08 May 2009
by Jeffrey Thomas
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Is a cultural Zeitgeist responsible for the recent spate of offbeat/fantastical detective novels currently out there, or is it simply that detective fiction continues to be a much loved literary tradition but that today’s authors are being challenged to find new approaches to keep the proceedings fresh? We’ve had many a detective involved in fantastical situations before, from William Peter Blatty’s Lieutenant Kinderman (THE EXORCIST, LEGION) to William Hjortsberg’s Harry Angel (FALLEN ANGEL) to Clive Barker’s Harry D’Amour (EVERVILLE, the forthcoming THE SCARLET GOSPELS, etc.) to Liz William’s Detective Inspector Chen (I’m currently reading Chen’s wonderful debut novel SNAKE AGENT), but the novels I’m referring to seem to have a less overt or less typical approach to the fantastic, and tend toward a more self-conscious literary slant. It seems that this brand of detective fiction can even border on the surreal, giving us unreliable narrators and questionable realities; a mix of pulp fiction with high art. Jedediah Berry’s fascinating-sounding (and extremely gorgeous-looking) THE MANUAL OF DETECTION seems to fit this mold, or even typify what appears to be taking place. It might even be argued that Charles Dickens serves the role of obsessed investigator in Dan Simmons’ DROOD. George Mann’s Steampunkish THE AFFINITY BRIDGE follows investigator Sir Maurice Newbury through an alternate London, while Mark Charan Newton’s upcoming, New Weirdish NIGHTS OF VILLJAMUR includes in its cast of characters an investigator looking into a murder case. Jeff VanderMeer’s FINCH (an advance PDF of which I was lucky enough to have recently received) and China Mieville’s THE CITY & THE CITY are the two upcoming books I most look forward to this year, both of them weird detective novels, but already out is Paul Tremblay’s THE LITTLE SLEEP, which – though not in itself fantastical – is being hailed as a quirky modern masterpiece of this new breed of challenging detective fiction. In my next blog entry I’ll be interviewing Paul about this book, but I thought I’d set up the interview first with these few words of thought, by way of introduction. Tremblay’s novel concerns a Boston-based private eye named Mark Genevich, who just happens to suffer from narcolepsy, and thus finds it difficult to distinguish between dream and reality. (I’m reminded of the true case of French police detective Robert Ledru, who in the course of investigating a murder realized that he was himself the culprit, having committed the crime while sleepwalking…and I’m not sure I’d believe that if I had read it in a novel!)
Genevich, while his affliction is unique, is actually part of a long tradition in detective fiction – that of the defective detective, suffering from some physiological or psychological challenge. We don’t even need to mention alcohol abuse, but more radical manifestations would include Jonathan Lethem’s Lionel Essrog (Tourette’s Syndrome, in MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN), A. Lee Martinez’s Mack Megaton (reprogrammed robot, in THE AUTOMATIC DETECTIVE), my own Jeremy Stake (a mutant P.I. with limited control over his morphing ability, in DEADSTOCK and BLUE WAR), and hell, on TV we even had the delusional THE SINGING DETECTIVE (psoriatic arthropathy), James Franciscus as LONGSTREET (blind) and Raymond Burr as the wheelchair-bound IRONSIDE! Does giving a detective a handicap make them vulnerable, more flawed and human, or is it just another way to keep detective stories fresh and original?
A vital factor in just about any form of detective fiction is its sense of place. Not yet having read Tremblay’s novel, I’ll be intrigued to see how its setting of Boston figures into the novel. The setting complements and even impacts the emotional and psychological tone of a detective story, as evidenced by such bizarre examples as John Burdett’s Bangkok-based novels like BANGKOK HAUNTS, Jack O’Connell’s brilliant WORD MADE FLESH (its fictitious Quinsigimond based on Worcester, Massachusetts, which was also the initial inspiration for my own milieu of Punktown), and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, vividly set in Russia (and once in Cuba), the most recent of which – STALIN”S GHOST – gets more unusual than usual as Muscovites begin hallucinating appearances of Stalin, in a worrisome comment on how the infamous butcher’s approval rating has increased in Russia in recent years. I’m certain FINCH and THE CITY & THE CITY will be all about sense of place, a major reason why I so anticipate them.
Well, in the aforementioned interview I will don my own deerstalker hat (or crumpled fedora) to put some of these questions and observations before Paul Tremblay, and find out what prompted him to add his Mark Genevich to this increasingly fascinating line of literary sleuths, in his new novel from Holt Paperbacks, THE LITTLE SLEEP.
One can buy THE LITTLE SLEEP here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0805088490/?tag=jeffreythomas-20