Saturday, July 7, 2012

Two Anxiously Influenced Novelists

     Harold Bloom has spent the thrust of his career in literary criticism detailing earlier generations of writers influencing later ones and the anxiety this produces in those newer writers.  After consciously understanding their forebears, these younger writers then need to forge their own identities
without completely cutting off their writing ancestors.  Recently, I explicated an overview of Ruth Rendell’s career.  Two novelists – one British, the other American – owe a debt to Rendell, though I’d bet only one of the two would admit it.

Dexter Visits William Boyd
     William Boyd has been an acclaimed novelist for thirty years, winning a number of prestigious critical and popular literary awards in England.  His earlier books dealt with political situations in foreign lands, i.e. anywhere but Europe.   A Good Man in Africa reminded me of Graham Greene – yet another forebear, but I didn’t find it anywhere near as interesting as his most recent works Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms.  

     Restless is about British secret agents working during the beginning of World War II, first in France right after the fall to assist the Resistance and later in the U.S. in an operation to promote American support for Britain before Pearl Harbor.  It’s like the propaganda version of ‘lend lease.’  The main character is a young woman, who’s trained to become a spy and then begins to realize that her spymaster might be more dangerous than the Nazis.  This is intercut with her daughter dating a foreign man in the supposedly more liberal 1970s that British authorities suspect might be a terrorist.  The political concerns are central to Boyd, but the thriller plot works in tandem with the characters that become more complex as the book is propelled forward.  Restless feels akin to Rendell’s Barbara Vine historically set suspense novels.

     Ordinary Thunderstorms explores various neighborhoods in London while tracking the progress of a young weather research scientist who, through a series of life-threatening misunderstandings, finds himself falling from interviewing for a prestigious position to being homeless.  The plot is about a cross-section of society from those living in a failed council block (aka section VIII housing) to the Thames River police to the CEO of a pharmaceutical corporation that’s about to release a new miracle drug.   It’s been compared to Dickens, the originator of the state-of-the-nation literary novel masquerading as a suspense thriller.  Another comparison would be Rendell’s psychological thrillers.  

     By working within mystery/thriller genre conventions and expanding upon them or breaking through them, Boyd is able to present realistic work in a seemingly understated style that is compelling to read.  He doesn’t get the attention that other male British writers of his generation receive and I think it’s because his style is so lucid and his books so easily readable.  They’re deep, but they don’t call attention to themselves.  This is in marked contrast to Martin Amis (a great stylist with an extraordinarily dark sense of humor, though he sacrifices his humanity for laughs in his fictional writing), Julian Barnes (the most over-rated British writer since Joseph Conrad and so deliberately abstract and idiosyncratic that he just comes across as twee), and Ian McEwan (the shock, the dread, and the repression of sensuality are great aspects of his writing, but I still think Ruth Rendell is just as good and a lot more prolific).

Laura Lippman
     The American writer who would probably be pleased by the comparison to Rendell and Boyd is the ebullient Laura Lippman.  Stephen King praised her in a column so I decided to check her out a couple of years ago.  In genre categories (Mystery/Suspense, Romance, Science Fiction, Horror/Fantasy), many good writers can labor for years and even win recognition and prizes without attracting a wide general audience.  It’s all a matter of book classification and whether the publisher and the major marketers (Amazon, Barnes and Noble) get behind them to push.  Thankfully, librarians and independent booksellers (Joseph-Beth is our publishing Angel Gabriel regionally) inform individual readers about who’s out there worth checking out.  

     Laura Lippman focuses on her hometown of Baltimore and this is a major strength because it gives her a solid base setting wherein she can develop plot and characters, though she’s now moved to developing the characters and where they take the plot.  She was a reporter with the Sun for many years and was first published in 1997 with Baltimore Blues, featuring Tess Monaghan as a fired reporter trying to put her life together and doing so by falling into ad hoc work as a private investigator.  I enjoyed it mainly because of how she used Baltimore and the sport of rowing as ways to move the story along.  

     The problem with private eye thrillers (beginning with Conan Doyle in England, Dashiell Hammett in the U.S., and Georges Simenon in France, though I realize Maigret is a cop, not a P.I.) is that they are trapped in various conventions that if handled with originality and tact can be referred to as ‘tropes’, but if used sloppily or haphazardly are more likely to be thought of as ‘clichés.’   The greatest theme/fallback for the P.I. writer is that the books are aimed at literate, generally aspirational readers who identify with the detective.  The worker bee characters are either ‘colorful’ or assist the detective in entering the demi-monde, while the wealthy characters either help or hinder the P.I. because they will do anything to protect their terrible decadent secrets.  

     I’d actually read a couple of Lippman’s stand alone psychological thrillers before encountering Tess as a minor character in one of them and then going back to the first book.  It says a lot about the Tess Monaghan character that she’s engaging enough to make a reader want to do that.  The first Lippman work I read was What The Dead Know, in which teenage sisters disappeared from a Baltimore mall in 1975.  A woman appears decades later claiming to be one of the sisters.  That’s the jumping off point and Lippman tracks the development of Baltimore and the characters that dealt with that double disappearance over thirty years with ingenuity and wit.  The physical and psychological details are both authentic and compelling.  There’s also a beautiful twist that I didn’t see coming, but which made perfect sense.  I sent the book to my Mother after I finished it because I wanted someone else to read it immediately.  

     Stephen King’s column referred to I’d Know You Anywhere from 2009 in which a serial rapist-murderer requests a meeting with the one potential victim that got away.  This is a psychological cat-and-mouse suspense novel in which we’re not exactly certain, until the very end, which person has the emotional and ethical upper hand.  Lippman reveals the subtleties that divide the bohemian middle class from the old guard upper-middle/lower-upper class and the relationships between teenage girls, which play into the event that haunts the kidnapped girl for years afterward.  Lippman nails the culture of the mid-1980s as well.

     The Most Dangerous Thing was prominently featured in a number of magazines last year.  It’s Lippman’s best work yet because it combines elements of the psychological suspense novel and the more ‘literary’ family saga.  The Dickey neighborhood and Leakin Park are the settings and act as major characters as the story examines five friends, who explored the park together as pre-teens in the late 1970s, and an incident in which they involved their parents with hideous consequences.  Moving back and forth from the ‘70s to 2010, Lippman tells the story from all the major characters’ points of view and uses both third person singular limited omniscience and, more cleverly, first person plural omniscience.  The parents achieve greater prominence in the story as it progresses and, again, Lippman examines class, gender, and generation as elements that divide people and lead to conflicts resulting in murder.  

     Lippman’s utilization of complex and rarely practiced literary techniques in a commercial novel is thrilling.  Unfortunately, a number of online grumps have complained that it somehow isn’t scary or mysterious enough.  They don’t get it.  Lippman is following the Rendell career model of juggling the police/P.I. procedural thriller series with intriguing historical psychological suspense stand-alone novels.  I wish her husband David Simon, producer of Homicide and creator of The Corner, The Wire, and Treme would develop some of her work into a set of movies or a TV series.  She deserves it and the greater publicity and readership it would engender.

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