Friday, August 28, 2009

The same dang thing over and over again

I just started reading Alessandro Manzoni's On the Historical Novel (1850), which includes many of the arguments I and others have made this week, couched in a subtle, ironic rhetoric. I think it's ironic - maybe he means exactly what he says. So far, Manzoni has used his essay to completely demolish the historical novel: "it is the historical novel itself that is completely at fault."* Manzoni is himself the author of one of the best historical novels ever written, The Betrothed (1827), so perhaps I am misreading.

Regardless, it's full of useful ideas. I may return to it soon. A Professional Reader might have thought to look into the subject before writing so much. Ah well.

Anyway, my final complaint or concern or prejudice is more about books that come in series than about historical novels as such. The mystery series is the mode of our age, what people read. On trips to Germany, I have marvelled at the richness of the literary culture, about the attention received by serious books. But what do Germans really read, really, more than anything else? Mysteries that come in series. I'm using "mystery" generically, including thrillers and such - the Owen Parry novel I read claimed to be a "novel of historical suspense."

I know that people still write and read romances and sea stories and knights-in-armor stories. But I do not believe that those genres have the equivalent of the amazing rack of books I recently found in a library, a collection of knitting mysteries, and candle making mysteries, and gardening mysteries. Used book store mysteries. Antiquing mysteries. Pie mysteries. I am for some reason currently using a bookmark that advertises a series of handbag mysteries.**

Everything gets shoveled into mysteries now, including stories about the birth of Italian Futurism and stories about New York City midwives. When I described my pile of six mysteries, I didn't say anything about the plots, not because of concern about spoiling the surprise, but because the plots don't matter, not in any of them. The settings matter, a lot, and the choice of detail, and the voice. But the plot, the actual mystery in the mystery, is always just something pulled off the shelf of time-tested devices.

Because the clever author (and every author I tried was clever enough) knows that we cannot just march from the beginning of the mystery to the end, the story has to be well-larded with incidental material that slows us down, with each episode of the novel giving us 1) one piece of genuine information, 2) several interesting but in the end deceptive pieces of information, and 3) directions to the next episode. There must be writers who can break free of this formula. But if they do so, are they still writing mysteries?

So if I find myself wearied with the repetition found among six different authors, I can guess how I'd feel reading more books by the same author. Steve Hockensmith's cowboy Watson and Holmes are in four novels now. Besides the train, one's on a ranch in Montana, one's in San Francisco, one's in Texas. That's something. But they're really just the same dang thing over and over again, aren't they?

I suspect that's true of more authors than Hockensmith. It's not what I'm looking for in fiction. With some time - a year, years - I'm likely to try one of these authors again, probably Parry or Hockensmith. The memory of the original pleasure will have dimmed, and I will be ready to enjoy the same dang thing. That formula works in one way - I turned every page of every book, faster and faster until I got to the end.

* P. 72 of Alessandro Manzoni, On the Historical Novel, tr. by Sandra Bermann. University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

** Now if someone were to write or has written a pie sea story, I might just read it. 'Cause the idea is so stupid.


  1. But they're really just the same dang thing over and over again, aren't they?
    The memory of the original pleasure will have dimmed, and I will be ready to enjoy the same dang thing. That formula works in one way - I turned every page of every book, faster and faster until I got to the end.

    This is what it's all about, at least for this mystery-reader. Take your post on voice, which you recognize as a main appeal. If you're telling the same story over and over, it's the setting and the characters that are making it worth reading, and especially whichever character it is who is really taking you through the mystery. I read Raymond Chandler novels because I'm in the mood to hang out with Philip Marlowe, and I go back to Rex Stout again and again because Archie Goodwin is like an old friend. And just like I forget the punchlines to jokes I've heard before and get to laugh when I hear them a second time, I forget the exact way the plot unwinds, and can re-watch episodes of Poirot and Miss Marple once a year (or more!) with complete contentment.

    Obviously there must be some level of turning off of the brain involved, but I don't think it's just that I'm willing to evaluate the books (and their adaptations) within the constraints of the genre. It feels more like an entirely different activity altogether from reading "literature." My mood is different, the speed is different, the whole level of absorption is different.

    Also, I definitely share your fascination at the bizarre variety of mystery series. Though I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss romance as a contender. I know very little about the variety there, but believe it is the most widely read (or most-purchased) genre in the country and as such should probably put up some stiff competition.

  2. Thanks for a wonderful post. I hope you'll check out the first in my series of golem strudel mysteries! The golem solves crimes in late medieval Prague, and bakes different delicious strudels along the way!
    "Axes and Apfelstrudel: a Golem of Prague Mystery" will be available at your local booksellers in early October, just in time for the fall apple season!

  3. Nicole, you must be right, that the mental activity is not quite the same. A close relative, but something a little different.

    There's also a distinction between intensive and extensive readers, with intensive readers purposefully looking for the same thing again and again (I don't have the terms backwards, do I?). The paradigmatical example of the intensive reader is the religious reader, whose only book is the Bible or some other holy text. In some sense all I'm doing here is recognizing that I'm an extensive reader.

    Romances - now there's a strange genre. Romance readers are typically intensive readers. I'm talking about the ones who get through a Harlequin book every day or two. They don't want the exact same thing over and over, but they want the differences to be minor, surface.

    One advantage of romances - a knitting romance (I just found examples at the library) is not necessarily a stupid gimmick. It's just a romance story about a person with a certain interest. But a knitting mystery - now we have to drag in poisoned knitting needles or whatever. Again, at the library, I just found a series of "bath and body mysteries" by India Ink. They include "beauty and spa tips." And murders.

    Golem - what a great idea for a mystery series. I'll keep at least one eye open for your new book. Another good idea for a series would be a medieval setting, where the detective is Paracelsus, assisted by his homonculous. Or maybe the homonculous is the detective. Whichever.

    Or how about Thomas Aquinas mysteries? There's a precedent for enormously fat detectives. This series can include authentic medieval recipes.

  4. You'll be happy to know that the homunculus and I team up in book II in the series: "Bludgeons and Babkas: a Golem of Prague Mystery." This one includes recipes for delicious pastries, and for homunculi!

  5. Nicole, that's a fair comment about spending time with folks you like--but notice your list of go-to reads is pretty elite. I reread Dorothy Sayers and P D James a lot too--and Robert B. Parker and Dick Francis, absolutely the best long-weekend reading, if you ask me!--but that's sort of the detective equivalent of rereading Austen or Trollope.

    I'm always amused by the proliferation of "theme" mystery series. It's like niche marketing. I've seen home improvement ones, cooking, crossword puzzles, cat ones, quilting ones, pub ones--and of course there are academic ones and literary ones (Jane Austen is the detective! or whatever) as well as the historical ones. Recently I saw the title The PMS Murders on the shelf--now that opens up a whole array of possibilities.

    One thing we talk about in my class is that many smart mystery authors have taken advantage of the apparently insatiable appetite for this genre to infiltrate a mass market with "radical" ideas. After all, now it is quite mainstream to read "lesbian" detective fiction, and Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky all got famous writing overtly feminist popular fiction (Paretsky is also outspoken about class issues).

  6. I wonder if anyone is cataloguing the niche mysteries. There's a certain ingenuity at work.

    The two P D James novels I read, both quite a while ago (The Black Tower and, um, another one), were among the best mysteries I ever read. Don't know why I didn't read more.

  7. I do know there is an abandoned catalogue of "bibliomysteries" here, with some tagging.

    In terms of actually cataloguing the niches themselves, I don't know. I wonder if Genreflecting has anything good? The web version of that is dead as well, sigh.

  8. P. D.James is pretty much the best still writing, IMHO--along with Ian Rankin, which should really go without saying. She has a couple of weaker ones, but A Taste for Death is one of her best. I have a real fondness for An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which is unconventional in many ways. Sadly, my students so consistently disliked it that this year I am finally taking it off the reading list for my class. Rankin is just consistently outstanding at what he does, I think. He's more ambitious than James in taking on social problems (there's good reason for considering several of his later Rebus novels "condition of England" novels).

    When she's good, Elizabeth George is really very good too (for people who like this sort of thing, well, this is the sort of thing they like, as Miss Brodie would say). She really (I mean really) develops her characters. A lot. Maybe too much. I like Havers enormously, as a creation, so I'm partial to Deception on His Mind.