What do postmodern writers have against the mystery novel? For reasons that perhaps only a Lacan or Derrida could deconstruct, they have turned to it again and again, wreaking havoc with its rules and formulas, and transforming the conventional whodunit into a playground for the most experimental tendencies and avant-garde techniques. The culprits: Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, Alain Robbe-Grillet and a host of other literary hit men and hit women.See? This is the part I’m not sure about. Well, one of the parts. While I’ve read and enjoyed many of the books on Postmodern Mystery’s list of 50 essential works, I’m not totally convinced that they need to be singled out of the herd in this way: for being “postmodern.” (Or even if they come close to my own understanding of the term.)
The titles on this list that I have read are just singularly terrific books; a few are among my personal favorites. Good ideas, brilliantly wrought. Is Gioia saying that a novel of crime has to be literary in nature to be considered postmodern? Or is it the other way around? I would argue that time and talent are having a sharp impact on the mystery novel as we know and love it, and that the evolution we’re watching is both natural and somewhat beautiful. But Gioia has thought this part through, as well:
In the process, they have created an entirely new genre: the postmodern mystery. These books possess a paradoxical beauty, both celebrating and undermining the precepts of crime fiction. To some degree, these are the emblematic books of our time. They recognize our desire for the certainty and affirmation of order epitomized by the traditional mystery story, yet they also play on our desire to reject formulas and move beyond the constraints of the past. We want to savor this reassuring heritage, with its neat and tidy solutions to all problems, even while enjoying the fun of toppling it over and watching the pieces fall where they may.To my mind, here Gioia is describing the recipe for really good books. Not just good books, which are actually getting to be pretty common. But really heart-stoppingly awesome books. The kind that keep us from sleep and bring laughter and tears. Sometimes both at the same time and, always, while on the edge of our seats. Great books, is what I’m saying. Really super-duper good books that push at the boundaries of what we have come to think of as the conventions of mystery, while surprising and delighting us along the way.
But what the hell do I know? If either of us has the creds for looking at stuff and knowing that it’s cool (or hip or on point), it’s Gioia. While this cat clearly digs mystery, the author is a noted music historian and his area of expertise is jazz. Gioia is the author of The Birth (and Death) of the Cool and The History of Jazz, among other related titles. So, obviously, when it comes to recognizing cool, if I’m competing with this guy, I am going to get thoroughly trounced.
At the same time--and despite this--I’m reluctant to just give myself up to the idea of yet another aspect of genre. A ghetto within the ghetto, if you will. And even as I write these words I prepare myself for an onslaught of disagreement. And yet, look at the list: Gioia’s essentials. There are titles there that no one should miss. Well, at least I think so. Gioia does not. He cautions potential readers to prepare for disappointment and warns that “fans of conventional whodunits may do well to steer clear of these books, which will thwart their expectations, mess with their minds, and possibly undermine their faith in the triumph of law and order.”
I would argue that the contemporary reader of mysteries is a little more sophisticated than Gioia suspects. And his list? Well, it’s a good one, sure. But I think it’s incomplete. What titles would you add?