Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An Outsider Looking in

The Importance of Crime and Thriller Fiction
by Ali Karim

A little while back Kevin Burton Smith wrote an interesting piece on the
Akashic’s Toronto Noir collection, which provoked thought especially as it touched upon that old chestnut – literary vs. genre. Kevin wrote this line “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, “transcend.” The line is used to describe literary writers and their ability [or lack of ability] to write within the framework of the crime genre. It seems that people often used the term ‘transcend’ when describing a work that reaches above the confines of a genre. As Kevin stated in his piece, it may well be considered a ‘slight’ upon the very genre they purport to have transcended. Crime and Thriller fiction is the genre that probably unravels the human condition better than any other, due to it exploring the eternal struggle between the good and evil that lurks within us all.

I thought about the crime fiction genre when I struggled to understand my own obsessive fascination with Stieg Larsson’s work, especially the soon to be released Vol II of his Millennium series “The Girl Who Played With Fire”, Kevin’s article bounced around in my head. A line from Albert Camus came into my mind, a line that helped put these thoughts into some sort of context. Camus stated that "A novel is never anything, but a philosophy put into images." This line put some perspective into my thoughts, especially as Larsson’s journalism work was slanted toward revealing the evils of Neo-Nazism, as well the levels of brutality inflicted upon the most vulnerable in society, such as women, dispossessed, the marginalized, minorities and the underprivileged. Some of Larsson’s thoughts naturally found themselves into his novels as the line from Camus indicated. When looking at human beings we find that when we’re good, we can be truly remarkable, but when we’re bad, we can be horrifically evil. Recently I have been re-reading, and reminding people about the terrible events that occurred in Germany 70 years ago between 7th to 9th November 1938. These horrific events we refer to as ‘Kristallnacht’. In fact while at Bouchercon in Baltimore, Roger Ellory and I visited and paid our respects to the Holocaust Memorial. As human beings, when we are bad, we can be evil in the extreme as those events, and many other shameful events in the history of mankind illustrate.

So as I sat down to write my review of Larsson’s follow-up to ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, I got into some debate on the 4-MA mystery group where there is spilt opinion onto the merits of Larsson’s debut novel. I also realize that at times I come across as a reader / reviewer who gets somewhat excitable on certain books. So I decided to do a little navel gazing, and delve into why I am fascinated by crime and thriller fiction so much, and why I read and write obsessively. What resulted was an email post at 4-MA that grew into a long essay, and one that I realized I actually wrote for myself. However I posted it anyway, and then when I read it back, as well as receiving feedback from the 4-MA gang, I decided to re-edit and submit it to Jeff Pierce at The Rap Sheet. So before I write my review of Millennium II and publish the insights from Stieg Larsson’s father, I thought I’d write about why some books haunt me and make me want to tell the whole world about them.

I guess I spend a lot of time contemplating life, death and society, from the mirror that is crime / thriller fiction; that's why existential work strikes such a resonance in my psyche. I guess I am always looking for meaning, or purpose in the sheer randomness [or absurdity] of our existence. Every so often a line, a paragraph or perhaps a whole book has such insight. I consider as human beings, we are deeply flawed as I previous mentioned. Therefore crime / thriller fiction is a perfect art form to view [and reflect] the human condition; as crime novels link the good and bad within us all. The best fiction novels of crime offer the reader to take his/her own side of the moral compass. There are some novels that really help you understand the sheer comedy and tragedy of our existence. Larsson’s Vol II falls into this bracket. These books I consider as [quoting George Easter of Deadly Pleasures Magazine] "WoW Books"; as they are books that transcend entertainment, but not genre.

Of the two books from Larsson that I've read, he does provide a moral framework in his narrative. He examines evil but often that evil is banal and relates to the unleashing of base emotions released from moral constraints. I know that the Salander character irritates at times, as she is such a misfit, but like Camus' main character in The Outsider, perhaps we're all 'outsiders' looking in. Even beneath the gun-fetish world of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels; we find that Reacher is an outsider looking in. The best crime fiction in my opinion features an outsider as a protagonist looking inward, and reporting what he/she uncovers and then restoring order. In Larsson's Vol II, the unsocial and mentally unstable misfit, Lizabeth Salander is let loose to do what she does best. Salander’s story is just so hypnotic; I still think about it often as it does what all important art does, provoke thought and ignite passion, and therefore spilt opinions. No one is right in saying that Larsson's work is brilliant equally no one is right in stating that it is rubbish - but isn't it wonderful to have such strong opinions. ‘The Girl Who Played With Fire’ has a great story; it provokes thought about our motivations and how some people can't control their more bestial instincts. It also raises the perennial question how some men, allow their baser needs to harm others. You can get books that are worthy but boring, or irrelevant, but Vol II is a great story, filled with interlocking and quirky characters, but striated across the narrative is meaning, but this 'meaning' is so hidden from view that it permeates from between the lines, the paragraphs and makes one examine ourselves closely. Hey, I know that makes Larsson’s work sound so 'worthy', but his novels are very fine reads in themselves; the insights he reveals about our natures’ should be considered as a bonus. Larsson's insight into existence by way of a crime thriller - is most interesting. It is also hugely cathartic, as it is good to have the bad guys dispatched, when in real life, that often does not happen. But it often takes an outsider to carry out that retribution and restoration of order, that's why characters such as Jack Reacher, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Tom Ripley, Philip Marlowe, Harry Bosch, Nick Stefanos, Lew Archer, Patrick Kenzie, Spenser, John Rambo, et. al. are required - because that's what they do best, just like Lisabeth Salander [to restore order]. To defeat the grotesque evils these outsiders uncover require often employing the same tactics of the 'Bad'. That is why in all of us, we have the latent ability to be 'Bad'. You only have to read Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith to see that. When I first read 'Gone Baby Gone' by Dennis Lehane I was shattered. I put the book down, brewed more coffee and sat in the 4am silence and thought, contemplated, and deliberated the moral dilema the book posed. I still often contemplate the moral dilemma that lies at the heart of that story, and why it caused a rift between Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. That book transcended the medium [not the genre] that it was crafted from. John Connolly's THE UNQUIET is another unsettling book, and one that makes us view our own lives through a prism. Shutter Island by Lehane also did that, but many got irritated by the mechanism of that particular prism.

Several French novels often deploy these themes, as in France, crime fiction is often lauded as a legitimate art-form as opposed to a 'guilty pleasure' as it is in the UK and US. Two years ago, I spent two weeks over Christmas in Ireland with my family. Despite saying that I loved spending time with my kids, wife, relations etc etc, the real treat [if i am truly honest] was discovering Jean-Patrick Manchette, and reading two remarkable novels by him -The Prone Gunman and Three to Kill - These two novels still resonate in my mind. Both are slim and pithy tales, and each can be read in a few hours, but those hours spent have given me many more hours of contemplation [and I mean many, many further hours]. The stories and characters still haunt me. They are Existential with a capital 'E'. Both these novels have a very strange way of looking at life and death as well as love. I can not recommend them highly enough. And as for Derek Raymond’s Factory Novels, well reading them is like becoming a rabbit trapped forever in the headlights of an oncoming truck. Just don’t look for a warm feelgood ambience when you put them down, as they will haunt you and make you question what you see around you.

I must warn those of a more sensitive disposition that Raymond, as well as Manchette's work is brutal, and very violent. But who ever said that when we internally inspect our inner-self, it would be pleasant because of the flaws within ourselves [if we are truly honest]. It's not pretty looking into who we are, because for us to have escaped from the cave, we would have to have traits that in a civilized society can raise real issues.

I guess I read so much; write so much; and observe life, trying to find out more about myself and the world that surrounds me. Every so often I discover something from the viewpoint of another person that makes me challenge my own thinking, and makes me look at the world in a different way. Larsson does that for me. He challenges me, and makes me see things from the prism of his mind, not mine. I used to work in the Middle-East in shipping [during the first Iran / Iraq war], and spent a lot of time on massive crude oil and chemical ships that went through the Straits of Hormuz. It gave me a lot of time to meet mariners from all points of the globe, and to think about life and death. I also read crime fiction furiously. I was young at the time, so not as scared being in a war-zone, as I would be now [in the same situation]. As the years roll on, life becomes so much more precious. I recall with clarity reading all night, and then watching the sun rise on the deck of a ship in the Arabian Gulf; putting my book down [‘The Silence of the Lambs’ by Thomas Harris] and then seeing the sun under a different light, from a very different viewpoint – precious, seeing the same stars as Clarice Starling. I have traveled around the world but wherever I travel, you will always find a book in my back pocket or my luggage. Being a bibliophile one insult often thrown at me since childhood has been –

"Reading is like experiencing the world second-hand".

It used to annoy me, but now, being older and hopefully a little wiser, I feel perhaps that I have a much more interesting outlook upon life, because I have seen it from so many different viewpoints. The most perceptive being the one from the edges of existence, like those viewed from a crime novel. The view from the crime fiction vantage point I find the most revealing about life and death. So now when confronted with the ‘living life second hand’ jibe, I reply coolly -

"Just because it's your viewpoint, doesn't make your view right; it's just another way of looking at it; in fact your own viewpoint is shaped by what has happened to you, your prejudices and agenda. Reading helps clean the lens that you view the world through as well shifting the angle of view.”

I read to live, and I live to read, because in my journey to try and understand what surrounds me and how I fit into this random chaos we term as life and the consequences of death - books are always my guide.

So what else could one ask for from one’s entertainment? And to add to my pretentious mood this morning I will quote Albert Camus again -

"After all manner of professors have done their best for us, the place we are to get knowledge is in books. The true university of these days is a collection of books."

That is why I spend so much time reading, and why I consider a life without books as meaningless, and why I get anxiety if not surrounded by books, and why crime thrillers reveal more about life than any other genre - In my very humble opinion [and I qualify that statement by making it clear that I do read widely, not just crime], in crime fiction I find all of life’s rich tapestry.

Oh, boy this is yet another exploration of me trying to understand why I have become so obsessed by the words of the late Stieg Larsson, and justifying myself on why certain books have knocked my viewpoint ever so slightly, and that is why books are dangerous, but dangerous in a good way - they alter the way that you think. Larsson's work does just that.

But remember that the sword cuts two ways as all totalitarian regimes burn books, because books are dangerous and in the wrong hands they can be used as tools of manipulation as evidenced by the term propaganda.

Even Politicians read, and those from the left have a greater leaning toward Crime and Thrillers.

I should delete this self-indulgent essay, as I only wrote it for myself; trying to justify and understand why I read crime fiction so obsessively; and why some novels I read make such a deep gash into my psyche. "The Girl Who Played with Fire" sits in my mind like a knife wound that won't heal. I apologize for inflicting my injury upon you – Ali Karim


  1. Wonderful, Ali! Also quite perfect for the "Existentialist Man" to be quoting Camus, dontcha think!

    "A novel is never anything, but a philosophy put into images."

    Wow and thank you. I'll get that as take out.

    Your post brings another existentialist to mind: Rollo May. "Artistic symbols and myths speak out of the primordial, preconscious realm of the mind which is powerful and chaotic. Both symbol and myth are ways of bringing order and form into this chaos."

  2. Very nicely said and, by coincidence or otherwise, a nice fit with my comment today about Naguib Mahfouz, that Nobel Prize winner who liked detective stories and wrote at least one fine noir in his career.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  3. Fascinating post, Ali! I haven't read Larsson's book yet but will now add it to my towering stack. And it's funny, I find that people frequently diminish reading fiction reading as a "trivial" pursuit, but the forces grappling in these texts are laid bare so much more openly than in non-fiction.

  4. You've inspired me even further. I'll have a post up in a couple of hours about what anyone really needs to explain after saying that a given piece of crime writing transcends its genre.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  5. Yes, spot on. and, of course, Mr. C's The Fall' is a great noir story. "I have no friends,ony accomplices'

  6. Excellent stuff, Ali. Looking forward to more!
    (Must admit I've not read Larsson yet, but my wife just finished his first and really loved it.)

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