Written in May 2005
For the last couple of weeks have been reading a lot of crime novels. It started when I read about a new book by George Pelecanos who is a writer for The Wire which is one of the best shows ever to appear on TV. I picked up a couple of his book and did some research on him. Having read a half dozen or so of his books and taken a break from them to read other stuff I have formed a few thoughts on his work.
First I dig that he integrates music into his work. His characters are often listening to various rock, pop, soul (old school 70’s Soul), punk, alternative and jazz music. It fills them out in the same way that other crime novel vets are filled out by mention of what kind of beer they drink or car that they drive… and Pelecanos includes that kind of stuff as well. I wish that more pop lit, of which I consider the crime novel a sub-genre of, had the guts to talk about the pop culture that surrounds us all.
Secondly his stories are often filled with the juxtaposition of urban criminals and rural criminals. He talks about their interactions and culture clashes, even though at their core they are all the same, scummy dope pushing pussy hounds out to snatch as much cash as possible. Psycho’s either way, wearing Nikes or shit kickers, Stetsons or raiders hats.
What I realize about his stuff is that it’s much more about people caught up in the business of it all, sure he has a few psychos drifting though the books, but mostly it’s greedy fucks out to fuck each other for what ever they can get.
Speaking of psycho, the Pelecanos books led me to the work of Michael Connelly, who writes crime novels centered around Los Angeles and Los Vegas. I have read 3 of his books so far, Void Moon, The Poet and The Narrows. Void Moon was basically a caper book, with the main character, a woman (which you really don’t see all that much in hard-boiled crime novels by men), who is a prowl artist who is looking for that one big score. I enjoyed that book and because I enjoyed , along with a nice endorsement from Stephen King, I've read The Poet.
The Poet is a serial killer story (yawn! I was over those years ago) that was hyped as scary and tense, it was ok. By ok I mean it had it’s moments and some very good prose, but nothing earth shattering. More than anything I see that it was the twist ending and high concept idea of the book that surprised and delighted most people, but in the end it didn’t have that mania and fire, that ultimate darkness of the human soul and flawed people that would make it really a classic to me. The Narrows is sequel with the same killer and the same FBI agent tracking him, along with another Connelly regular character along for the ride. Once again it was OK, and to be honest it hasn’t inspired me to pick up any more of Connelly’s work, what it has done is sent me back to reading the real master of the modern crime novel, James Ellroy.
It’s been a decade since I discovered his work. I read everything that he had written up to that point and have followed his work since then. He is one of the few authors that I kept up with in the late 90’s when my reading habits changed and I gave up following Tony Hillerman, T. Jefferson Parker and Robert Parker.
I have been rereading one of his early books, 'Because the Night' which is the last of his Lloyd Hopkins books. He’s said that he created Hopkins because he was advised to create a series character and build a following with the series. I heard him say somewhere that he really learned how to write novels from those three books. I read the books all those years ago and this is the first time that I have picked one up, and comparing it to the Connelly books I can see why I don’t find Connelly all that shocking or dark.
Even when he was shilling for a crime novel career Ellroy had the magic. His plots are basic and really he’s setting up a good monster and a bad monster for a clash at the end, but it’s the ride that’s worth it.
When I was 18 I had a high school teacher tell me I was way too young to be as cynical (and I assume jaded) as I was at the time. He was right, so maybe that’s why I don’t find Ellroy all that dark, or scary. I find him to be honest about that darkness, just as I try to be honest about mine.
And this is where it gets personal; I have looked into another kind of darkness. I didn’t have LA in the 60’s and 70’s, a murdered mother, a dying father, and a minor league crime career to inform my understanding of inhumanity. I had Ann Arbor Michigan; I had a dead father and a mother who refused to see the reality of the world around us. I had 3rd wave extreamist Feminists telling me every male was a criminal in my high school. I had dopy ‘we love everyone’ hippie crits living in ivory towers while slippie madness was fomenting under the current of that quite little college town. We may not have had the murder rate of LA or DC, but we had death just the same. A murder a year, and most of them were over the top, suicides, rapes, weird accidental deaths, and car accidents and of course drug O.D.s.
So I am going to keep on reading these crime novels and try to write my own. I have some ideas that I have been playing with for years, it’s a matter of putting them down and letting them out.
I wrote the above almost five years ago, I have edited it slightly, mostly to clarify a few things. I am still trying to write crime stories, and deal with the personal demons that I mentioned at the end. I haven't read much more Pelecanos or Connelly since writing about them, but I have a couple of each writers books that I still need to get to.