Thursday, September 21, 2006

Crimes: They Are A-Changin’

By Anthony Rainone
I noticed this a bit late, but Marilyn Stasio wrote an outstanding essay in the Sunday New York Times about the transformation and malleability of detective crime fiction. She remarks that the detective novel is expanding beyond the confines of its neighborhood, or region, to embrace concepts that have broad, international implications. Stasio writes: “Their amateur sleuths and local police officers, charged with keeping the peace at home, are compelled to process even the gravest of national events through the prism of that hometown perspective.” In short, it’s apparent that detective crime fiction is grabbing hold of the terrain normally covered in thrillers, for example, without necessarily moving its protagonists to other parts of the world. It’s an insightful and thought-provoking piece.

Stasio makes mention of numerous examples, including Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt-A-Whirl (2005) and his follow-up novel, Mad House (2006); Reggie Nadelson’s Disturbed Earth (2005) and her follow up book, Red Hook (2006); Jess Walter’s The Zero (2006); Tony Hillerman’s The Sinister Pig (2003); as well as Steve Hamilton’s fine new novel, A Stolen Season (2006)--all as examples of stories in which small-town cops and P.I.s deal with “substantive” national issues in their backyards. She also remarks that New York authors seem hesitant to enter this new direction in crime fiction, though she mentions S.J. Rozan’s 2004 novel, Absent Friends, as an example of one New Yorker who has tackled broader concepts.

What’s fascinating is Stasio’s observation that the mystery genre has a “highly flexible form” capable of tackling this new foray into non-regional issues. Clearly, crime fiction is a dynamic literature. This is not to say that it is the only means to address contemporary issues, but crime fiction possesses a built-in adaptability to reshape itself. And it should, too, since the way local law enforcement operates today, and the types of situations its people are asked to respond to, are changing. The NYPD has a Joint Terrorism Task Force, for example--a relatively new creation to deal with a new reality: terrorists bent on attacking the city. Its intelligence division monitors the world from a single facility, and NYPD detetectives are placed in the police departments of foreign countries. Fiction doesn’t necessarily have to reflect the new reality, but often times it must.

Stasio concludes by wondering if detective fiction will ever possess the means to not bring closure to these new plot dynamics. She found the traditional form soothing in its bringing about closure, and while contemporary crime novelists seem to be striving to do the same thing, it’s getting harder. Readers might have to either be satisfied with small victories (stopping one terrorist cell at a time, for example), or wait for larger historical shifts. Hey--the Nazis were finally defeated, and we can hope the same for terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda.



I was a little baffled by Stasio's article although your points about NYPD's intelligence division illustrate how non-provincial things have become.

Anonymous said...

And has anyone noticed how many UK films and books do NOT end with closure? And villians sometimes are not caught? Hmmmm.