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January 2005

There Goes the Neighborhood

By A Spider's Thread The view from Interstate 95 in Baltimore often has been compared to post-World War II Berlin. Trains approaching the city don't offer much better, flashing past industrial parks and the backyards of rundown rowhouses. If these vistas were all you knew of Baltimore, you would think it a dismal city indeed. Throw in a few stray facts -- the homicide rate, the poverty rate, the number of jobless adults -- and it's easy to deem it unlivable.

That's far from the entire story, of course. There are handsome, verdant neighborhoods across the north side of the city and lively, booming ones all around the water. It has two world-class medical institutions and several good liberal arts colleges. Restaurants are better than ever. There is strong anecdotal evidence that D.C. workers are increasingly choosing to live here, where they get a lot more house for the money. Yet Baltimore is much more than an affordable consolation prize for those who can't make it in other cities. People have chosen to live here for a number of reasons. I did, coming home at the age of 30 after seeing quite a bit of the world.

Detective fiction is often written about as if its critics were on interstate highways or fast-moving trains. While the landmarks cited are clearly present -- formulaic stories, an emphasis on plot over style, violence for violence's sake -- they're not necessarily characteristic. In fact, when literary writers or critics make pronouncements about the genre, their descriptions seem about as accurate or helpful as proclaiming "South of the Border" emblematic of South Carolina. Yeah, it's there and it's extremely visible, but no one would argue that this roadside tourist trap embodies the true spirit of the Palmetto State, while Charleston is a mere aberration.

Let's take the case of Case Histories. It's a terrific book, one of the best novels I read in 2004. Atkinson is a literary writer, but anyone who admired her double-Whitbread winner Behind the Scenes at the Museum won't be surprised at how expertly she navigates the PI novel; Museum was the rare literary novel that played out the string of a secret perfectly, revealing a major plot point in a satisfying yet unexpected way.

Given Atkinson's body of work and the wrong-headed assumption that a crime novel can't double as a literary novel, that it must be one or the other, it was inevitable that she would be hailed as transcending and transforming the genre. To her credit, she's not the one making that case. There's not a whiff of condescension in Atkinson's book, in which private investigator Jackson Brodie a) gets mugged in a parking garage b) sleeps with the wrong woman and c) misses an explosion by a matter of seconds. (Pretty standard crime fiction fare, no?)

After the explosion, Brodie calls the police. "'The plot thickens,' he said, and wished he hadn't said that because it sounded like something from a bad detective novel." How I love Atkinson for including that adjective, bad, for admitting there is a distinction.

Case Histories does everything a crime novel should do. The three unsolved homicides are explicated, at least to the reader. The characters, including Brodie, are affected in surprising and gratifying ways by the secrets and truths they uncover. If the book deviates in any notable way from the mainstream, it's in Atkinson's approach to structure. The narrative has a lovely, peripatetic shape, one in which the reader is brought to the brink of a familiar scene -- the PI interviews an important witness, for example -- only to have Atkinson skip past it, heightening the reader's interest, then return unexpectedly.

Furthermore, by dropping key bits of information within casual, seemingly non-expository sentences, Atkinson controls for the reader inclined to go too quickly. This is a page-turner that teaches you to turn the pages slowly, savoring every word. I loved everything about it -- except one blurb, on its back cover.

"[The novel] rumbustiously drives a path through the genre of detective fiction, demolishing its careful, forensic summations of human behavior and replacing them with bloody, believable, vigorous tales of wrongdoing and loss . . . and most importantly of people who were very much alive before they were dead."

This blurb is credited to Rachel Cusk, identified as the author of The Country Life. Her work was unknown to me, but a cursory Google search quickly established that she is a far more accomplished and celebrated writer than I will ever be. She has won the Whitbread and been named one of the best British writers of the decade (which decade, exactly, her publisher failed to specify). Me, I've never even heard of the word "rumbustiously." So, full points to Cusk.

And she's not exactly wrong: There are crime stories that have little interest in humans, alive or dead, and these books often sell extraordinarily well. There are also McDonald's restaurants in Paris, but French cuisine is not held accountable for the Big Mac.

A rumbustious syllogism, you say? Then think of it this way: If Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective novel, why should modern-day hacks be granted the patent? Crime fiction is an awfully big territory and while you could drive for miles, to use Cusk's metaphor, without encountering much that seemed original or vital, that's just one road, one path. Try another and you might find Elmore Leonard's Detroit, Ken Bruen's Galway, Daniel Woodrell's Ozarks, or James Crumley's Montana. And those aren't particularly far from the major byways. Imagine what lies in the provinces of small presses, such as the Madison-based Bleak House or Hard Case Crime line, where everything old is new again.

Lev Grossman, writing in Time magazine last month, noted the increasing trend of literary writers embracing genre fiction, citing Michael Chabon's The Final Solution, a beautifully written book about which I had some reservations. Grossman wrote, in seeming approval:

"This is literature in mid-transformation, the modernist bleeding into the postmodern and beyond. In his introduction to 'Astonishing Stories,' Chabon calls this new high-low fiction "Trickster literature," and you can almost hear in that label the distant bugle call of a manifesto. And you can almost see the future of literature coming. Looks like it's going to be a page turner."

Sounds more like gentrification to me -- akin to the well-meaning yuppies who move into Baltimore's old neighborhoods (as I have) only to complain about the lack of upscale supermarkets and shopping. (I'm blameless on this score.) Crime fiction has its share of jerry-built and dilapidated stock, but the genre is sturdy, its possibilities endless. Come on in, but don't think you'll transform it via Laura's signature the literary equivalents of granite counter-tops and Viking stoves. Like the rowhouses of Baltimore, thrown up in the 19th century to house the working class, the only thing great crime fiction has transcended is those who would render it transitory.

News and Notes

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, actually has very little affection for the first person singular. So, in 2005, the goal is to keep the focus on books and writing. Other people's books, preferably. Tour dates and the like can still be found here, especially when To the Power of Three (William Morrow) is published in July. Also check here for news of short stories and articles this year, ranging from The Cocaine Chronicles to A Slice of Heaven. And please, please, please -- read the FAQ!

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