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The Simple Art of Murder


The powerful appeal of certain forms of “genre” stems from an apparent simplicity that, in the hands of inspired practitioners, rises to a kind of classic purity. There is an element of the parable, the fairy tale, even the ritual, which fuels such brilliant variants of genre as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw—a ghost story in the English tradition of which its author spoke with unusual disdain, virtually dismissing it as an inferior work. The abiding appeal of Edgar Allan Poe’s hallucinatory tales of the arabesque and grotesque springs from their fevered, defiant unreality, the boldness with which, in appropriating the well-trodden Gothic tale, in particular the fables of E.T.A. Hoffmann, for his own commercial purposes, Poe jettisoned all semblance of individual psychology and sociological “realism” in the service of another kind of vision. Only in his notebooks, in particular the remarkable prose pieces edited and published as The American Notebooks, is Nathaniel Hawthorne a realist; his novels and short stories are purposefully of the genre of “romance,” ingeniously contrived moral allegories that yield numerous interpretations. In the preface to The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne helpfully defines not just the art of the romance but by implication all genre fiction:

When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.

All of Herman Melville’s fiction is a variant of romance in these Hawthornian terms. More subtle and ambiguous is the appropriation of the journal genre by Henry DavidThoreau in Walden, an artfully composed and semi-fictionalized portrait of “Henry David Thoreau” as a hero free of all personal history and identity. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is imagined as a companion to Tom Sawyer, a picaresque boy’s book in which distinctly adult truths are discovered. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a morality play of which William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress is a visual analogue. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, George Orwell’s Animal Farm—all are appropriations of highly entertaining genres in the service of moral or political polemics. George Du Maurier’s Trilby (1894) is a unique work in which a Gothic tale emerges fantastically yet somehow convincingly out of what had seemed a realist-memoirist novel. (Trilby happens also to have been the first modern American runaway best seller.)

In such idiosyncratic works, “genre” hardly diminishes a work’s genius but provides its very channel of expression. Consider the minutely observed, psychologically motivated, historically accurate “realist” novel of which Orwell’s Animal Farm is the swift, brilliant, beast-fable equivalent, and you begin to appreciate the extraordinary power genre-writing can possess. In the right circumstances, genre moves swift as a thoroughbred at the starting gate, leaving far behind the good, diligent, faithful beast shackled to a cart heaped with “the real.”

Sigmund Freud’s Studies in Hysteria is the classic model of a popular modern genre, the “case study,” which purports to be a retrospective analysis of some species of pathology in which the physician is the detective and the patient is the victim, the one usually male and the other frequently female, or a male somehow emasculated. Oliver Sacks is the most gifted contemporary practitioner of the genre, and has developed it along lines that deviate considerably from Freud’s. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is subtitled The Confession of a White Widowed Male and the voice of Humbert Humbert is that of the mock-penitent confessing his crimes and claiming moral insight after passion has run its course—in the most revered Augustinian tradition. Each of Nabokov’s novels is at once sui generis and genre-bending: Pale Fire is a tour de force of mad academic scholarship in which footnoted commentary overwhelms its ostensible subject; The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Invitation to a Beheading, King, Queen, Knave, Transparent Things are variants of mysteries, as the autobiograpical Speak, Memory is a work of artful self-invention, like Thoreau’s very different Walden, presented as “memoir.” A genre indigenous to American popular literature is the variously named “Gothic,” “horror,” “occult,” or “dark fantasy,” directly descended from Poe, containing such disparate practitioners as Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a brilliant feminist reinterpretation of Poe’s “mad” narrator), Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and, in more recent decades, Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Crowley, Steven Millhauser, Jonathan Carroll, Thomas Liggoti, Barry N. Malzberg, Kathe Koja, and Joanna Scott, as well as best-selling writers like Stephen King, Anne Rice, Peter Straub, and R.L. Stine, whose novels sell tens of millions of copies. This genre divides thematically into two overlapping categories: works in which supernatural forces figure, manifested literally as monsters or symbolically as “compulsions” in presumably normal people, and works in which obsessive sexual predators stalk their victims. The former might be defined as essentially a juvenile mode, the latter its adult equivalent.

Erotic horror is a sub-genre that shades into hard-core pornography in which victims, usually but not exclusively female, are stalked, terrorized, raped, tortured and mutilated, and murdered without end in a grotesque parody of “real life”—the “war of the sexes.” Genitalia are lethal weapons in the one sex, passive and sometimes compliant objects of desire in the other. The turgid, cerebral fantasies of the Marquis de Sade are presumably the classic models for this genre, and the elegantly written The Story of O., by “Pauline Réage,” is its masochists’ bible. In such works the human body is a magic theater of insatiable, cruel experimentation that usually ends in death for the victim. The perpetrator of evil is rarely apprehended or punished.

Bret Easton Ellis would seem to have been parodying this genre in American Psycho, though it was difficult to tell; Paul Theroux would seem to have been deftly exploiting it in Chicago Loop. The lushly overdone vampire sagas of Anne Rice are primarily erotic horror, as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though Victorianchaste on its surface, is erotically charged throughout. Contemporary dark fantasy has become a genre in which erotic relations are explored in vivid, metaphorical terms, frequently against the nightmare backdrop of an implicit curse or apocalyptic doom (the specter of AIDS, unnamed); far from being escapist fiction, a number of these parable-like tales are painfully resonant for our time, collected in anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow bearing such titles as Alien Sex, Off-Limits, Blood is Not Enough, and Little Deaths. (A frequently reprinted practitioner of the genre is Lucy Taylor, whose Unnatural Acts, a gathering of feminist-Sadean excess, is aptly named.) Erotic horror and dark fantasy are the antithesis of the genre known as “romance”—by tradition the most popular and lucrative of all genres, with an exclusively female, uncritical readership.

The genre most indigenous to American literature is the “mystery-detective,” descending directly from Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of ratiocination “The Purloined Letter,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” in which the Parisian detective C. Auguste Dupin ingeniously solves mysteries that have stymied ordinary minds. Out of Poe’s “The Gold-Bug,” surely one of the world’s most tedious mysteries, has sprung the vast flood of codes, ciphers, secret messages, “clues” that are the stock in trade of the genre, reaching an apogee of the absurd in the crammed and contrived Ellery Queen mysteries of the 1930s. (The clue-crammed mystery is currently enjoying a spectacular resuscitation, however, as a consequence of recent discoveries in forensic science, including DNA tracing; in such adventures, scientific detection has supplanted armchair speculation by amateur sleuths, and the puzzle-solver can as readily be a woman as a man, as in the best-selling murder mysteries of Patricia Cornwell, a former pathologist.) Brilliant variants are Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (in which a blind librarian named “Borges” is the very villain), which pay homage to the genre while transcending it.

Yet more native to America, the “hard-boiled mystery-detective” genre with its realistic, usually urban contemporary settings conforms only partially to Hawthorne’s dictum regarding romance: “It must rigidly subject itself to laws” and “sins unpardonably” if it swerves from “truths of the human heart.” In fact, the genre is a sort of demonic anti-pastoral in which “laws” of probability are continually defied, and its primary truth of the human heart is that men and women, though more frequently women (if they are beautiful), are rotten to the core.

The influence of Raymond Chandler and his acknowledged mentor Dashiell Hammett has been ubiquitous in the genre, a phenomenon of styles, attitude, and atmosphere, the conventions of film noir that have been raised to the point of parody, and beyond, as if reinvented out of sheer belated bravado, by James Ellroy. These noir romances transfer readily to the screen since they are cinematically imagined, so structured that periodic eruptions of action and violence, and not the narrative language surrounding them, form the skeleton of the work. (When in doubt, Chandler breezily advised the writer of such fiction, bring in a man with a gun.) In the British detective mysteries which Chandler scorned, by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, among others, action and violence are virtually nonexistent, subordinated to genteel puzzle-solving. A corrupt social order, taken for granted in American mystery-detective fiction, is rarely indicted in the conservative British tradition, even in the relatively sophisticated police “procedurals” of Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. “Realistic” variants of the genre would have to be official police detective mysteries, for private detectives are rarely involved in authentic crime cases, and would have no access, in contemporary times, to the findings of forensics experts. In recent decades the police procedural has effloresced into an enormously popular sub-genre, worldly wise yet not wholly cynical, crammed with up-to-date information and “colorful” characters; though invariably formulaic in outline, the police procedural can be richly inventive within its perimeters and strongly atmospheric, as in the novels of Joseph Wambaugh (a former policeman), James Lee Burke, and the prolific Ed McBain (Evan Hunter), with their appealing, macho, thoroughly professional detective-protagonists.


Honesty is an art.

—Raymond Chandler,
“The Simple Art of Murder”

While the romance genre, for women, is universally reviled, the mystery-detective genre, so transparently its equivalent for men, has long enjoyed a privileged cult status. What are the secret wishes this genre’s elaborately contrived scenarios fulfill? What are its subterranean assumptions, its blood-beliefs? Who is the solitary hero-savior, bearer of sacred seed that never replicates itself in mere flesh?—for detectives, of course, have no progeny. Raymond Chandler, high priest of his own cult, passionately proclaims:

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