BEING A READER, Crime books

How to like reading about a hero you don’t like – ‘The Goodbye Kiss’ by Massimo Carlotto

Reading Massimo Carlotto’s crime novel The Goodbye Kiss, I was once again reminded how intriguing an unsympathetic main character can be in fiction.

My own novel No-Brainer features a main character some readers find too hard to like. However, I do ascribe to the accepted truism of writing that the reader should care for the main character and preferably like them enough to root for them. I also wrote elsewhere that one of the reasons I don’t like reading books about serial killers is that I don’t want to spend time with sickos.

So why did I enjoy Carlotto’s book so much when the main character is a lying bastard, robber, serial abuser of women and commits a string of murders?

For one thing, he’s not a sicko. He commits these crimes, but unlike the serial killers I detest, he doesn’t derive particular pleasure from doing so. Although he does confess in one place to always having enjoyed murder, that is not the motivation for his actions. He is simply trying to look after number one the best way he knows how. He is callous and cruel, but not sadistic.

The way the book is written, with its incredibly fast pace, is also not indulgent. You never get the feeling that the narrator is enjoying the gore or is hoping that the reader will get kicks from descriptions of violence. The violence happens, matter of factly, and the story moves on.

Massimo Carlotto reminded me of nobody so much as Jim Thompson, whose main characters can also be morally corrupt. Both these authors write lean and mean fiction… and these words are not just chosen because they rhyme. There is a commendable, merciless quality to the writing of both these men.

I read The Goodbye Kiss without as much as a glance at the blurb. I saw the book at a second hand store, liked the look of it and decided to simply open on page one and start reading. It is only afterwards that I read the blurbs and discovered the degree to which Massimo Carlotto’s life story mirrors that of the protagonist in this book. (Presumably the author is not really a murderer, though he did spend five years in prison before his conviction on a murder charge was overturned.)

While Carlotto’s biography can be considered to lend credence to his work, I believe that’s neither here nor there. What you read in the book is the work of someone with a hard-nosed approach that is clearly not put on. (I’m so bored with narrators who pretend to be tough. Isn’t it far more compelling to read stories, especially crime stories, courageous enough to show vulnerability?)

Interestingly, I also recently read two other books where the main character didn’t entirely win my sympathy: John le Carré’s Absolute Friends and James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce.

In Le Carré’s case, the character was a victim of larger forces and should’ve evinced more sympathy. Yet somehow he just never came alive to me, despite all the pages and all the information and everything that was done to him. A spark of life was missing. Brilliant writer though he is, I think Le Carré didn’t quite get this character to come off the page.

The title character of Mildred Pierce was more appealing, at least at first, though her actions made one care about her less as the story progressed. Still, it is a marvellous book and one I can almost not believe has been as successful as it has been. It certainly doesn’t follow the popular pattern. It’s actually an incredibly brave book.

And one cannot consider unsympathetic main characters without a nod to Nabokov, whose works feature a succession of them. In his case, the trick is that you recognise the humanity of these characters. You may not admire them, but you feel you know them and, however begrudgingly, are willing to indulge their weaknesses. And, of course, there’s that Nabokov style to make the reading a pleasure.

Which brings me back to Massimo Carlotto’s book. If the writing is good, then the book is a joy to read. As Oscar Wilde said: “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.”

BEING A READER, Crime books

Jim Thompson’s ‘The Getaway’ shows pulp fiction can be great literature

For much of the 20th Century, being innovative in art was a precondition for recognition, if not sufficient reason in itself. It was certainly the case in visual art. Novels, too, could not escape being judged on their novelty value.

What has come to interest me more than novelty is the possibility of doing something valuable within the canons of well-established art forms.  Can one, for instance, write a book within the constraints of pulp fiction that is also great literature?

In science fiction, the names of Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick spring to mind as authors who may have achieved this. What makes me favour Dick over Lem is that he was never as self-consciously literary as the Polish master. Save for his last few books, Dick always kept the plot moving and the thrills coming while the moral and ethical dramas unfolded.

When one talks of literary crime writing, the name James Sallis tends to come up. While I find this author’s work conceptually appealing, I struggle to like many of the books. I gave up on The Killer is Dying recently because the author refers to various characters as “he” without enough clues as to who “he” is in this chapter, as he uses three or four different focal characters. Maybe that was exactly the point, that the characters were somehow one and the same, but it proved a fatal impediment to my reading pleasure. In the James Sallis books I’ve read, I’ve also failed to discover greatness of intent – the literary ambition seemed to me more technical than profound.

So if I were asked about the greatest literary crime writer, I’d nominate Jim Thompson. While not my favourite crime writer, he has written at least two books in pulp format that transcends the genre beyond any reasonable expectation.

I have written elsewhere that Pop. 1280 gets my vote for greatest pulp crime novel of all. But The Getaway might be an even greater literary achievement. Here is a story about two armed robbers running from the law that goes through a wormhole to emerge as a deeply symbolic, quite surreal, morality tale.

What makes this achievement doubly impressive is that page for page the book reads like pulp fiction – the author never sacrifices entertainment value for the sake of significance.

Doing this – giving readers a profound experience while rewarding them all along with spicy snacks – strikes me as a greater achievement than giving readers a profound experience they feel like they’re working for.

BEING A READER, Crime books

Police procedurals – judging on the evidence

The police procedural, the sub-genre of the crime novel that focuses on the police investigation of crime, has never been high on my agenda. However, on the evidence of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s excellent Martin Beck books, I was compelled to investigate.

Let’s recap the evidence:

I have now read, in short succession, books by three authors whose names I found a Top Ten list of police procedurals. The H.R. Keating, Reginald Hill and James McClure books were all from the early 1970s. Then I also happened upon a mid-1980s book by A.C. Baantjer, who is apparently the most popular Dutch author in this (or any) genre.

I have written about James McClure’s The Steam Pig elsewhere, so will say no more than he is very good by just about any measure, but this book has not dated well and I expect the same will hold true for the other stories in the series.

Reginald Hill’s heroes are Pascoe and Dalziel, a team I have briefly encountered on television before and who have worked their way through 24 books. The one I read, An Advancement of Learning, was the second in the series and plotted as smartly as one would expect. Like most readers, I read to the end to find out who did what and why.

Unlike most, I suspect, I did not find the experience particularly engrossing. The characters never came alive for me and I found the frightfully British setting… Well, if it had really been frightful, at least it would have elicited an emotion. The book has something of that genteel, Agathie Christie mood which I imagine Miss Marple and her peers may like.

Perhaps Reginald Hill honed his craft as he went along, but I’m content to remain ignorant on that score.

A.C. Baantjer’s book Murder by Instalments is the 22nd in a series that ran to 60 books. No wonder then that it’s written in a perfunctory style. It seems that whenever two bits of dialogue need to be separated, inspector DeKok (“with a kay-oh-kay”) rubs his nose. This, incidentally, is a mannerism he shares with Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck, but Beck at least only does it a handful of times per book. In DeKok’s case, his constant quirks never really add up to a character this reader could connect with.

I have a thing for Amsterdam, especially after reading Janwillem van de Wetering’s superior crime novels of the 1970s. But in Baantjer’s book, I didn’t get that same sense of place. This may have something to do with the particular translation though, where the local flavour of actual street names, for instance, is translated. Changing a name such as Keizersgracht to Emperor’s Canal doesn’t do atmosphere any favours.

Though I got hold of all these books at about the same time, the H.R. Keating one had to wait for last. When I saw it was set in India and had a foreword by Alexander McCall-Smith, I correctly assumed the book to be of the quaint and cute variety. Both these factors put me off. The enjoyment of books is a matter of taste, and this is certainly not my preference. I enjoyed the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, but one was enough.

However, once I started reading the H.R. Keating book – one of 26 in the series – I couldn’t help but be impressed by the sheer craftsmanship this author displays. Within two or three pages, he established Inspector Ghote as a likeable, human character and dumped him in an awkward and fascinating situation. Very impressive.

Pity the author left the poor cop floundering there for another 150 pages or so. The plot just turned around in place, lacking forward motion or the texture to make up for the lack of form. The denouement, when it came after so much water treading, didn’t convince, even in a genre where believability isn’t usually at a premium. Inspector Ghote came to a firm realisation as to who the culprit was based on evidence as thin as a silk sari. He was then saved by a massive stroke of luck that provided the necessary evidence just as he confronted the suspect.

These disappointments with four highly successful genre authors just drove home the point that it’s authors and books I tend to like, not whole genres.

I read Philip K. Dick and thought I liked science fiction, but actually… no. I like a number of sci-fi authors and books – Cordwainer Smith, William Gibson and J.G. Ballard come to mind – but not the bulk of the genre, not even many of the authors considered best. I read Sjöwall and Wahlöö as well as K.C. Constantine (who does a particularly off-beat take on the police procedural that is all about the police and nothing about the procedure) and thought I might like the genre. I don’t.

What I like about the authors and books I like is far more individual than that. I must confess: I have a weakness for what you might call “the unusual suspects”.