Thursday, April 24, 2008

Intersections: Gothic, Crime Fiction, Noir... and Louise Welsh

Uh, I'm back (with something useful to say, but this post starts off a little pendantically, so please bear with me)... Crime fiction finds some of its roots in the tradition of the gothic novel, and the two variously converge and diverge. Poe wrote in a gothic vein and also invented the detective story, more or less. The earliest gothic novels presented mysteries in need of solution -- by rational or supernatural explanation. I'm not sure how this intertwining (or the awareness of it) impacts writers or readers. Some writers today, I think, understand clearly that they are mining overlapping genres; others probably don't think in these terms -- and it doesn't matter. For instance, a serial killer's lair might as well be the dungeon hidden below the castle in a gothic novel. Some gothic novels and crime novels also share similar atmospherics. The grim, foreboding, fated atmosphere of crime novels appropriately labeled "noir" seems a trace of the gothic tradition as well.

And so what? Some readers -- myself included -- enjoy certain gothic effects in their crime fiction. Other readers apparently do not. I recently read Louise Welsh's The Bullet Trick. A while back, I read her debut novel, The Cutting Room. Both books are quite compelling, sordid, and always supported by strong prose. They are crime novels with amateur detectives of sorts (a conjurer in Bullet Trick and an antiques man in Cutting Room), police, and mysteries to be solved. Welsh also mines the gothic tradition -- hidden rooms, props, catacombs of a sort beneath a used bookstore, and so on. Some of the emotional drama too seems gothic, as opposed to the cool understated emotion in some crime fiction. All of these elements work well together in Welsh's hands. I am curious though about Welsh's commercial success, particularly in the U.S. (She is a Scottish writer.) I think I happened on her first book because it won a UK award, but I hadn't heard any word of mouth. It might be that her books are victims to quirks in marketing; sadly, it could be that the dual elements of crime and gothic (in a realistic mode), which give her books their strength and originality (in part), also keep the books from finding some readers. It could be that they are not mysterious enough for some readers, not horrific enough for others, and too seedy for yet others.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Blogger's Block... and Then Some Blood

Okay, so I figured that I had blogged hard enough -- something astronomical like ten posts in five months -- so I took six weeks off. Two truths: (1) busy, busy, busy with client work, and traveling too; (2) an attack of anomie. I wish I could say that I have been busy with creative work (substantial or otherwise), but I can't make that claim.

To fulfill my (until now unstated) promise not to write a totally wallowing blog (partial wallowing is apparently okay), I will say something on said-blog topic of crime fiction and film (and I have something to say as well about book criticism more generally, but it will take me several months to wind up to it). Anyway, I finally saw There Will Be Blood on the big screen. I have a few quibbles, but as someone who is quite critical (curmudgeonly even), I should say plainly that this film is substantial and riveting -- the best movie I've seen since The Lives of Others (for which I felt more spectator than participant since it's German, whereas Blood is boldly a slice of the U.S.A.). Blood isn't a genre film, though it is rife with crime. It is bleak and stirring and seems squarely aimed at capturing some dark (empty) heart of the American spirit. I liked No Country for Old Men a lot (see previous post), but Blood makes No Country seem like a lark.