Jim Thompson is the perfect novelist for our crazed times


Susanna Lee, Georgetown University

Crime fiction often thrives in periods of social and political tension, when readers long for both justice and stability. So it’s no wonder that as the pandemic took root, crime fiction sales rose.

As I explain in my new book, “Detectives in the Shadows,” many of the protagonists of hard-boiled crime fiction, from Philip Marlowe to Jessica Jones, are models of moral authority, humility and empathy.

Doggedly pursuing justice, they defend those in distress, earning little for their efforts.

In 1945, novelist Raymond Chandler famously defined the hard-boiled hero as “a man … who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.”

These were reassuring characters who served as models of competent leadership and ideal authority figures. But it didn’t exactly paint the full American picture. In truth, no matter how many Marlowes or Joneses came to the rescue, signs of America’s deranged underbelly were always lurking just beneath the surface.

One crime author, the singularly harrowing Jim Thompson, gave this unique brand of American craziness center stage.

Unreliable, deceptive and sadistic

Author of more than 20 novels including “The Killer Inside Me,” “Pop. 1280” and “The Grifters,” Thompson created a sinister army of corrupt police, cunning con-artists and psychopathic murderers.

“The Killer Inside Me,” published in 1952, is his best-known novel. Its narrator is Lou Ford, a 29-year-old Texas sheriff who pretends to be a bland and boring rube but ends up committing every murder in the novel.

Unlike classic hard-boiled characters who understate their own misfortunes but have compassion for others, Ford exults when others suffer. He claims spiritual authority and a superior intellect but displays an “aw-shucks” helplessness to seem innocent.

Unreliable as a narrator, he talks in populist clichés – saying things like “haste makes waste” and “every cloud has a silver lining!” – while confiding in the reader that he “should have been a college professor or something like that.” He sometimes references his “sickness,” hinting he is schizophrenic, but he shows no signs of psychosis – only psychopathy.

Most of all, he consistently and calculatingly shirks responsibility, making sure others take the fall for his misdeeds. When a man witnesses him brutalize a town prostitute, he bullies that witness before murdering and framing him.

“Don’t you say I killed her,” he warns the terrified witness. “SHE KILLED HERSELF!”

The gaslit 1950s

The novel arrived at a period in American history that was rife with demagoguery, paranoia and manipulation.

In 1950, the National Security Council paper NSC 68 advised a massive buildup of military power in response to the threat of the Soviet Union. The report remarked that “a democracy can compensate for its natural vulnerability only if it maintains clearly superior overall power in its most inclusive sense,” and warns against our “tendency to expect too much from people widely divergent from us.” It would soon become apparent that retaining power – and a readiness to mistrust those deemed too different – were becoming fundamental to the country’s foreign policy.

Condemning others while behaving badly seemed to be a specialty of the early 1950s. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade was ruining lives with sensational and unsubstantiated allegations. In 1951, McCarthy accused former Secretary of State Gen. George Marshall of a “conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man,” arguing that his Marshall Plan was helping and appeasing the country’s enemies.

It’s no wonder that American novelist Norman Mailer called the 1950s “years of conformity and depression,” while “Homeward Bound” author Elaine Tyler May described the decade as one of “containment,” with fearful insularity as characteristic of American society as it was of foreign policy.

When Jim Thompson published “The Killer Inside Me,” Lion Books nominated it for the National Book Award, calling it “the most authentically original novel of the year.” An editor at the New American Library found in his books “the passions of men and women revealed in their naked, primeval fury.” Thompson’s characters, from the gloating gaslighter Lou Ford to the messianic delusionist Nick Corey, echoed the paranoid thoughts, delusions and deceptions already patent in 1950s politics.

The writer’s fiction dismantles point-by-point the classical hard-boiled heroes whose word was good and whose ethics were reliable. Its real bleakness comes from the vacuum that replaces any sense of accountability, empathy or reliability.

His novels are chilling precisely because they smash the beloved American illusion that with rugged individualism comes rugged integrity.

Echoes today

“The Killer Inside Me” is a testament to moral accountability exultantly shredded, and its resonance today is uncanny.

America has long embraced the figure of the unhinged or explosive person in entertainment, advertising, sports and politics.

But today’s craziness has reached another level. From Walmart to the White House, Americans are claiming to be both completely righteous and entirely blameless.

Whether it’s the Florida man advancing on fellow Costco shoppers, bellowing “I feel threatened!” the New Jersey woman trying to have innocent neighbors arrested for building a patio on their own property, or the president insisting that he takes no responsibility as over 150,000 Americans die of COVID-19, our current moment is the nightmarish version of society that Thompson envisioned.

As Stephen King famously wrote in the introduction to a 2011 edition of Killer, “In Lou Ford, Jim Thompson drew for the first time a picture of the Great American Sociopath.”

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In a sense, the conduct is not new, even if it now readily goes viral on social media. Men have long complained of blamelessness while harming women, and whites of both sexes have simulated fear while attacking people of color. The wealthy have long encouraged the poor to take personal responsibility for privations they themselves caused. Individuals historically most called to account are curiously those who have the least to answer for.

Those in power readily pass the buck, even managing to seem innocent or misguided. The contrived specter of helplessness – combined with claims of absolute conviction – create chaos and dissolve accountability. That Thompson did all this in a book famous for its bleakly sociopathic vision testifies to the insanity and abusiveness that surround us.

A torrent of lies and injustice has demoralized Americans much as it dejected Ford’s victims. To me, we are living in Thompson’s world and can only dream of such fundamentals as honesty, empathy and accountability.The Conversation

Susanna Lee, Professor of French and Comparative Literature, Georgetown University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Five must-read novels on the environment and climate crisis



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Ti-han Chang, University of Central Lancashire

Since the start of lockdown, more of us have taken to our bicycles, grown our own vegetables and baked our own bread. So it’s not surprising it has been suggested we should use this experience to rethink our approach to the climate crisis.

Reading some environmental literature – sometimes called “eco-literature” – can also give us the opportunity to think about the world around us in different ways.

Eco-literature, has a long literary tradition that dates back to the writings of 19th-century English romantic poets and US authors. And the growing awareness of climate change has accelerated the development of environmental writings.

Animal’s People

by Indra Sinha

Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, looks at the Bhopal gas explosion in India – one of the most horrific environmental disasters of the 20th-century. A poisonous gas leak from a US-owned pesticide plant killed several thousand people and injured more than half a million.

The main character in the novel, Animal, is a 19-year-old orphaned boy who survives the explosion with a deformed body. This means he must “crawl like a dog on all fours”. Animal does not hate his body, but embraces his animistic identity – offering an unconventional non-human perspective.

With this wounded “human-animal” figure, Sinha puts forward his critique of India’s postcolonial conditions and demonstrates how Western capitalist domination continues to damage people and the environment in contemporary postcolonial society.

My Year of Meats

by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki’s novel intermingles themes such as motherhood, environmental justice and ecological practice to explore the appalling use of growth hormones in the US meat industry from a feminist ecocritical perspective.

The novel employs a “documentary” narrative mode and begins with a TV cooking show – sponsored by a meat company. While filming the show, Jane Takagi-Little, the director, encounters a vegetarian lesbian couple who reveal the ugly truth about the use of growth hormones within the livestock industry. The encounter motivates Jane to undertake a documentary project to uncover how growth hormones poison women’s bodies.




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Through a deliberate choice to make all her main characters female, Ozeki draws her readers’ attention to nonconforming, atypical female figures who rebel against social or cultural norms inherent in patriarchal capitalist society.

Disgrace

by J.M. Coetzee

In Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee, a celebrated Noble Prize laureate, who is also known for his outspoken defence of animal rights, interweaves a brutal dog-killing scene with the gang-rape of a white South African woman by three black men.

Praised as one of the South African postcolonial canons, the novel explores complex issues of white supremacy and anticolonial resistance as well as racial and gender violence. It ties these issues with humans’ domination and exploitation of the animals and further challenges our ethical position.

The combination of these two acts – the killing of dogs and the rape of a woman – can be read as Coetzee’s ecocritique of the colonial violence against nonhuman beings and the natural environment.

The Man with the Compound Eyes

by Wu Ming-yi

Climate fiction or the so-called “cli-fi” takes on genuine scientific discovery or phenomenon and combines this with a dystopian or over the top twist. This approach underlines the agency of non-human beings, environments or even phenomena – such as trees, the ocean, or a tsunami.




Read more:
Imagining both utopian and dystopian climate futures is crucial – which is why cli-fi is so important


Wu Ming-yi’s novel is composed of four different narratives: a Taiwanese university professor, a boy from the mythical Wayo Wayo island and two other city-dwelling indigenous characters. Their stories are viewed in fragments from the multiple perspectives of the “compound eyes”. At the backdrop is a tsunami which causes the Great Pacific garbage patch to crash on to the eastern coast of Taiwan and the fictionalised Pacific island of Wayo Wayo that brings together all their stories.

Wu blends this unrealistic event with the real-life trash vortex to draw our attention to the severe environmental problems of waste dumping and our unsustainable lifestyles.

The Overstory

by Richard Powers

The Overstory is praised by critics for its ambition to bring awareness to the life of trees and its advocacy to an ecocentric way of life. Powers’ novel sets out with nine distinctive characters – which represent the “roots” of trees. Gradually their stories and lives intertwine to form the “trunk”, the “crown” and the “seeds”.

One of the characters, Dr Patricia Westerford, publishes a paper showing trees are social beings because they can communicate and warn each other when a foreign intrusion occurs. Her idea, though presented as controversial in the novel, is actually well supported by today’s scientific studies.

Despite her groundbreaking work, Dr Westerford ends up taking her own life by drinking poisonous tree extracts at a conference – to make it clear humans can only save trees and the planet by ceasing to exist.

These are just a few books with a specific focus on environmental issues – perfect for your current reading list. To everyone’s surprise, this global lockdown has given us some eco-benefits, such as a sudden dip in carbon emissions and the huge decline in our reliance on traditional fossil fuel energy. Maybe then if we can learn from this experience we can move towards a greener future.The Conversation

Ti-han Chang, Lecturer in Asia-Pacific Studies, University of Central Lancashire

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The kids are alright: young adult post-disaster novels can teach us about trauma and survival



Tomorrow, When the War Began (2010).
AAP/Paramount Pictures

Troy Potter, University of Melbourne

COVID-19 is changing the way we live. Panic buying, goods shortages, lockdown – these are new experiences for most of us. But it’s standard fare for the protagonists of young adult (YA) post-disaster novels.


Text Publishing

In Davina Bell’s latest book, The End of the World Is Bigger than Love (2020), a global pandemic, cyberterrorism and climate change are interrelated disasters that have destroyed the world as we know it.

Like most post-disaster novels, the book is more concerned with how we survive rather than understanding the causes of disaster. As such, we can read it to explore our fears, human responses to disaster and our capacity to adapt.

The day after

Kelly Devos’s Day Zero (2019), and the soon to be released Day One (2020), use cyberterrorism as the disaster. Like Bell’s novel, Day Zero focuses more on how the protagonist, Jinx, maintains her humanity when she must harm or kill others in order to keep herself and her siblings alive.

The cause of catastrophe is sometimes obscured in YA post-disaster fiction.
Natalya Letunova/Unsplash, CC BY

A form of speculative fiction, YA post-disaster writing imaginatively explores causes and responses to apocalyptic disasters. (Some readers categorise YA juggernaut The Hunger Games – and the recently released prequel – as dystopian rather than post-disaster – others think it’s both.)

Many YA novels in this genre explore issues of survival and humanity following a catastrophe. In YA post-disaster novels, teenage protagonists must learn to exist in a fractured world with little support from elders.

When they are explained, the fictional causes of catastrophe can illustrate social concerns of times they were written in. Because of this, YA post-disaster books allow us to reflect on our current beliefs, attitudes and fears.


Goodreads

Davos’s Day Zero can be read as commenting on contemporary concerns about cyberterrorism and political corruption. Bell’s The End of the World Is Bigger than Love expresses similar anxieties, but is also prescient given the current pandemic.

War is the cause of disaster in Glenda Millard’s A Small Free Kiss in the Dark (2009) and John Marsden’s Tomorrow series. While Millard’s novel raises questions about homelessness, Marsden’s series expresses an anxiety about invasion from Asia. The author has expressed regret about this aspect of the books since their publication.

A latent xenophobia is also present in Claire Zorn’s, The Sky So Heavy (2013), in part because the nuclear disasters are attributed to “regions in the north of Asia”. Passive ideologies of racism that pervade some YA post-disaster novels are problematic, as are other underlying ideals that promote any form of discrimination.




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Us against the world

Literary texts that reinforce fear about Asia, particularly China, are especially problematic in the context of coronavirus, which reportedly saw an increase in racist attacks.

Panic buying and the stockpiling of goods during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak established an “us against them” dichotomy in our “struggle to survive”, reminiscent of YA post-disaster fiction.

Not everyone hoarded food and items for themselves though. Others showed compassion, donating toilet paper and food to those in need. Because of this, we were confronted with questions about how we want to survive.

YA post-disaster novels allow us to explore similar questions of humanity. In these fictional worlds, teenage characters are faced with moral dilemmas about who to help and who to harm. How does someone look out for themselves while still expressing empathy and consideration for others? How can characters maintain their humanity if their survival means another’s suffering or death?

Speculative fiction can help us think about our responses to disaster. Will it bring out our best – or our worst?
Andrew Amistad/Unsplash, CC BY

Who to save

Tied up with the question about how we survive, then, is who survives. The protagonist, Jinx, in Day Zero is continually faced with this dilemma. As she flees the corrupt government, Jinx must decide who to help, and how.

While Jinx readily uses violence to overcome her aggressors, she eventually must shoot to kill to save her stepsister. Doing so, Jinx loses a part of herself and becomes “something else”; she must now reconcile her actions with her sense of self.




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It’s not so far from the choices medical professionals in Italy, the United States and elsewhere have had to make about who to treat due to limited ventilators and a rapid influx of patients.

No matter the cause of catastrophe, the literary exploration of questions of survival provides opportunities for teenagers, parents and teachers to discuss a range of contemporary issues, including humane responses to disaster.

Given the current crisis we are in, perhaps it is time to critically read more YA post-disaster novels. If they hold up a mirror to our current attitudes and behaviours, they can help us reflect on our humanity, and on what and who we think matters.The Conversation

Troy Potter, Lecturer, The University of Melbourne, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Missing your friends? Rereading Harry Potter might be the next best thing



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Elaine Reese, University of Otago

Humans are innately social creatures. But as we stay home to limit the spread of COVID-19, video calls only go so far to satisfy our need for connection.

The good news is the relationships we have with fictional characters from books, TV shows, movies, and video games – called parasocial relationships – serve many of the same functions as our friendships with real people, without the infection risks.




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Time spent in fictional worlds

Some of us already spend vast swathes of time with our heads in fictional worlds.

Psychologist and novelist Jennifer Lynn Barnes estimated that across the globe, people have collectively spent 235,000 years engaging with Harry Potter books and movies alone. And that was a conservative estimate, based on a reading speed of three hours per book and no rereading of books or rewatching of movies.

This human predilection for becoming attached to fictional characters is lifelong, or at least from the time toddlers begin to engage in pretend play. About half of all children create an imaginary friend (think comic strip Calvin’s tiger pal Hobbes).

Preschool children often form attachments to media characters and believe these parasocial friendships are reciprocal — asserting that the character (even an animated one) can hear what they say and know what they feel.

Younger children form easy relationships with fictional heroes.
Photo by Josh Applegate/Unsplash, CC BY

Older children and adults, of course, know that book and TV characters do not actually exist. But our knowledge of that reality doesn’t stop us from feeling these relationships are real, or that they could be reciprocal.

When we finish a beloved book or television series and continue to think about what the characters will do next, or what they could have done differently, we are having a parasocial interaction. Often, we entertain these thoughts and feelings to cope with the sadness — even grief — that we feel at the end of a book or series.

The still lively Game of Thrones discussion threads or social media reaction to the death of Patrick on Offspring a few years back show many people experience this.

Some people sustain these relationships by writing new adventures in the form of fan fiction for their favourite characters after a popular series has ended. Not surprisingly, Harry Potter is one of the most popular fanfic topics. And steamy blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey began as fan fiction for the Twilight series.

As good as the real thing?

So, imaginary friendships are common even among adults. But are they good for us? Or are they a sign we’re losing our grip on reality?

The evidence so far shows these imaginary friendships are a sign of well-being, not dysfunction, and that they can be good for us in many of the same ways that real friendships are good for us. Young children with imaginary friends show more creativity in their storytelling, and higher levels of empathy compared to children without imaginary friends. Older children who create whole imaginary worlds (called paracosms) are more creative in dealing with social situations, and may be better problem-solvers when faced with a stressful event.

As adults, we can turn to parasocial relationships with fictional characters to feel less lonely and boost our mood when we’re feeling low.

As a bonus, reading fiction, watching high-quality television shows, and playing pro-social video games have all been shown to boost empathy and may decrease prejudice.

Collectively, humans have spent more than an estimated 200,000 years in the world of Harry Potter. And that’s not counting rereading or rewatching.
Chekyravaa/Shutterstock

Get by with a little help

We need our fictional friends more than ever right now as we endure weeks in isolation. When we do venture outside for a walk or to go the supermarket and someone avoids us, it feels like social rejection, even though we know physical distancing is recommended. Engaging with familiar TV or book characters is one way to rejuvenate our sense of connection.

Plus, parasocial relationships are enjoyable and, as American literature professor Patricia Meyer Spacks noted in On Rereading, revisiting fictional friends might tell us more about ourselves than the book.

So cuddle up on the couch in your comfiest clothes and devote some time to your fictional friendships. Reread an old favourite – even one from your childhood. Revisiting a familiar fictional world creates a sense of nostalgia, which is another way to feel less lonely and bored.




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Take turns reading the Harry Potter series aloud with your family or housemates, or watch a TV series together and bond over which characters you love the most. (I recommend Gilmore Girls for all mothers marooned with teenage daughters.)

Fostering fictional friendships together can strengthen real-life relationships. So as we stay home and save lives, we can be cementing the familial and parasocial relationships that will shape us – and our children – for life.The Conversation

Elaine Reese, Professor of Psychology, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Apocalyptic fiction helps us deal with the anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic



Dystopic science fiction provides a reference points for our anxieties during a time of global change.
(Shutterstock)

Katherine Shwetz, University of Toronto

Masked people standing six feet apart. Empty shelves in the supermarket. No children in sight outside the school during recess.

The social upheaval caused by COVID-19 evokes many popular dystopian or post-apocalyptic books and movies. Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 crisis has sent many people rushing to fiction about contagious diseases. Books and movies about pandemics have spiked in popularity over the past few weeks: stuck at home self-isolating, many people are picking up novels such as Stephen King’s The Stand or streaming movies such as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.

The 2011 movie Contagion looks at the spread of a deadly virus.

Yet no one seems to fully agree on why reading books or watching movies about apocalyptic pandemics feels appealing during a real crisis with an actual contagious disease. Some readers claim that contagion fiction provides comfort, but others argue the opposite. Still more aren’t totally sure why they these narratives feel so compelling. Regardless, stories about pandemics call to them all the same.

So what, exactly, does pandemic fiction offer readers? My doctoral research on contagious disease in literature, a project that has required me to draw from both literary studies and health humanities, has taught me that a contagious disease is always both a medical and a narrative event.

Art reflects life

Pandemics scare us partly because they transform other, less concrete, fears about globalization, cultural change, and community identity into tangible threats. Representations of contagious diseases allow authors and readers the opportunity to explore the non-medical dimensions of the fears associated with contagious disease.

Pandemic fiction does not offer readers a prophetic look into the future, regardless of what some may think. Instead, narratives about contagious disease hold up a mirror to our deepest, most inchoate fears about our present moment and explore different possible responses to those fears.

Station Eleven

‘Station 11’ is set in Toronto, Ont., and looks at what happens to human relationships as a pandemic threatens civilization.
Harper Collins

One novel that has grown in popularity over the past few weeks is been Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Mandel’s novel follows a troupe of Shakespearean actors touring a post-apocalyptic landscape in a North America decimated by contagious disease.

Mandel’s novel serves as a test case for understanding the cultural response to COVID-19. The current pandemic sharpens fears about the relative instability of our communities (along with posing an immediate threat to our health, of course).

Coverage of Station Eleven claims that the text is uniquely relevant to the COVID-19 situation. This response treats Mandel’s novel as through it predicts what will happen as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Some news outlets even call the novel a “model for how we could respond” to an apocalyptic pandemic.

This is not the case. Station Eleven draws from apocalyptic literature, a narrative form that tells us more about the present than the future. Mandel herself has called Station Eleven more “a love letter to the world we find ourselves in” than a handbook for a post-apocalyptic future Indeed, Mandel herself publicly suggested that her novel is not ideal reading material for the present moment.

In fact, Station Eleven spends almost no time focused on the actual epidemic. The vast majority of the novel takes place before and after the outbreak. The medical details of the disease are less important than the rhetorical impact of the destructive virus.

Those fears in Station Eleven coalesce in scenes where communities must shift how they understand their relationship to one another. Characters stranded in an airport hangar, for example, must work together to build a new society that accommodates their shared traumatic experience. The pandemic in Mandel’s novel dramatically emphasizes to the characters not how to respond to a virus but, instead, how powerfully interconnected they truly are — the same thing COVID-19 is doing to us right now. Part of what pandemic fiction illuminates is how fears of invasion and the perceived threat of outsiders can diminish our humanity.

Fear of outsiders

A virus crosses the boundary of your body, invading your very cells and changing your body on an incredibly intimate level.

It is unsurprising, then, that scholars see a strong relationship between contagious diseases and community identity. As anthropologist Priscilla Wald puts it, contagious disease “articulates community.” Pandemics emphasize how our individual bodies are connected to our collective body.

Left unchecked, the rhetorical implications of these narratives can lead to discriminatory behaviour or racism.

In Station Eleven, the villain — a cult leader prophet — continually denies his fundamental connection to those around him. He claims that he and his followers survived the epidemic because of their divine goodness and not because of luck. As a result, he engages in violent, abusive behaviours intended to quash the fear associated with interdependence — a common response to this fear.

The prophet in Station Eleven does not survive the novel; the surviving characters are the ones who accept that they cannot extricate themselves from connection to other people.

Contagious diseases — both in fiction and in real life — remind us that the social and cultural boundaries we use to structure society are fragile and porous, not stable and impermeable.

Although these works of literature cannot prophecize an imminent post-apocalyptic future, they can speak to our present.

So if reading a book about a pandemic appeals to you, go for it — but don’t use it as an instructional manual for an outbreak. Instead, that work of fiction can help you better understand and manage how the virus amplifies complex, diverse and multi-faceted fears about change in our communities and our world.The Conversation

Katherine Shwetz, PhD Candidate and Course Instructor, University of Toronto

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From Christie to Chandler and beyond – five detective novels to investigate during lockdown



Hard-boiled detective: Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye (1973).
Allstar/Cinetext/MGM

James Peacock, Keele University

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that humans are connected, and that an individual’s actions can have profound consequences for the local community, the nation, and beyond. A good detective story, whether it takes place within an English country house or travels across international borders, reminds readers of this fundamental truth.

Detectives might be charming, eccentric amateurs like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, for example – or tough, world-weary professionals such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Ian Rankin’s John Rebus.

But in both country-house and hard-boiled traditions their function is similar. They link disparate individuals and communities as they reconstruct events, and raise the possibility that, whoever pulled the trigger or administered the poison, we all share some responsibility for allowing such things to happen.

The selection below, I hope, reflects the genre’s diversity. What connects these books, for all their stylistic variety, is a preoccupation with links between people and communities and a desire to explore the implications of every action, deliberate or accidental.

Metta Fuller Victor: The Dead Letter (1866)

The first full-length detective novel in American literature, The Dead Letter, published under the pen-name Seeley Register, is a curious hybrid. Featuring a country house that might be haunted, a clairvoyant child who – conveniently – is the detective’s daughter, and scenes of deathly pale women wandering moonlit gardens, mourning lost lovers, it shows how 19th-century detectives emerged from Gothic literature.

First American detective novel.
Amazon

It is also a sentimental love story and a meditation on the corrupting power of money.

Like the Edgar Allan Poe stories which influenced it, and the Sherlock Holmes tales that followed, its narrator is not the detective, but the detective’s friend who – like the reader – is inclined to romanticise the sleuth’s heightened abilities.

The Dead Letter can be florid and outlandish, but it combines its eclectic elements to highly entertaining effect.

Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye (1953)

Philip Marlowe, the hero of seven novels and numerous short stories by Raymond Chandler, is tall, handsome, witty and admirably cynical about the effects of wealth. I’d love to recommend all the Marlowe stories and, given that its author intended it to be the last, The Long Goodbye might seem an idiosyncratic choice.

Pulp fiction (cover art by Harvey Kidder).
admiral.ironbombs via Flickr, CC BY-SA

Stranger still, its pleasures are less to do with the detective thriller’s traditional virtues – intricate plotting, dynamic action – and more with the air of nostalgic melancholia Chandler conjures. There are murders, of course, and there is the vivid evocation of Los Angeles in its grubby splendour. There is also Marlowe’s trademark gift for metaphor: at the beginning, watching two people arguing outside a club, he remarks:

The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back.

But the novel’s heart is the unlikely friendship between Marlowe and Terry Lennox, a rich, dipsomaniac veteran locked in a loveless marriage, emotionally scarred by his combat experiences. As its title suggests, this epic and heartbreaking novel is about goodbyes: to innocence, to friendship, to the conventions of the detective story, and to an America untainted by consumerism.

Agatha Christie: Cat Among the Pigeons (1959)

Christie remains the pre-eminent writer of the “whodunit”. Her sheer prolificacy masks the fact that she is a consistently innovative plotter, unafraid to experiment with point-of-view in sometimes radical ways. She also produces stories that are dark, disturbing, and morally ambiguous – characteristics highlighted in recent adaptations such as the BBC’s version of The Pale Horse.

Mallory Towers with added murder.
AgathaChristie.com

Though not among her most celebrated novels, Cat Among the Pigeons delightfully combines international espionage and country house mystery, with the “country house” being a prestigious girls’ prep school in England where members of staff start dying in suspicious circumstances.

Ingenious and laced with cruelty, it might be read as a story about Great Britain’s declining empire, or the fragile isolation of the upper classes, or it might simply be read as Mallory Towers with added murder.

Paul Auster: The New York Trilogy (1987)

This comprises three distinctive tales: City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room, that conspire to connect in surprising ways. Often regarded as a model of “antidetection”, Auster’s trilogy frequently confounds expectations, promising stock elements of the hard-boiled story – the enigmatic loner gumshoe, the femme fatale, the dirty city – before jettisoning the cliches and exploring new territory.

Elaborate puzzles.
Amazon

Auster’s New York is a labyrinth ruled by chance, where one’s doppelganger can appear for no reason, where a man can devote his life to collecting and renaming bits of rubbish, and where “Paul Auster” can appear as a character. These are elaborate puzzles yet highly readable thrillers.

They are perfect stories for lockdown because they are about the consolations of reading and the paradoxical truth that the deeper into solitude we go, the more we understand our vital connection to others.

Walter Mosley: Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)

This is the first thriller starring Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, an African-American factory worker in the Watts area of Los Angeles, who falls into detection when a stranger enters his local bar and offers him a missing persons job. Mosley’s work exemplifies the ways in which detective stories, tightly bound to specific places and times, function not only as entertainment but also as historical documents.

Realistic and wry account of race relations.
Amazon

Devil in a Blue Dress, through energetic vernacular dialogue, realistic situations and wry observations on race relations, brilliantly evokes the lives of African-American families who moved from the southern states to California during the Second Great Migration.

More than the talented amateurs of the country house mystery, who possess a timeless quality and whose successful investigations tend to reinstate cosy normality – and Marlowe, a 20th-century knight errant with a nostalgic impulse – Easy Rawlins demonstrates that detectives are shaped by historical circumstances. He also happens to have one of the most captivatingly unstable sidekicks in all detective writing.

Detectives are people who move, tracing links between people, places and times. They are also expert readers: of clues, people, situations. During lockdown, these stories can transport us elsewhere and remind us that reading is an empathetic act, a way of reaching out and trying to connect with others.The Conversation

James Peacock, Senior Lecturer in English and American Literatures, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.