Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Lazy Blogger Repost: Investigating the Detective Novel through a Postmodern Lens

This is another post titled "lazy blogger repost" because as I mentioned in my last repost I have a lot of stuff going on right now, and really it won't be until late August where I will be able to post new material on a semi-daily basis. I'll still be doing the Revisiting 1999 project (I have one "forgotten film" left to do) and I'll post my submissions for Counting Down the Zeroes on here, but the mix of wedding preparation, work, and grad school are making it really hard to go see new movies. Also, this is an excuse to get a post about books on here. I had a different blog awhile back that dealt with music and book reviews, but it was too much trying to keep up with two blogs (I'm lazy I know) so I figured I would start writing about books on here again. The blog will still be primarily movie related, but every now and then I'll throw some posts up about what I've been reading, authors I like, things I want to see adapted into movies, etc. Basically there's going to be more book talk on here...since, you know, I was a lit major and all.

In both Graham Swift and Martin Amis we have two of the premier postmodern writers. In the 1980's each wrote a seminal postmodern novel that influenced authors such as: Don Dellilo, Dave Eggars, Chuck Palahniuk, Nicola Barker, and countless others who are indebted to the postmodern movement. Swift's meta-narrative (a novel that deconstructs, and then seeks to reconstruct, what Jean-Francois Lyotard called “the grand narrative”) Waterland deals with family and history (both personal and world), and how both of those things create horror, and bubble up traumas and bruised memories. Amis' brilliant Money deals with John Self, one of the most hilariously pathetic characters of 1980's postmodern literature. Amis writes debauchery and un-PC humor like no other. Self's journey from London to New York is hilarious, filled with many great one-liners and clever quips; Amisisms if you will. Years later both would tackle something completely generic: the detective novel. In 1997 Amis wrote the police procedural Night Train, and in 2003 Graham Swift wrote the private detective novel The Light of Day. Both were met with a collective critical, "meh." I wanted to see for myself, though. I wanted to see how two of my favorite authors tackled the crime novel; how they put their distinct postmodern twists on the already-established literary tropes of the detective novel.

Martin Amis has cited the crime novelist Elmore Leonard as an idol, and it shows in Night Train; a short breezy work compared to some of Amis' heavier themed novels like Money and London Fields, and his latest success House of Meetings. The novel is more or less about the murder (or is it suicide...that is the mystery) of a police captain's beautiful daughter. The narrator (unreliable, of course) is Det. Mike Hoolihan. Who helpfully points out within the first pages of the novel not to let the name fool you -- she is named Mike, but she is a she.

And from there we're off and running. Amis doesn't throw in the same messes he did with his other novels about suicide and murder. In Money John Self hilariously botches a suicide, and in London Fields, the 'heroine' Nicola Six knows when and where she will be murdered. That novel is not so much about the murder itself, but about how we face such grim certainties.

And that is what makes Night Train so easily consumable. Amis doesn't mess around with heavy themes or pages upon pages of character development (like he usually does, as does Leonard), and even though it doesn't even come close to one of his best novels (it was his ninth at the time), it's never a boring read.

The detective genre in general lends itself to some of Amis' favorite themes. Hoolihan is as unreliable a narrator as there is as she states right from the onset: "And I guess I apologize for the outcome." Look at the word choice and the structure of that sentence; so much is found in something so small. You can see the detectives detachment from the beginning; her reluctance to investigate the murder of the daughter of her superior. She tells us that her notes are going to change; that information may be wrong -- how do we know what we are reading is what really happened?

I think this is the theme that Amis has the most fun with -- turning the crime novel on its ear and playing with its most famous convention: the omniscient narrator. Through Hoolihan's eyes we are taken through 175 pages of police procedural that seem familiar, but upon further investigation you see a metaphor for not just suicide ("suicide is the night train, speeding your way to darkness..."), but you see a stale and blank vision of what it means to investigate murders. In one of my favorite sections Hoolihan talks about how there are certain expectations a cop must live up to or must de-mystify and that they really aren't investigators; they are just cogs in the bureaucratic machine: "Police really are like footsoldiers in this respect at least. Ours not to reason why. Give us the how, then give us the who, we say. But fuck the why."

It's a question Amis hints at delving deeper into, but really he sticks to his conventions and keeps the reader on the surface. The very idea of suicide gets people to ask "why?" But then suicide, as Hoolihan states, "robs us of the why." For a novel seeking motive and explanations there is a shocking amount of nothing in this novel -- staying true to his form I suppose -- Amis crafts a wonderful pulpy surface level entertainment with hints of something deeper beneath the surface. I suppose that's just like how Hoolihan views police work in general:

Motive, motive. 'Motive': That which moves, that which impels. But with homicide, now, we don't care about motive. We never give it a seconds thought. We don't care about the why. We say: Fuck the why. Motive might have been worth considering, might have been in okay shape half a century ago. But now it's all up in the fucking air. With the TV.

I like what Amis does here with a classic postmodern convention: repetition. The sing-songy nature of his sentences and the repeating of key phrases or “passwords” (which also reminds me of the brilliant Jeanette Winterson) is something you often see in these types of novels, and it’s something that makes a whole lot of sense in regards to a detective story – just as a detective will continuously look at a clue, or mull over a certain scenario countless times, so too does Amis return to key phrases that aide the reader into better understanding this not-so-black-and-white police procedural.

The last line “with the TV” is another interesting element Amis brings into his detective story. Hoolihan seems to be suggesting that, as a cop, there’s nothing she can really do in regards to her job to appease the public. The public has their own ideas of who cops are and what they should be doing, and those ideas are formed by what they see on cop shows like “Law and Order”, “Homicide”, and “CSI”. A cop can’t simply act like a cop and investigate because there are all these false ideas of what a cop actually does, and really, they probably feel like they are playing a role more than they want to. There’s something very performance-based and artificial about the way Hoolihan goes about her investigation, and I think that Amis has a lot of fun writing her that way.

So, TV is really to blame; giving those in need a false sense of the detective as some kind knight coming to ease the nerves of a community. So it is with Amis and his detective Hoolihan; their vision of the police procedural is one that is predicated on false realities created by television. Hoolihan investigates the suicide of the young girl, but she already knows what she is going to tell her superior long before the investigation is over (and some interesting truths are revealed). So it is too with Graham Swift and his narrator private Detective George Webb, a man who is more concerned with his own personal investigation and personal crossing of thresholds than Hoolihan is, but both share the same weariness and burden of maintaining the old (and non-sufficient) classic police/investigator archetype in a postmodern world.


Graham Swift is one of my favorite authors -- much like Amis -- he has never really written an uninteresting book. Some of his material feels a little repetitive (a theme he likes to explore with his characters and their family histories) and even though he seems to always be trying to rehash the success of his masterwork Waterland, (his newest novel Tomorrow is an example) his novels are almost always poignant and heartbreaking works of fiction.

Swift loves to write about characters reminiscing on their past -- whether that past is deeply scarred or fully happy memories -- who must "cross a line" as the main character, George Webb P.I., reminds the reader throughout Swift's novel The Light of Day. Where Amis was concerned with the police procedural, Swift is more interested with the inward dialogue Webb has with himself about his clients. It's a novel that is all about thresholds as Swift uses some of his patented repetition (much like Amis does – again to evoke that investigative practice of dissecting and re-dissecting clues) to remind us that we all must "cross a line."

Swift, as stated before, is in love with the idea of the past coming into play and affecting the future. Most of Swift's characters learn much about the present (usually amidst a swirl of uncertainty and personal reflection) through a further explication of their past; usually bubbling-up moments of bruised and scarred histories. The Light of Day is just as simple a story as Amis' Night Train (again, I think they were both really trying to strip down their usual multi-layer, meta-narrative structures), but seeks to delve a little deeper since it is more about the personal than about the gathering of information.

George Webb is a good private detective, and Swift sets him up with an office and an assistant that seem right out of a Raymond Chandler story. What's unique about Swift's detective is that every case (usually following cheating husbands) leads him to dwell more on his own failed marriage, and in particular one case that changed the rest of his life.

That case is fleshed out mostly through flashback as we learn about a woman who, two years earlier, asked George to do a job for her. A romance between the woman and George is brews and we are told simultaneous stories of the affair between George and his client (and the things he’ll do for her), and another story about George's past as a police officer where an incident occurred that forced him to quit and become a private detective. We also get glimpses into George's adolescence when he was a caddy and the correlation Swift draws between caddying and private investigation – you carry things (burdens) around for other people – is brilliant. I also like the glimpse Swift gives us into Webb's personal life as he connects with his daughter over weekly dinners...the idea of the private investigator as a cook (cooking things up, making the ingredients work as a whole...) is another small, but brilliant touch. These are perfect examples of the capabilities of Swift’s genius; however, it's just too bad the whole novel isn't as good as its parts.

The story doesn't flow as well as Amis', but it is clear that Swift is more interested in detours. Where these kind of personal and epiphianic detours would derail Night Train's strict procedural focus, The Light of Day lingers (albeit a tad too long) on some of the quieter moments of a detective tailing a suspect. These moments of reflection give the novel a different feel, even though Swift never strays from the conventions of a private detective novel, you get the sense as the reader that you can learn something from this character and this novel...whereas Amis is simply going through the motions in an exercise of the genre. A perfect example of this kind of poignant detour is when George is in the airport tailing a suspect; he stops and observes:

In airports there are channels and slots and filters like being in a production line. A great grinding system that takes away aura or -- by the same token -- makes it stand out. So many departures, so many arrivals: you can't tell the simple goodbyes from the agonies, the lovers from the friends. People get excited, they hug, they cling, they kiss. What do those wet eyes mean? See you next Saturday? I'll never see you again? All this intimacy in public. But here it's not unusual, it's almost the done thing.

Such beautiful writing here by Swift, and it is these little moments of thinking about human behavior that elevate The Light of Day from mere genre novel to something much deeper and meaningful. Amidst the postmodern absurdity ("you play cards, you shuffle the deck") of it all, Webb is able to find something deeply existential to dwell on. It’s something that makes him better understand the human race -- not just the disgruntled employees and spurned wives that he is destined to follow through the seedy backstreets filled with adultery and betrayal, or though the normalcy of domesticated homes and airports -- but through the people he encounters everyday: his assistant whom he loves, his daughter, and ex-wife -- the people that define who he is outside of work; those lights that greet the new day.


Both novels are flawed but are tremendous examples of postmodern authors putting their spin on a done-to-death genre. Something that is evident in both novels is the repetition of the job of the investigator. Like Swift's Webb explains at the end of The Light of Day, the job of the private investigator is all about taking jobs that are "exact replica[s]" (conjuring up thoughts of the great postmodern author Jean Baudrillard who coined the phrase “simulacrum” in his seminal postmodern work Simulations) and begin in the "same spot." The job is not something that is glamorous, like Hoolihan says in Amis' novel; this is not something that is as fun or easy as it looks on television. Hollywood's portrayal of police officers, and the police procedural in general, has perverted and skewed the very monotony the job entails (Hoolihan makes one thing clear: being a police office is not sexy).

Swift and Amis must have been attracted to the detective novel for two reasons: one is that it is so easy to write, needing very little, if any, character development. Second the genre lends itself to some of postmodernisms favorite quandaries: how do we seek answers in this absurd world, and how do we go about getting the "why" when it seems that, as Hoolihan puts it, we live in a world that says "Fuck the why?"

This is where postmodern literature gets a bad reputation. Most people unfamiliar with the genre would say that these authors are only interested in riffing off the ambiguity and chaos of a postmodern society. That is true, as some authors are fascinated by the magical realism and trickster themes postmodern literature lends itself to (Rushdie and Winterson come to mind), but these authors also seek to take this absurdity and try to deconstruct it, to put it under the microscope, and by looking closely at the past and our own histories (or by looking through the cold hard facts and information like Hoolihan does) we can learn something about the present, and perhaps, even the future. Swift’s detective novel seems to be trying to do this more than Amis’, who just seems to be having fun working in the crime genre…and maybe that’s why Swift’s failings seem more noticeable, because he’s going for something bigger. Regardless of their shortcomings, if you’re a fan of the detective novel you’ll find enough familiarity here that will pique your interest, but hopefully you’ll give these two novels a try as they offer fresh, postmodern takes on a familiar genre.

Edited to add: There is a film version of Night Train set to be released in 2010 starring Sigourney Weaver, Nick Nolte, and Michael Madsen; and directed by the great Nicolas Roeg. I'm definitely intrigued.


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