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Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

Currently reading

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The Scarecrow (Jack McEvoy, #2) - Michael Connelly I didn't much like this. It eked out 2 stars 'cause there were moments--a good 100-page stretch in the middle--where I remained engaged, but it may squeak into "ok" territory simply out of nostalgia, a great appreciation for The Poet.

Since we've been debating/discussing genre on Eric W's group thread about fiction, I figured I might toss out a few reasons why I felt disappointed, and where I felt satisfied, to tease out something about what I think I'm getting when I pick up a mystery.

Proposition 1: Mysteries are about the little details that pieced properly together, or expertly excluded as irrelevant, lead to a coherent whole. I recall an old Connelly, Trunk Music I think, which had some throwaway details about the use of hemorrhoid cream to reduce swelling in the bags underneath models' eyes--and how this impact on tissue had some bearing on the plot. Where Connelly works is in the patient accrual of detail--my friend jo is reading procedurals, so I'm curious what she'd say, but I get a meta-narrative kick out of the whole thing. Reading mysteries is like untangling how stories work: the wiring exposed, the pipes connected or set off in a trash pile, and you get to the end and flip the switch, and the lightbulb goes off.

On the other hand, what I loved so much about The Poet was that all that patient accrual of detail took you in entirely the wrong direction. Without spoiling that fun, I'll suggest Proposition 2: Mysteries are about misdirection, the legerdemain that makes you think the details will piece together properly but ultimately confounds you, shows at tale's end that other pieces really mattered, and those you focused on were so much finger-waggling and scarf-waving. I tend to love Prop 1 and Prop 2 in intense dialectic; Scarecrow seemed lackluster in terms of detail, and while protagonist McEvoy gets thrown off by a red herring, we're getting the full picture in other chapters. In fact, it felt somewhat like reading a blueprint; if I like that in many mysteries I can figure out the wiring, it's absolutely no fun when the wiring is shown to me in such a heavy-handed dunderheaded fashion.

Proposition 3: Mysteries flirt with resonant traumas, anxieties, fears--personal and cultural. The stately bonhomie of the small town is peeled back to reveal corruption, lust, sin; the city's government is really conspiring against its citizens; children are at risk; terrorists circle 'round the homestead; death lurks. Etc. Connelly here pulls out a tired old foolish cultural demon (the serial killer), which seemed worn out 10 years ago, but he doesn't just play the old tune, he uses shorthand to hum a few bars, giving us a (good gravy) flashback to childhood trauma which is meant I guess to fulfill certain conventions about our understanding of that demon. He also tosses out the big scary internet (you can lose your identity! fiends and fetishists commune online!) and the death of newspapers. More on that last bit in a second, but re the others: go back to Prop 1--ideally, if you're going to trot out a cultural fear, you ground it in the kind of mundane details which convey such a rich sense of the world where readers live, to give 'em the heebie-jeebies. (Hey... Prop 3b: mysteries are actually horror stories, the uncanny sense that our worlds are dank and horrid behind the veil of everyday life.) Scarecrow's scary demons seem like shadowpuppets, banging on the wall and jumping around. More like an episode of Dateline than a truly fear-inducing thrill-ride.

Proposition 4: the particular plot--and all those details--are far less important than the exposure of systems and institutions, and how they shape (and misshape) our lives. This is where sociology, or a whiff of the old existential, can emerge as so central to the genre. For instance, what journalists and cops do is they see not just criminals, but the systems which produce crime, which reward and cover up illicit behavior--ostensibly, they see past the mere case being solved (or left ambiguously open) to deep-rooted portraits of reality, and how we live. Connelly's journalist, Jack McEvoy, seems to know things about the realities of LA, and of the LA Times. But what he knows seems surface-level to us--McEvoy confidently engages with drug dealers in Watts, but what he knows could have been learned on any episode of Law and Order: boilerplate pop sociology. After the riches of The Wire, or Lehane, Price, Pelecanos--or reach back to Himes, Hammett, MacDonald--bah. You can get away without 4 if you've got 1, or 2, I guess, but ... Connelly was really bugging the shit out of me. McEvoy's ostensible intelligence and ability seemed mostly an implicit assumption, based on the archetype, rather than any explicit illustration of his skills.

This is particularly, egregiously annoying when it comes to the death of newspapers, something about which a vet reporter like Connelly would you'd guess know quite a bit. But McEvoy simply mutters about corporate thinking, the new mojo (mobile journalist) and all their gadgets, the generally empty premise of the blogger... but never shows any worth to the old-school journalism he waxes nostalgic about. McEvoy can ask a hard question at a police press conference, but all he seems to think about is how to shape a story, as if the story is nothing but Proposition 1--which is unsettling when the hard questions he asks are ostensibly tied to Proposition 4. Connelly tempts you with social milieu and authenticity, but delivers a kind of freezedried tv dinner of such context.

I could imagine a few other Propositions--re the detective/s, re the villain/s, re tension and suspense. And, lord, with the best of 'em, you gotta talk language--hardboiled patter, the Leonardian deployment of the gerund, Chandler's thick-on-the-ground metaphors, the lush descriptions of Price, and so on.

I bet I could also take Propositions 1, 2, 3, and 4 and deploy them in most any genre, against any fiction... so maybe I'm not saying anything particular about mysteries per se. What novel isn't teasing us with 1 and/or 2? What litfic worth its salt doesn't deploy 3, and aim for 4?