Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Crime fiction, and the perils of grimdark

I’m currently reading James Lee Burke’s 1995 novel, Burning Angel

The novel is but one installment of Burke’s long-running Dave Robicheaux series. Robicheaux is a fictional detective who operates in the Bayou region of Louisiana, near New Orleans.

Burning Angel is much like the many other Dave Robicheaux novels that Burke has written. Robicheaux is perpetually brooding and moody. His sidekick, Clete, is relentlessly brutal and obnoxious—the epitome of everything that certain paranoid leftwing types like to believe about cops. 

James Lee Burke’s Louisiana is one vast underworld, peopled by pimps, junkies, rapists, racists, and hapless, impoverished African Americans. There is no joy here, no redemption. 

Readers who like Burke go on and on about his descriptive powers, which I suppose is a valid observation. But Burke’s novels are disproportionately filled with descriptions of the grotesque and the scatological. Here’s a little gem of dialogue from Burning Angel:

“He’s the guy whose shit don’t flush.”

Yuck. Now, I don’t doubt that a certain class of person would actually use a metaphor like this. But fiction isn’t documentary. And even documentarians are selective in what they present. No reader or viewer wants to see the inside of a septic tank, even if septic tanks are a reality of life in some places.

But the realism! you protest. Okay, I get it—or partially I do. And yes, style. Burke is trying to be “noir”. An updated version of Raymond Chandler, perhaps. Humphrey Bogart walking through dark, misty city streets clad in a fedora and an overcoat.

The problem is: The post-modern noir has become a lot darker than the original, mid-twentieth century noir ever was. (This has, perhaps, paralleled the general coarsening of our culture.) 

The neologism “grimdark” is a literary descriptor that means nihilistic violence, amoral characters, and dystopian, dreary settings. “Grimdark” is a term usually reserved for speculative fiction: fantasy, horror, and science fiction. But crime fiction can veer into grimdark as well. Most of the Dave Robicheaux series could be accurately described as grimdark. 

I don’t pronounce this judgment lightly, or gleefully. On the contrary: I really wanted to like the Dave Robicheaux series. Roughly a dozen years ago I discovered Michael Connelly’s crime novels. Connelly does not write grimdark. I quickly burned through every Michael Connelly novel, and I have long been looking for a crime writer who provides the same magic. Sadly, James Lee Burke isn't the guy. 

(Lest I leave the reader with a thoroughly negative assessment of James Lee Burke: His novels outside the Dave Robicheaux series are considerably better. I can recommend Lay Down My Sword and Shield and Rain Gods without reservation.)

Too often, I would wager, authors write grimdark-esque stories because they believe that bottomless cynicism equals good art. Similar trends toward excessive, over-the-top depravity can be found in crime/action film as well.

I recently watched John Wick 2 (2017), which stars Keanu Reeves as the eponymous “super assassin”. The problem is, the “super assassin” isn't very likable, and neither are any of the other paper-thin characters in the film. The plot basically consists of one unbelievable gunfight after another, in which Wick shoots hordes of better armed men, splattering brains everywhere as he goes. 

John Wick 2 is so absurd that it never really takes the viewer fully into darkness, but that is clearly the effect that the director was trying to achieve.

A more believable action film is The American (2010). The film stars George Clooney as “Jack”, another super-assassin. Jack is another “anti-hero”. In the opening scene of the film, he shoots an innocent woman so that she cannot later identify him to authorities. 

The American is a far more realistic, far better written film than John Wick 2. (Sorry, folks, but John Wick 2 is pure trash.) But as a viewer, I’m not going to care about a main character who will so callously gun down an innocent person. I’m rather going to want to see him get his just desserts.

There is a better way to do it. In Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Tom Cruise plays the lead role of Reacher. The movie is based on the Lee Child novel of the same title; and this movie represents one of those rare cases in which the film version is better than the book.

Reacher is a flawed hero, to be sure; but he isn't going to gun down an innocent person to save his skin. On the contrary, there are countless scenes in Never Go Back in which Reacher deliberately risks his own life in the service of others. This is the definition of a hero.

A subplot of Never Go Back revolves around a teenage girl who may—or may not—be Reacher’s biological child. Reacher’s evolving paternal relationship with the girl adds a human element that is missing from the anti-hero protagonists of John Wick 2 and The American

Crime fiction necessarily deals with bad people and dirty deeds. Read crime fiction and you’ll find murderers, pedophiles, terrorists, and sadists. Crime fiction probes the dark recesses of the human soul. 

And to be sure, a crime novel without a despicable villain, who does despicable things, would be boring. 

But a crime novel should be more than a clench-fisted ride through the worst that humanity has to offer. Without a hero that the reader can root for, without redemption, crime fiction is little more than the worst of what we see on the news everyday. 

A crime novel needs bad guys, yes; but good guys too. Crime novelists who are obsessed with wallowing in the muck too often forget this.

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