic, and he was twice nominated for an Edgar Award, winning once for 1999’s Mystery and Suspense Writers. Winks went on to write four other volumes of crime-fiction criticism.

What the reader notices immediately upon opening Modus Operandi is the tone: highbrow to be sure, but not without a tongue firmly planted in cheek. From the acknowledgments page:
My daughter, Honor, helped type the manuscript and complained of its prose, for good reason, and my wife, Avril, undertook to renew her pledge never to read a word I write about detective fiction. My son, Eliot, says he will read the book one day, though he is rather busy right now, and my father will accept a free copy.
Commenting on William F. Buckley Jr.’s debut work of popular fiction, Saving the Queen (1976), in which Buckley’s hero, Blackford Oakes, seduces the Queen of England, Winks quips, “it’s a new way to fight the continuing American Revolution.” And in one spellbinding span of three pages, Winks effortlessly collects and connects Raymond Chandler, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Charles Alverson, Roger L. Simon, Lawrence Block, and Robert B. Parker before properly (and credibly, in my view) showing the link between Chandler and another California writer, Arthur Lyons. He concludes: “As Chandler worked the posh estates above Wilshire Boulevard, Lyons works their children and grandchildren, driven to the alternative culture by their parents’ affluence. They, too, have fallen out of The High Window.”

Like any passionate reader of crime fiction, Winks had his favorite authors. Time and again, he praised the work of stalwarts such as Tony Hillerman and Robert B. Parker, while also extolling the virtues of lesser-known (at least to American readers) talents like the South African writer James McClure, Michael Gilbert, and the chronically under-praised K.C. Constantine. Winks championed writers such as Joseph Hansen, whose detective Dave Brandstetter was a thoroughly competent and decent mainstream detective who just happened to be a homosexual. He vastly preferred Donald Hamilton over Mickey Spillane, who he dismissed as one of the authors who “pad out their manuscripts with warmed-over phrases from previous publications.”

At just over 130 pages in length, Modus Operandi is not a defense of crime fiction by an Ivy League academic. It is, as the subtitle states, “An Excursion into Detective Fiction.” Winks does not wander into the tempting morass of trying to give crime fiction a literary pedigree that others categorically reject and that, frankly, it doesn’t need. The book is a personal exploration of the genre that Winks loved, and that he points out early, lots of other people love as well.

While Modus Operandi touches on some writers who are still alive and working (Robert Barnard, Reginald Hill, Block, and Parker, etc.), its 1982 publication was too early for the author to have considered several of today’s crime-fiction stars. One wonders what Winks would have made of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or James Ellroy’s recent work. How might he have praised the emergence of Hard Case Crime, with its retro cover art, dedication to hard-boiled history, and promotion of new writers cut from the same cloth? And would the champion of Dorothy Salisbury Davis have also heralded the novels of today’s bumper crop of strong women writers like S. J. Rozan, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, and Theresa Schwegel?

This kind of “what if” speculation is a parlor game of the most trivial sort. What we should focus on instead is the commentary and criticism Winks left behind, and the sensibilities that he imparts to us all. Those readers wanting an intelligent discussion of crime fiction would be well advised to turn to Modus Operandi or any of Winks’ other books on the same subject.


Martin Edwards said...

I agree, it's an intriguing book. Winks' idea of the historian as detective has influenced my own writing quite a bit in recent years.

Mike Ripley said...

I will follow Stephen Miller's recommendation but to be fair to the hissy-fit-throwing old pedant,
Edmund Wilson's best known work in Europe is, and always was, To The Finland Station

Max Allan Collins said...

Never my favorite critic.