Some crime novels with interesting story structures

          The thing that surprised me most about the crime novels I read was how structurally interesting they were. That wasn’t true for all of them, of course. A lot of them had the structure where the first third is given over to the slow lead-up to some crime, the second third is given over to increasingly frantic–but seemingly successful–efforts to escape punishment, and the last third is where the complex tissue of lies and evasions finally falls apart. That was the basic structure of Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Killer Inside Me, and Pop. 1280. And there’s nothing wrong with that. All of those books were really good.

But some of these books had structures that really surprised me. Normally, I’d think that a structure was interesting when it played with my expectations. But I’m not sure what my expectations for the structure of the crime story were. I knew that they weren’t detective novels, so I wasn’t expecting any kind of mystery or procedural elements (although sometimes, particularly in Jim Thompson and James Cain’s novels, those elements were present). I guess that my expectations had to do with pacing. I that novels this short would have a very tense and frenetic pacing. Mostly that was not true. Most of the novels had slow bits, usually at the lead-in, but often in the middle stretch, too. They took their time, and meandered around the setting, and often wrapped things up suddenly, in just the last ten pages or so. Without exception (I think), none of them dwelled very much on the crime itself. Sometimes the crime took place inside a scene break. Sometimes it was glossed over in a few lines. A lot of them gave over large portions of their short length to internal ruminations, or to setting up lengthy hypotheticals. And some of them went in directions that surprised me: story structures that felt like nothing else I’d ever read.

The most notable of these was Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock. This story is told from about five different points of view, but fundamentally it’s about the editor of a large true-crime magazine in NYC. He witnesses a murder and wants to keep his own role secret. However, circumstances eventually require him–in his professional capacity–to search for the witness to this murder: himself. From that point on, the novel experiences a sort of doubling. He’s forced to investigate himself, while the murderer is also using him to try to find the witness. At one point, there’s even a tripling, when the novel dips into the viewpoint of an anecdotally involved female painter for one really bravura chapter. It’s hard to describe (especially without spoiling the book), but it was a truly fascinating performance.

Then there was William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, which is basically about a carnival magician turned psychic and then religious con-artist. It’s sort of a cross between Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry and every movie you’ve ever seen about grim, inhuman carnivals. It’s kind of a picaresque adventure, but the book has a sort of nested structure, where chapters at the end start to revisit the themes of corresponding chapters at the beginning. This is another one of those books is only a crime novel because it was written by a crime writer.

           And finally there was Cornell Woolrich’s I Married A Dead Man. The novel begins with a startling twist (which I definitely did not see coming) and it ends with an equally startling one. I can’t talk about either one without, most likely, depriving you of the joy you’d get from reading this book, but the structural choices necessitated by these twists were very interesting. Both shortly after beginning and shortly before ending there is a substantial drop in tension in this novel, in a way that wouldn’t work in most novels, but works very well here.

All three of these examples are from the Library of America compilation Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s. Although I often found the stories in this book to be less tense and well-written than the other, I think I was on the whole more interested by them than I was in any other crime novels I read. The worst of them was, for me, the novel Thieves Like Us which was about a crew of bank robbers, but even this one was structurally interesting. It wasn’t much concerned with the robberies themselves, but with the long stretches of peace, tedium, and suspense between the robberies.

However, I found structural surprises elsewhere, too. For instance, in Charles Willeford’s novels, the crime tends to take place in the last third of the novel. I think this makes for some very surprising effects, especially in his 1955 novel The Pick-Up. Most of this novel is given over to the crazy binge that its hero goes on with a girl he’s just met. He starts off as just another hard-drinking counterman and then goes on a ride that was so raw and shabby and strangely believable that by the end of the novel you fully sympathize with the desperation that drives the hero to do monstrous things.


The joy of short novels

Noir novels are often quite short. Absurdly short. They’re short in the way that books aren’t allowed to be anymore. James M. Cain’s novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are between 30,000 and 40,000 words long. Jim Thompson’s novels are between 40,000 and 50,000 words long and most of the rest are somewhere around there too.

Now, there was a time when a lot of novels were pretty short. That time was the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. The Great Gatsby is only around 40,000 words. Of Mice and Men and Animal Farm is circa 30,000. Slaughterhouse Five is 50,000. Brave New World is around 65,000. The Catcher In The Rye looks positively bloated at 75,000.

Now I don’t know why novels would have been shorter back then. Perhaps it has something to do with new modes in book distribution technology. This was the golden era of the mass market paperback, and a lot of the above books were published in that format. Maybe the modern era’s switchover to trade paperback means that publishers feel like they should be offering thicker books to justify the higher prices (often twice as high as most mass-market paperbacks). Or maybe I’m just a fool, and this is a false trend, and novels today aren’t any longer or shorter than they used to be.

But the point remains, I adore short novels. And it’s because of any fancy aesthetic reason…it’s just because finishing novels is at least a third of the fun of reading them. Each novel is another notch in my belt. It’s another plot digested. It’s another setting and scenario and character arc that I’ve internalized.

Long novels excel at detailed description of ordinary life, the little telling details that are something which only novels (well, and paintings) are good at drawing one’s attention to. And I love those details, of course. I mean, I have just as much Harold Bloom and James Woods in me as the next guy.

But there’s also a part of me that revels in packing it in and moving on. There’s a part of me that loves the novel as experiential roller-coaster ride. I love going to bed with an unopened novel and finishing it before I wake up. I love being able to reel off a long list of books that I’ve read in the last few weeks. I love being able to make my way through a substantial portion of an author’s oeuvre over the course of a weekend. Short novels give you a sense of completion. They make you feel like you can master this body of work…or that you can understand exactly what is going on this novel. A forty thousand word novel is comprehensible: it can be grasped in your hands; it can be held in your mind all at once. You can download it straight into your brain’s RAM and then crunch every portion of it at the same time.

Short novels don’t require less thought, but it somehow feels like they’re more able to reward thought. To me, they feel less intuitive and more intellectual. But that’s probably a load of bull. Maybe the real truth is that I’m shallow, and that I place more value on having read a book than I do on the experience of reading it…..

Oh well.

Wherein I learn something about noir literature

If you follow my twitter feed you’ll know that I recently took Nick Mamatas’ 9-week fiction writing class at the Writer’s Salon in Berkeley. It was really good. The next session is starting on October 9th. If you live in the East Bay (or San Francisco) and you are a writer who is as good as or worse than me and you want to become alot better, you should definitely take this class.

Anyways, during the class, Nick mentioned several books that I was totally unfamiliar with. I not only had never heard of the books, I’d never even heard of their authors. The books were The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson and The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford. When I looked them up, Wikipedia said that they were “crime” novels and/or “noir” novels. The former is about a murderous deputy sheriff in a small Texas town; the latter is about a Florida-based art critic who gets a tip for a hot interview with a reclusive European artist who’s bunkered down in a nearby cabin.

I read both books. And they were both awesome. But they left me confused. The two novels clearly shared some DNA. They were both first-person narratives starring amoral wretches who succumbed to temptation (and got their comeuppance in the end). They were both detailed, well-observed portraits of very small milieus. They both had a strong sense of setting. They were both fast-moving and gave short thrift to explanations. They both had structures that played around with narrative chronology (Thompson’s novel has frequent, quite long, background explanations and most of Willeford’s novel consists of an internal flashback). They were both quite short (around 40-50,000 words). And they were both unlike anything I’d read before.     Clearly, I was dealing with a whole strand of American literature that I’d never encountered before.

But I was (and still am) a little confused as to what that strand is. I am, after all, at least somewhat familiar with detective novels. I’ve read Hammett and Chandler. I’ve read Sherlock Holmes. And I’ve read novels about organized crime, like Mario Puzo’s works or Layer Cake. But these novels weren’t really anything like that stuff. There was no mystery or procedural element (although in Thompson’s book, at least, there was a question as to exactly how the killer would be caught), and there was no detective.

In a way, the novels were like an adjunct to the mystery genre: the story of a crime as told from the criminal point of view. But they didn’t offer the same pleasures as mysteries. They didn’t hinge on any sort of revelation. Nor were they, quite, psychological novels. The criminal impulse was, in both cases, glossed over. In a way, it was seen as being somewhat obvious. Of course anyone in these situations would be driven to commit crimes…the only difference is that these guys actually did it.

The major joy of the books was in seeing the consequences pile up. It was in seeing intelligent people thrash around against the limits of their environment and try, desperately, to outwit the almost insurmountable odds they were facing. The minor joy was in reading about the kind of people and the kind of places that aren’t normally the subject of novels.

So I decided to investigate further, and conduct something of a survey of this kind of novel (which is, I guess “noir” literature…although that is a term that I had previously associated with Raymond Chandler’s detective stories).

In assembling my reading list, I relied heavily on the Library of America’s two compilations of crime novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s and American Noir of the 1950s.

The novels I read were:

Thieves Like Us Edward Anderson
The Postman Always Rings Twice James M. Cain
Double Indemnity James M. Cain
The Big Clock Kenneth Fearing
Down There David Goodis
Nightmare Alley William Lindsay Gresham
Real Cool Killers Chester Himes
The Killer Inside Me Jim Thompson
The Grifters Jim Thompson
The Burnt Orange Heresy Charles Willeford
Pick-Up Charles Willeford
I Married A Dead Man Cornell Woolrich

In addition to these, I am currently planning on reading Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, Willeford’s Cockfighter, and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.

It’s been a really interesting journey through noir literature, and over the next week or so, I hope to post more about what I’ve learned. But the biggest thing I’ve taken away from this experience is astonishment that I could have been unaware of something–a whole subgenre–that was (and to some extent, still is) a vibrant part of American literature. I mean, I know that it’s impossible to read everything, but I had thought, for some strange reason, that I knew–at least in broad strokes–about all the kinds of stuff that I hadn’t read. But clearly that was not true. I wonder what else I’ve missed?

%d bloggers like this: