Thursday Jun 07 2012
by Jack

The latest issue of the New Yorker magazine (28 May 2012) contains yet another attempt by a literary critic to explain the appeal of genre fiction such as crime stories. In some respects it is quite typical, admitting on the one hand that there are no longer any hard and fast rules for deciding on literary merit and on the other hand refusing to accept the consequences of such an admission. The author, Arthur Krystal, still wants to maintain that there is some kind of distinction between literary literature and genre fiction.  ‘Nothing bogs down a pulpy tale faster than real-life feelings about real life,” he insists, adding that, ”skilled genre writers know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail, lest the reasons we turn to their books evaporate,” adding “it’s plot we want and plenty of it.” For Krystal, reading crime fiction is a “guilty pleasure” allowing us to enjoy “a narrative cocktail that helps us temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives.” Personally, I resent nothing more than a literary critic who tells me why I read what I read, using some literary theory to explain and categorize my motivations. 

More to the point, I think Mr. Krystal is wrong. He is wrong because there is more than one kind of crime fiction and more than one kind of reader out there. While many readers may well read solely for escape, and many writers –especially those who write American thrillers, and they seem to be the only writers Mr. Krystal knows – strive to satisfy that demand-- I find an increasing number of our customers are looking for something else. Mainly they are also looking for a palatable and entertaining way to learn more about the world past and present.  I first became aware of the informative value of crime fiction some years ago when I read a book entitled The Body in the Corn Flakes, not a terribly prepossessing title.  Its author, K. K. Beck, had, however, developed a somewhat unusual formula, which was to set her mysteries in various kinds of businesses and to build into the plot a behind-the-scenes picture of how these businesses operated. This book was set in a large modern supermarket, and I discovered that she had also set a tale in a large automobile repair establishment (The Body in the Volvo).  I really appreciated the knowledge I gained from these books, knowledge I would not otherwise have acquired first-hand, and they helped allow me to discover the importance of setting in some (not all) crime fiction. At the time I was also beginning to read extensively in the Queens of Crime, and one day the hypothetical question occurred to me: what if, at some date long in the future, a stash of the novels of the Queens of Crime were the only historical evidence remaining of England between the wars? How would some future historian treat the era? I have never gotten around to answering that question, but it made me appreciate the fact that crime fiction was full of incidental social observation that might be of considerable value to the historian. Indeed, the evidence might be more credible simply because it was incidental rather than deliberate. If one wanted to know about the nuts and bolts of airplane passenger travel in the mid-1930s, for example, one could do far worse than to read Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds. It seems to me that the thirst for information about foreign places and past times is one of the factors that drives the present popularity of both the historical mystery and the mystery set in a strange country, two of the most common features of much of the present stock of Whodunit? The best of these books have been heavily researched by their authors, and especially in the historical mystery, thick detail often seems to be an essential part of the appeal. 

Given the popularity in recent years of crime novels about Hitler’s Germany – probably sparked by Philip Kerr’s Berlin Trilogy – it is surprising how long it has taken writers to discover that other monster of the twentieth century, Joseph Stalin. A great debate has gone on for years in the historical literature as to whether Hitler or Stalin was the greater monster. Stalin wins, it seems to me, by sheer weight of numbers. In the 1930s Stalin was responsible for three major bloodlettings. The first, continuing throughout the decade, involved the camps of the Gulag, an inheritance of the Tsar that was extended and perfected under the Soviet regime. The second was the Holodomor, the death of somewhere between three and ten million Ukrainians in the years 1932 and 1933, mainly through famine. The reasons behind this event remain very contentious.  According to many Ukrainians, including those living in Canada, the deaths were a result of a deliberate policy of genocide by the Stalinist government. According to other historians, they were more the result of the forced collectivization of Ukrainian kulak or peasant farms combined with years of bad harvest. Nobody disputes that millions died, however. The third bloodletting occurred from 1935 to 1937, when the regime purged large numbers of members of the Communist party itself, often in showcase trials, as it underwent considerable internal turmoil. 

Two recent series of crime fiction titles have emerged from this decade of terror. The first, by a
British author named William Ryan, is set in the mid-1930s. His detective is a member of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the Moscow Militia named Captain Alexei Korolev. The author thus locates his protagonist outside of the political crime side dealt with by the NKVD; he is concerned with criminal activity, not politics, a distinction a number of writers setting their books in despotic or totalitarian regimes try to emphasize. In the reading I did to prepare for writing this essay, I was struck by the phrase “police state” and the reminder that political police, like the Gestapo and the NKVD,  were, nonetheless, cops. To some extent crime fiction has created an artificial distinction that never existed in real life. In any case, Korolev finds himself investigating the trade in Russian icons carried on during the period, and soon becomes aware of the existence of the Thieves, an informal criminal organization of the Moscow Underworld. The best part of the first book in the series, The Holy Thief, is the introduction of the importance of body tattoos for the Soviet criminal community. Apparently this tradition of body tattooing really existed, and served as a sort of criminal record, including the prison or Gulag part, enshrined on a Russian criminal’s body (for illustrations, Google “Soviet criminal tattoos). This book is also distinguished for its portrayal of life during a time of political terror, when virtually everyone in society waits for the knock on the door which means that he or she has become accused – rightly or wrongly – of some sort of crime against the state.  The second book in the series, The Darkening Field, sees Korolev off to the countryside to investigate a murder at the site of a movie shoot. It is a better plotted mystery, although less unusual and striking. Korolev solves the case with the assistance of a young female Ukrainian cop named Slivka, who is at the end of the book permanently assigned to assist him. It looks like a long-running series is in prospect.  

A second series, by an American author writing under the pen-name Sam Eastland, stars a Finnish-born detective named Pekkala who begins his career working for the Tsar and continues working for Stalin, who actually puts in more than a token appearance. Since I had never heard of the author under his original name, I was not certain that there was a need for a pen-name to mark out the genre stuff, but then, what do I know? So far there are three books here. I found the flashback scenes -- mostly involving imagined historic moments and printed in italics – a bit over the top, and I frankly was not fully convinced that the author had complete command over the historical material, especially when it came to the thick details beyond the narrative. But the third book in the series, Siberian Red, does a pretty good job of conveying the atmosphere of life in one of the camps of the Gulag. Whether readers will find the portrayal of Stalin credible or useful is another whole question. The earlier period in Russia of the Bolshevik revolution itself, frequently alluded to by Eastland in these novels, seems to me prime game for its own historical series or two. 

William Ryan

The Holy Thief (2011), The Darkening Field (2012)

Sam Eastland

Eye of the Red Tsar (2010), The Red Coffin (2011),  Siberian Red  (2012)



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