Quantum Uncertainty and Deerstalker Hats

China Miéville, writing at Whatever, complained this week about a crime novels, identifying a problem that most readers of mysteries have surely grappled with: the endings always suck. Of course, he uses fancier words than that, but his point is the same, that the fun part of a mystery isn’t the solution, but the mystery itself. He likens it to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle:

These are novels of potentiality. Quantum narratives. Their power isn’t in their final acts, but in the profusion of superpositions before them, the could-bes, what-ifs and never-knows…. That’s why the most important sentence in a murder mystery isn’t the one starting ‘The murderer is…’ — which no matter how necessary and fabulously executed is an act of unspeakable narrative winnowing —  but is the snarled expostulation halfway through: ‘Everyone’s a suspect.’ Quite. When all those suspects become one certainty, it’s a collapse, and a let-down.

This is a thought I’ve had many times, and I’ve found that the better the middle, the more disappointing the end. Because the reader never really knows what’s going on, Chandler novels are particularly susceptible to this. But it’s so fun to watch Marlowe staggering from suspect to suspect that when he finally tells us what happened, we no longer care.

Miéville proposes Lady Don’t Fall Backwards as the only “perfect” crime novel, an unfinished book that doesn’t actually exist. I think the middle part of “2666,” “The Part About the Crimes,” could fall in the same category. (It has the added benefit of being a real book.) Murders pile up, are investigated and forgotten. The plot thickens, turns, gets hazier and hazier, and we never find the killer. All the suspense, none of the let down.

Of course Miéville is wrong to say that all “crime novels are impossible,” simply because not all crime books are whodunits. James M. Cain and Jim Thompson made killers their heroes, putting atmosphere at the forefront and letting the mystery not be, “Will Detective So-and-So get his man” but the infinitely more varied, “Will Jim Thompson’s newest scumbag get away with it?”


The Shivering Detectives

The Wall Street Journal’s Tom Nolan had a piece today about a Renaissance of Scandinavian crime writing, which is reaching a new level this spring with Kenneth Branagh’s miniseries adaptation of Kurt Wallander novels. But as Nolan notes, this flowering of procedurals in celsius did not begin with Mankell’s The Faceless Killers was released in 1991, but dates back to the ten novels Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö began writing in 1965.

Nolan quotes Sjöwall:

[Back then] Swedish crime-writers wrote Agatha Christie-like books and seldom had policemen as main characters. Crime novels were considered pulp-literature in those days. Intellectuals rarely admitted to reading those kinds of books. We wanted to contribute to improving the linguistic quality, and to changing the way media treated that type of literature.

Their Martin Beck, a detective with a stomach and marriage trouble, prefigures Mankell’s Wallander, whose alcoholism and estranged daughter add emotional heft to his investigations. The crimes they investigate are brutal, and they navigate them without the reassuring suavity of a noir detective.

Every one of their books has been adapted for film or TV, and an American movie was made of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Laughing Detective in 1973. Directed by Cool Hand Luke director Stuart Rosenberg, it made bloody Stockholm into Bloody San Francisco.

Check out a trailer below if you want a reminder of how purple the ’70s were:

Well reviewed when it first ran in England, Branagh’s series concludes on Sunday on PBS.

Old School Review: Billy the Kid

The VintageAnchor Twitter’s backlist title of the day linked to an LA Times review of the new edition of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which was released last month. Although warm, Richard Rayner’s review doesn’t approach the heights of an essay that ran in the New York Times Book Review when the novel was first released.

On November 17, 1974, Karyl Roosevelt reviewed the novel alongside Country Cousins, a sex farce by Michael Brownstein, and likened the transition from the latter to the former to jumping from a moving freight train. Strangely, she meant this is a compliment to both books: Brownstein’s has all the excitement of a locamotive, and Ondaatje’s the still beauty of the territory around it.

But it is through Billy’s (or Mr. Ondaatje’s) special sensitivity to light and color, movement and sound, that the deserts of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico begin to breathe hotly in our imaginations. The slow, sensuous unraveling of these violent lives is filtered through the monochromatic desert light…. Only his guns retain a hard edge, metallic and ever-present, never far from his “beautiful fingers.”

Despite the violence of Billy’s world—Roosevelt calls the stories “lurid, nasty, death-filled,”—Ondaatje’s writing is too delicate to succumb to cliches of the hard-boiled. Like last year’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which used golden light and Brad Pitt to humanize the James gang, Ondaatje, who would go on to a different desert in 1992’s The English Patient, makes a poet out of Billy Bonney. If the old west was really this beautiful, it’s easy to see him that way.

Whitehead’s Vision of the Future

In this month’s Harper’s , Anchor author Colson Whitehead narrates a vision of the future where the economic collapse kills the Internet and causes grotesque expansion of lapels, pants legs and gas prices, sending America back to the dark days of 1977. Reading the full piece requires registration, but the best part comes at the end, when the nation finds salvation in a rebirth of Star Wars:

From Luke Skywalker we learned idealism and industry. From R2-D2, a strange yet comforting brand of high-pitched resolve. From wise old Ben Kenobi, the supreme value of sacrifice. And finally, from Han Solo, how a vest can be the perfect accessory that lifts a just-okay smuggling outfit to the dandiest smuggling outfit for thirty parsecs.

Whitehead, the author of Sag Harbor, has a similarly upbeat Twitter, which he has been using to document his book tour.

Vintage will spend Wednesday…

idlewild_booksAt the launch party for the first PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories collection. It seems appropriate that the most international collection yet (since 1919) will be celebrated at the bookstore about places.

Confirmed appearances by:

Graham Joyce

Kristen Sundberg Lunstrum

L. E. Miller

Karen Brown

Mohan Sikka

Roger Nash

Caitlin Horrocks

Viet Dinh

Marisa Silver

Andrew Sean Greer

Manuel Muñoz

E-Books and E-Covers

For all we were taught, as wide eyed young readers, to never judge a book by its cover, it’s actually not a bad strategy. Just as film trailers are tailored to their intended audiences, so is the design of a book — inside and out — intended to reflect what sort of book it is. (In bookstores it’s not hard to tell what section you’re in just by looking at the colors of the spines: black and purple for mystery, pinks and lavenders for romance, and sensible creams and off whites in literary fiction.) So why, Wired’s Priya Ganapati asks today, do e-books scream “Dull!”

They blame it on the growing pains of any new technology, likening it to the horrorshow that was the first decade we spent with the internet. (Remember animated gifs? Yikes!) They also blame Amazon’s stubborn insistence on using their proprietary file format, .mobi, which allows for nearly no creative design. For Ganapati, this makes reading depressing:

After about four hours of flipping through blocks of grey text I found myself feeling strangely melancholic. It couldn’t have been the lack of sunshine. Moving from one book to another, while easy, didn’t help: I was still staring at the same font, the same gray background and the same basic layout.

E-books would sell better if they were as sexy as iPhone apps — and Amazon is having trouble convincing users to pay more — but even typographic variety, or a color Kindle, wouldn’t solve Ganapati’s melancholy. The words are still just text on a screen, and will always lack the individuality of different books. E-books feel as disposable as blog entries, and this is the real hurdle facing the technology.

On the subject of design, I wanted to point out I Was a Bronze Age Boy. Mark Justice posts three or four old pulp covers daily — detective stories, space exploration, westerns — and each one is an argument for color screens on e-book readers.

Cricket and the President

obamaIt’s been a few weeks since a piece in the New York Times magazine mentioned that Barack Obama was using Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland as a break from security briefings, and according to a Newsweek interview that ran today, the President is still working his way through the 254 page paperback. (Of course, he’s probably been busy with other stuff.)


What are you reading?
I’m reading this book called Netherland by Joseph O’Neill … It’s about after 9/11, a guy—his family leaves him and he takes up cricket in New York. And it’s fascinating. It’s a wonderful book, although I know nothing about cricket.

And as you divide up your time, when do you steal the time to do that?
I’m a night owl. My usual day [is]: I work out in the morning; I get to the office around 9, 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.; work till about 6:30 p.m.; have dinner with the family, hang out with the kids and put them to bed about 8:30 p.m. And then I’ll probably read briefing papers or do paperwork or write stuff until about 11:30 p.m., and then I usually have about a half hour to read before I go to bed … about midnight, 12:30 a.m.—sometimes a little later.

The book is surely the most mainstream American treatment of cricket since World War One, when, as O’Neill himself notes, “[American cricket] went into sharp decline for complicated reasons.” If Obama is more concerned with the White Sox than the Indian Premier League, what do people who do care about cricket think about Netherland?

Cricinfo.com reviewed the book when it came out last year. The site’s UK editor seemed surprised that the United States had produced a book that dealt with the game so intelligently, even if the author was not born here. Of a passage near the front of the book, he wrote: “One passage in particular is worth quoting in full, for if there has been a more vivid portrait of the game’s traditional rhythms, I have yet to hear it.”

How fine to have a President who not only doesn’t mind reading fiction, but fiction about a game he has experimented with only as a photo op. And how reassuring that, if he is learning about cricket, O’Neill is such a reliable source.

Dungeons and Disappointment

Tod Goldberg wrote a sweet article for today’s LA Times about going back to play Dungeons and Dragons after twenty-five years’ pretending to be too cool. Although the classic role-playing game, with its elves and spells and twenty-sided dice, is typically dismissed as irredeemably nerdy, Goldberg casts it as a storytelling outlet for a frustrated young writer:

As a child, I played for a very specific reason: I loved to tell stories, but because of my severe dyslexia I couldn’t do it very well on the page. Every time I sat down to write, my thoughts would overwhelm my pen, and when I was done scribbling my story out, huge sections would be missing.

It wasn’t until high school that I was actually able to write. But I spent years — first with Army men, later with “Star Wars” action figures and later still, with these role-playing games — creating stories.

On returning to the land of imaginary swashbuckling he finds it less enchanting than he remembered. The game collapses as the dungeon master wanders off to put his son to bed, a reminder that stories fare best with just one author.

IFC Picks up Peace

Red Riding

At Cannes last week, IFC made a package deal for the adaptations of David Peace’s Red Riding novels. Produced by England’s Channel Four, who aired them as a miniseries in March, the three loosely interlocking films tell the story of the hunt for a Yorkshire serial killer in the 1970s and 80s.

Starring Sean Bean, Andrew Garfield and David Morrissey, the first film, 1974, is the story of an unhinged journalist (Garfield) attempting to solve a murder mystery the police want left alone. In Peace’s novel the reporter comes apart as his story falls into place, and the film is colored with the same dark palatte. The unblinking violence of the story should be a shock to anyone who considers CSI a thriller.

Peace is also the author of The Damned Utd, a retelling of the collapse of a Yorkshire football club that happened in the same gritty 1970s. That too has been adapted into a feature film, but has not yet found distribution stateside. Unlike soccer, murder is always marketable.