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?