One of my favorite blogs is that of Emerald Noir author Declan Burke, and this last week he discussed an Edward Docx newspaper article, which essentially replied to author Lee Childs' trashing of literary novels. The link to that article is here and the link to Burke's discussion of it is here. Burke is the author of Crime Always Pays, The Big O, Eight-Ball Boogie, and other crime novels yet to be published.
The comment section of that blog drew several novelists including Dr. John Connolly, author of, among many others, Every Dead Thing and Nocturnes, two of my favorite reads of the past year. I sent for his other works too, and they are on my to-be-read shelves now for the upcoming year.
We know that crime novels often rise above genre, offering social criticism and insights into the human condition, while maintaining that tension that comes with the thriller/detective novel format that makes them genre. Whenever the best novels of the last century are listed, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and other elite genre novelists with staying power have always gotten their due while lower quality and fadish best-sellers, whether literary novels or genre, have fallen by the wayside.
Which brings me to the book in front of me, a seasonal read, Martha Grimes' Jerusalem Inn (Richard Jury Mystery). This is certainly a genre novel, one of her long-running series published more than a quarter of a century ago back in 1984. I love the way this book opens, the cinematic feel of it, the images which invite interpretation:
"A meeting in a graveyard. That was how it would always come back to him, and without any sense of irony at all - that a meeting in a graveyard did not foreshadow the permanence he was after. Snow mounding the sundial. Sparrows quarreling in the hedges. The black cat sitting enthroned in the dry birdbath. Slivers of memories. A broken mirror. Bad luck, Jury.
"It was on a windy December day, with only five of them left until Christmas, that Jury saw the sparrows quarreling in a nearby hedge as he stood looking through the gates of Washington Old Hall. The sparrows--one attempting to escape, the other in hot pursuit--flew from hedge to tree to hedge. The pecking of one had bloodied the breast of the other. He was used to scenes of carnage; still he was shocked. But didn't it go on everywhere? He tracked their flight from tree to hedge and finally to the ground at his feet. He moved to break up the fight, but they were off again, off and away.
"The place was closed, so he trudges about the old village of Washington in the snow now turning to rain. After three o'clock, so the pubs were closed, worse luck. Up one village lane, he found himself outside the Catholic church. Feeling sorry for yourself, Jury? No kith, no kin, no wife, no . . . Well, but it is Christmas, his kinder self answered.
"This depressing debate with himself continued, like the fighting sparrows, as he heaved upon the heavy door of the church, walked quietly into the vestibule, only to find he'd interrupted a christening in the nave. The priest still intoned but the faces of the baby's parents turned toward the intruder and the baby cried.
"His nasty sparrow self cackled. You nit. Jury pretended to be in a brown study before the church bulletin board, as if it were important to convey to the people down there that the information posted here was absolutely necessary for his salvation. Nodding curtly (as if they care, you clod!) at nothing, he turned and left. Unborn again.
"That sparrow self was with him in the church cemetery, sitting on his shoulder, pecking his ear to a bloody pulp, telling him that no one had forced him to accept his cousin's whining invitation to come to them at Christmas ("But we never see you, Richard. . ."). Newcastle-upon-Tyne. What a bloody awful place in the winter. A nice walk among the gravestones, that's what you need, Jury. And in the snow, too. Peck, peck, peck, peck.
That was when he saw her."
His meeting with the woman in the graveyard is then beautifully described. They talk casually for a long while, and she invites him for a drink at her place, which is nearby. Grimes gives this an entirely natural feel as her characters become genuinely interested in each other, each with the growing prospect of a surprisingly wonderful holiday ahead of them. The reader is rooting for them to get together, and indeed it looks as if they will. But then the last sentence of the first chapter is,
"The next time he saw her she was dead."
Well, what did you expect? This is genre fiction. It follows a formula. The perpetual loner, Richard Jury, now has personal reasons for investigating the case, even though he is away on vacation. We know the theme, but each genre novelist gives us a different variation upon it, and hopefully a creative one.