My mother loved crime novels, but they had to be nice crime novels, with nice people in them. This was a surprisingly easy restriction to overcome—there was that nice Father Brown and that nice Lord Peter and platoons of spunky old ladies who tripped up evil-doers with their umbrellas (and I use the word ladies’ advisedly, as Evelyn would have wished). She was pushing the envelope a bit with Donald Westlake, since there are no nice detectives in his books, which detail the humorous exploits of a band of working-class criminals, not perhaps hopelessly inept but not awesomely ept either.
Still, they are a likable bunch, especially their leader, John Dortmunder, a thief whose dogged persistence in his schemes is matched by a deep faith in his own bad luck. This last probably explains his aversion to weapons, since he suspects that anything he threatens others with will most likely end up being turned on him.
The Dortmunder books some clever plotting and a certain amount of slapstick (for which Evelyn was a sucker), but to me their most distinctive feature is the way Westlake takes the noir tradition of the simile and drives it off the road. Here are a few instances that happen to have stuck in my memory—I’m sure there are many others just as good:
Dortmunder left his sandwich lying there like a patient etherized upon a table and went to answer the phone.
The late-afternoon sun glared down along the side streets like a dormitory proctor.
He drew his dignity about him like a feather boa and walked off.
[Wally muses about the way that humans have trouble believing in coincidences because we are programmed to find pattern and order in everything.] That is why puns are the pornography of mathematicians.
Sometimes Dortmunder and the boys can seem rather stylized (or perhaps that just comes from being New Yorkers), but I am relieved not to be told what brand of beer he drinks, where he buys (or steals, I guess) his clothes, and what music he listens to. Tokens of culture are a great way to place characters, or satirize them, as when Tana French’s hip Dublin cop goes into a funk and listens to too much Radiohead, but so often in genre fiction these tokens feel more like product placement, an invitation to fantasies of identity or consumption. The images so constructed can be amusing; PD James’ Adam Dalgleish represents, I think, her idea of a contemporary man of culture, but his tastes suggest a graduate of an Oxbridge women’s college, Class of 1937 or so (have you read the latest TS Eliot?).
Most often I just find myself alienated from the character I’m supposed to be identifying with. Apparently there are plenty of readers out there who are dying to know exactly what Spencer orders at Anthony’s Pier 4 or which bra Sookie Stackhouse wears when she wants to turn on her werewolf friend…that’s kind of depressing, isn’t it? Sometimes I feel sorry for the character who has to bear the cultural burden. Think of all those hard-boiled detectives who have to relax by listening to some approved jazz, when you know that all Harry Bosch (say) wants is to put on his old Hootie and the Blowfish or Journey records. Well, as Ron Burgundy says, the jazz flute has always been my passion.
Even tastes that one shares can lose their savor in an atmosphere of fauxitude and branding. I recently started a near-future detective story by Paul McAuley and was already feeling a bit worn down by the hero’s Byronically tormented manliness when he ducked into a pub to meet a mate and discuss the universal power of Robert Johnson. Now the blues in general have a certain status as something people (especially guys) feel they are supposed to like, and the old country blues most of all, and for some reason Robert Johnson, more than Mississippi John Hurt (my own fave of the genre) or Blind Willie McTell or Son House. So though I recognize Johnson’s power, which is very un-universal and based on an aesthetic alien to most of us, I suspect that this scene has less to do with wailing vocals and high-stress picking than with the need to establish ‘I may be British but Manly, yes, but I like it too” street cred. Not really a game worth playing.
It would be fun to see some detectives with genuinely interesting musical taste. For example, a certain person I know is fond of Thomas Tallis’ lush Renaissance choral music, Bach organ fugues, Joni Mitchell, Akon, and Ke$ha. Or how about a detective who tries to infect everyone with her passion for Hanson? Would be cute.
PS: Here’s Johnson’s “Crossroads::