Excerpts from Andrew Vachss'
"A Tout's Guide to Crime Fiction"
As originally published in Wig Wag Magazine, February 1991
The most significantly stupid (and stubbornly prevailing) myth about crime fiction is that there is The Way. This literary Tao-ism always expresses itself in the negative. The Way is established by the critic, giving rise to two essential options—the writer is attacked as deviant or dismissed as derivative.
Here's the truth: there's no one right way to do it.
And here's the proof: Martha Grimes, Walter Mosley, and Kinky Friedman. Three crime writers, each a master of separate yet overlapping territory, all unique, all winners. Critics have had little apparent effect on any of them.
When it comes to crime fiction, I'm a handicapper, not a critic. Nobody can read (much less buy) every book that comes out, so it's valuable to know some sure things going in. In writing as in boxing, contrasting styles make handicapping difficult, but even when the ring's boundary is the genre ghetto imposed by "crime fiction" critics, getting the job done is what counts.
Walter Mosley is the dancer of this group, all sweet moves and counterpunches, slipping and stinging, well within himself. The action in Devil in a Blue Dress (Norton; $18.95), his first novel, is a screw-thread helix around the central character. It takes Mosley just two perfect sentences to tell you about him:
I had spent five years with white men, and women, from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself. I ate with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was.
Kinky Friedman drops his hands, mugs for the crowd, advances obscene propositions to the girl who holds up the cards between rounds. Typical is this series of one-liners from Musical Chairs (William Morrow; $18.95):
He had a tavern tan and it appeared as if he'd been sleeping in his hat and coat for a couple of years. He had no facial hair except for a rather evil-looking "white man-hater" that grew from his lower lip like a black orchid and made him look like a drunk who missed the mark on Ash Wednesday.
Martha Grimes is an illusionist, working the edges with sublime subtlety, never showing all her moves until just before they stop the bout—on cuts. Who else would have her detective protagonist, in The Old Silent (Little, Brown; $18.95), actually witness the murder he has to solve?
The man made a halting sort of turn and she reached into the bag, pulled out a gun, and shot him in the chest. He stood staring blindly as if the shot had gone wild. But in the few seconds it took Jury to stand and overturn the table beside him, the man crumpled and fell.
Each of them comes at you from a different angle. The one thing they have in common is they all keep coming. No self-congratulatory insights, no digressions—the narrative force never bogs down.
Mosley's narrator, Easy Rawlins, prowls L.A. in the forties, weaving uniquely black experiences into a universal cloth. Mosley will inevitably be compared with Chandler (the obligatory reference—and the only required reading for critics of the genre), but his tight plotting and blood-soul connection to his characters result in something much more elemental, closer to the blues. The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.
For Friedman, the line between fiction and reality is an osmotic membrane—his narrator is one Kinky Friedman, former leader of the Texas Jewboys, the legendary country-protest band of the seventies. Musical Chairs is a steaming ragout of snide quips and sly similes, full of clues, but Friedman's more interested in playing Groucho Marx than Sherlock Holmes.
For Martha Grimes, perfection is in the details—in the gossamer connective tissue between the details. Her protagonist, Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard, is just one of a now beloved cast of characters about whom we learn more in each book. What you get from Grimes is classic British mystery cloaking ice-pick-sharp social commentary; she knits her poetry with concertina wire. Look closely and you'll find an angry edge to every smoothly rounded purl.
Mosley and Friedman both use first-person narrators, telling you what they're about from the opening bell:
I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy's bar.
—Devil in a Blue Dress
It was Christmas Eve and all the salamis in the window of the Carnegie Deli had been hung with care.—Musical Chairs
Grimes uses the third person, focusing more on observations than on character:
Jury was surprised to see the window festooned with scraggly blue and brassy-orange tinsel, the sad remains of the passing season. The late sun reflected and refracted it on Macalvie's copper hair... God did the lighting for Macalvie.
—The Old Silent
They work differently, but they all work—and it's all art, if not "artistic." What you get is fine writing, not just fine crime writing. Grimes decodes contemporary morals, educating as she entertains. Mosley plays Balzac, illuminating social change by showing that people have always been the same. Friedman is the ultimate outlaw, to whom everything is tragically funny—especially his own life. Crime is the language, but the human condition is what's examined.
Two principal conventions dominate the crime-fiction field: the private eye and the cozy. For the former, all you need is an honorable loner walking the mean streets, preferably an ex-cop or a disaffected war vet, equally adept at cracking wise and cracking heads. It helps to add good looks, a pal on the police force, fearlessness, and instant-on sexual prowess. Metaphors are critical to the mix: "In this dog-eat-dog world, Roland was a fire hydrant." Generic blondes are a good idea, and turning down cash from bad guys never hurts. Booze is a plus, but drugs are taboo. Chandler has spawned a thousand imitators; Carroll John Daly (the creator of Race Williams, a gun for hire who makes Mike Hammer look like Alan Alda) regrettably only a few. Ever since Poe and Conan Doyle, men have been licensed to write "mysteries," but today the hard-boiled field is no longer their exclusive province. Sara Paretsky is just one of several outstanding women writers carving out a distinctive niche on that turf.
The cozy formula also has restrictive elements. The protagonists tend to be more urbane and educated, and of more refined personal habits. Clues are a requirement, and part of the fun is the reader's participation in the solution. The happy ending is usually a package, complete with confrontation-induced confessions and erudite unraveling. Agatha Christie is a leading role model, although the cozy has spun off into less bloodless branches in recent years, into the middle ground now known as soft-boiled. In some ways, the cozies are more honest. They don't pretend to be ground-zero realism, unlike the "hard" stuff, much of which appears to have been written by virgins translating Krafft-Ebing with a chain saw.
And yes, there are dozens of exceptions, ranging from splatterpunk to noir to hard-boiled romance. Such definitions depend on perception— which is another word for taste. The template is rigid, but some departures are accorded the ultimate accolade and taken seriously—that is, as "novels," not "crime fiction." Some books are so clearly an examination of character and society that the genre jacket won't fit. A few examples: Homeboy, by Seth Morgan (Random House, 1990); The Good Policeman, by Jerome Charyn (Mysterious Press, 1990); No Special Hurry, by James Colbert (Houghton Mifflin, 1988); Property Of by Alice Hoffman (Fawcett, 1988); Tattoo the Wicked Cross, by Floyd Salas (Grove Press, 1967); The Detective, by Rod Thorp (Dial Press, 1966); City of Night, by John Rechy (Grove Press, 1963); and Night and the City, by Gerald Kersh (Simon & Schuster, 1946). All beauties.
The writers I've selected are well aware of the conventions but not bound by them. Some debts are obvious, others less so. Friedman owes something to the vigilante-violence humor of Daly's Race Williams, Mosley to Richard Wright. Any debt Grimes owes to anyone is a mystery to me, but the classics are a prime suspect.
The bane of crime writers is the interviewer's question as to when they are going to write a "big" book, a mainstream novel. These novelists write about crime, violence, treachery, child abuse, conspiracy, corruption, and how humans create, participate in, and are affected by them. Could anything be more mainstream?
© 2000 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.