Friday, March 2, 2012

Crime and Realism in Fiction

Novels are fictional worlds that reflect our own, sometimes quite directly and sometimes quite abstractly. Crime novels usually lean to toward the direct end of the spectrum, to realism, but many of them are actually fairly artificial constructs. Many only loosely follow how real crime investigations play out, and even those that do closely follow real procedures are often clearly artificial constructs. That is, their storyness comes before their realism. Everything has been formatted. Opening hook, conflict, obstacles, rising action, climax, denouement.

Which is normal enough, as this is how the human brain works; it organizes, formats, and finds patterns in things, shaping them so that they can be more easily remembered and understood. But there are stories that attempt to strip some of this storyness away and deepen the realism. And it just so happens that I've read a couple recently, and my reaction to each is a little different.

The Day of the Owl

The Man on the Balcony

The Day of the Owl, by Leonardo Sciascia, is a short Sicilian crime novel, but not of the Americanized "Mafioso" type. It's a spare, lilting novel of a sudden murder in an open square and an investigator's attempt to discover what happened. This, perhaps, doesn't sound so strange, but the book's uniqueness lies in the paths not taken; that is, in the cliches and familiar patterns it avoids. The story floats through odd turns and the conclusion is sudden and strange and goes entirely against the conventions of storyness. And yet, even as I admire this choice, and appreciate the value of its dark oddness, the very fact of its story defiance is both solution and problem. Its defiance of storyness imparts some of the meaning to the story, and yet it is still a story, and this defiance makes it, as a story, somewhat unsatisfying. It is interesting and admirable, and yet distancing in terms of reader fulfillment, leaving me somewhat ambivalent about the novel.

The Man on the Balcony, by the husband and wife team of Sjowall and Wahloo, also looks a little askew at storyness and at crime story conventions, but somehow they find a unity between story and not-story. Their novels are a sort of brilliant conundrum to me: how do they write novels that are as much about the periods of wiating within an investigation as about the investigation itself, and yet still maintain pace? How do these insterstitial moments actually increase the pace and tension? A man is seen standing on a balcony and is reported to the police, for no apparent reason. And small girls are being murdered. Could there, somehow, be a connection? This book, too, ends oddly, declining to follow convention, and yet somehow it's satisfying, it fits within the flow and pattern of the novel itself, part of both the story and the not-story.

This, I guess, is one of the tight ropes that crime writers must walk: what is realism? or what, at least, is realism in the fictional world they've created?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Crime novels - thrillers and mysteries - probably require the most realism of any genre and it's difficult to do it successfully.

Steve Abernathy said...

I've never liked police procedurals as much as straight crime novels. A book narrated by a criminal is infinitely more interesting than one by a cop, for all the factual reasons you point out.

But I dig "Hi and Low" and think it's Kurosawa's best movie.

Bryan Russell said...

@ Alex

It is, it is...

Bryan Russell said...

@ Steve

I think that's one of the reasons why I like Sjowall and Wahloo's procedurals - they're so much less plastic than the typical versions. They're not about some two-dimensional sleuth who uses his super-smarts to outwit and catch a criminal. They're sort of character (and societal) dramas that happen to be about people who solve crimes for their day job.

D.G. Hudson said...

Interesting observations, Bryan, and since I'm writing a crime/suspense story, I like to listen to what's being said about the genre.

I'm trying to focus on the story first, in draft stage. I haven't been worrying about following formula genre writing.

That said, if you were ambivalent about these books after you read them, perhaps their method of delivery didn't work??

Bryan Russell said...

@ DG Hudson

I was only ambivalent about one of them; Sjowall and and Wahloo make it work, somehow meshing realism within the story structure.

And even though I'm somewhat ambivalent about The Day of the Owl, it's worth a read.

Marsha Sigman said...

Were you not entertained? Were you not entertained??? I actually think I'm quoting Russell Crow from The Gladiator...

Crime novels are extremely hard to write without becoming predictable. Their creators have my undying admiration.

Matthew MacNish said...

It sounds like quite a fine line, that difference between satisfying and not quite.