Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Crime Fiction Gets Some Respect; But Why Did Newsweek Leave Out Elmore Leonard?

If Newsweek calls it a trend, does that mean it's all over?

I'm not sure when, exactly, I developed an interest in all things crime fiction and film noir. But my passion for those corners of pop culture certainly intensified several years ago, when I wrote an essay on the three adaptations of "The Killers," a Hemingway short story. I presented the paper at the Hemingway Conference in Key West, in 2004, and the piece was later published in January 2007 Literature/Film Quarterly.*

At any rate, I've steadily continued accelerating my consumption of crime fiction, and in recent months I've relished Richard Price's "Lush Life" and "Samaritan," Dennis Lehane's "Shutter Island," Denis Johnson's "Nobody Move," and a pile of books by Elmore Leonard, including "Out of Sight" and "Killshot," both of which were made into movies. IMO, Leonard has cornered the market on lively, believable tough-guy dialogue. Nobody does it better.

It's encouraging to see Newsweek toasting the recent spate of crime novels by established crime writers as well as authors better known for literary fiction; the latter group includes Johnson and Thomas Pynchon ("Inherent Vice").

"Writers such as James Ellroy, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, Donald Westlake, Walter Mosley, Laura Lippman, James Sallis, Megan Abbott, and George Pelecanos have managed to infuse crime novels with a quality of writing not seen since the days of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain ...," Malcolm Jones writes in the Newsweek feature. "Those authors from the '30s and '40s would surely be proud to keep company with the best writers in their field today.

"It might also tickle them to see that crime stories—especially those in the noir genre, where you can't tell the good guys from the bad and where hope and happy endings are the first things tossed overboard—have made it into the American literary pantheon," Jones writes.

"The Library of America devotes multiple volumes to the work of Chandler, Hammett, and assorted other noir novelists, as well as a true-crime anthology. Black Lizard paperbacks showcase classics in these adjacent genres, and Hard Case Crime publishes a splendid line of reprints, forgotten gems, and new work, all boasting wonderfully lurid cover art (half-clad dames, snarling gangsters, and guns going off all over the place) inspired by old paperbacks. But what might most surprise the old masters is the number of A-list literary authors who are invading their territory."

Jones also praises some of the '30s and '40s authors, including Patricia Highsmith ("Strangers on a Train," the "Ripley" books) and Jim Thompson, whose books I've sought out in recent years.

"In this country, these writers were the Rodney Dangerfields of literature, ignored by American critics and serious readers until years after they were dead," he writes. "But their best work possessed a rude vitality and a persuasive sense of doom, not to mention heists, shootouts, and snappy dialogue that were clearly the envy of authors who got better reviews."

So if Jones rightfully praises the above qualities, then WHY did he fail to include Leonard in this piece? That's the kind of unthinking oversight that, frankly, puts into question everything else he has to say.

What's more, Jones rather unfairly bashes Norman Mailer's "Tough Guys Don't Dance," calling it "a mess" (my read: it's fun, funny, quirky; the Mailer-directed movie adaptation, though, indeed was awful), and puts Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men" in the category of "his worst novel." No, it's not.

Jones plain gets it wrong when he writes that Johnson "never gets it quite right" with "Nobody Move."

So ... nice recognition of a fiction genre that still doesn't get the respect it deserves. But don't take Jones' judgments as the gospel.

*(What do you know? You can buy the piece online at Amazon for $9.95 And, no, I don't get a cut. Or, heck, just see it for free online at this posting I came across recently. I don't know who Script Girl is, but I'm guessing that Salisbury University isn't too happy that the journal's content is posted.

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