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Books in Discussion - Crime Fiction

Crime is a genre I don’t read a lot of, mostly because – and this may sound contrary to the reason why so many people read and love it – I just find it to be rather boring. I’m more likely to enjoy psychological thrillers because they get deeper into characters and their neuroses, and can ask some unanswerable questions, but I haven’t had much luck with those lately, either. Am I getting harder to please? Is my scope of what constitutes ‘good’ writing narrowing, becoming less forgiving? Am I just so stressed with work that even popular fiction can’t help me unwind? I don’t need to dwell on these questions to know the answer is probably ‘yes’ to all three, which just makes me sad. I’m trying to come to terms with the reality of getting older – you go through your twenties and you’re not really ageing, but once you’re well into your thirties the years don’t just fly by, they also suddenly feel that much more precious, and that much more fleeting, with little, it seems, to show for it. It’s a flip in your psychological outlook: from viewing time as an endless resource (if you waste a year or two, it doesn’t seem that important because you feel like you can make it up later – there’s always a later) to viewing time as the sudden roller-coaster rush towards The End at a speed you can’t control, everything flashing by while you experience an odd mixture of paralysis and frantic, often futile scrabbling.

Sounds a lot like the tenor of Crime Fiction, actually, so you’d think we’d be a perfect match. I have to say, though, that teaching the genre has been more fun than the books themselves. Learning about the role of the sleuth, whether amateur or professional, as the reader’s moral compass, and what cultural values represented in the books, films or television episodes are being privileged by the author, which you can ascertain by studying the denouement and who is punished. The genre is an interesting one to study, it really is, but this is the last year for us senior secondary teachers in Tasmania to teach it – it’s out of the curriculum. (I’ll be teaching dystopian fiction next year.) So perhaps it’s fitting that I write this post now, at the end, to make way for something new.

red queenIn April I finally read a Honey Brown novel, which I’d been trying to find the time for ever since I got back to Australia in late 2013 and was able to get copies of her books (they weren’t available in Canada). This Australian psychological thriller writer came highly recommended by other bloggers, and in many ways Red Queen did not disappoint. It had the additional intrigue of an apocalyptic setting, which I love. In this case, it’s a global breakdown of society following a contagious, plague-like disease. Brothers Rohan and Shannon Scott have isolated themselves at the family cabin in the bush, which their father – one of those types who expected the world to end and wanted to prepare for it – had fully stocked, complete with hidden containers full of everything you could possibly need to survive the apocalypse. Rohan is the older, highly controlling and charismatic brother, Shannon his less reliable dependent. They take turns with the gun, keeping watch all night, knowing that should anyone find them not only do they risk catching the disease, but their stores could be stolen. So it is Shannon’s fault – for putting down the gun and picking up his guitar – when they discover that a stranger has got into the house, touched everything, even left a note to taunt them. The stranger is Denny Cassidy, a beautiful woman desperate to join them. Rohan doesn’t trust her, but both brothers are drawn to her. Is it a trap, is everything just a cold-blooded strategy to lull them into dropping their guard – is someone else out there, waiting for a signal?

Red Queen has the tension and suspense, the intrigue and mystery, and the complicated characters that good fiction like this needs. I think, though, that the ending took me by surprise. After all the edginess and the near-constant pendulum swing between Denny is a manipulator to Denny is a victim and Rohan’s the bastard, the ending was both pleasing and somehow a let-down. It was just too nice. Maybe it’s the adrenaline comedown. I can imagine it is supremely difficult to write in this genre without the ending turning into a cliche, because there just aren’t many options available and audience expectations are high. This book also highlighted for me my trouble with genre fiction in general, as I look for those unanswerable questions about life, existence, being human, relationships – questions that make me see things in new ways without ever trying to answer them (god forbid), that isn’t the role of art. Unfortunately, for as much as I enjoyed this novel and found it as engrossing as I wanted it to be, it didn’t really seem to take on any big ideas, or issues. Monogamy, maybe, and trust. Compassion as the root of being humane. The idea that selfishness and isolation are the prerequisites for survival is challenged; more predictably, the need men have for the comfort of women in order to be more balanced and human is emphasised. Still, with this debut novel Honey Brown proves herself to be a very promising writer, and I’m glad I have a few more of her books to read. [Read in April 2016]

sharp objectsOver a year ago I first read Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel from 2006, and never got around to reviewing it. It is a slightly Gothic, psychological thriller-crime-suspense novel set in the American Midwest. I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t have thought of reading this had I not (somewhat randomly) selected it as one of the texts for the Crime Fiction module I was about to teach. There is an excellent review of the book on The Female Gaze blog, which explains much – and better than I could right now.

Camille Preaker is a hack journalist from Chicago who is sent by her editor back to her home town, the fictional Wind Gap in Missouri, because a little girl has gone missing and he wants their paper to be the first to break the story. One missing girl is hardly enough to catch anyone’s interest in Chicago, but the previous year another girl was found murdered, her teeth pulled, and the case was never solved. Camille – our amateur sleuth – is less than keen to return. Her relationship with her mother, Adora, is one of strain and unmet expectations, while she barely knows her half-sister, thirteen-year-old Amma.

Adora is “old money”; she owns the large commercial pig farm and hog butchering factory, raking in over a million dollars a year in profits to live on in her Gothic Victorian mansion at the top of a steep hill. Camille, the child she had as a teenager to a man she never speaks of, was too hard to love; instead, Adora turned her attention onto Marian, her second, sickly child, until the girl died. Camille loved her sister, but Adora offered no comfort to the lonely child, choosing instead to shut herself up in her large bedroom with the famous ivory-tiled floor, accepting visitors to witness her grief but never helping her remaining child with hers. Into this repressive, tense household Camille reluctantly returns, fuelling her courage with alcohol and keeping her mutilated skin covered.

The town of Wind Gap is one of women, gossip and class division. It is a place where popularity is based on looks, conforming to dominant expectations of feminine behaviour, all represented by Flynn as problematic, inauthentic and even poisonous. I very nearly started talking about the outcome of the mystery plot here, before reminding myself that this is not the place. It tackles the repression that women willingly buy into and enforce, thus effectively policing themselves and so maintaining the patriarchal status quo. The idea that women, too, watch other women through the male gaze is prominent in Camille’s observations and the various characters’ treatment of each other. While I quite enjoyed the book the first time I read it, its dark, gritty side, the chilling nature of the murders and the motives behind them, and poor Camille’s screwed-up life became less effective the more I read it – it was not a book that held up to a vigorous re-read. But I am drawn to confronting, disturbing books, and this was certainly one of those. [Read in June 2015]

gone girlI’ll just briefly talk about Gone Girl – by the time I got around to read it, I’m pretty sure I was the only one left who hadn’t read it (or seen the film)! I meant to read it years ago, and I really meant to read it before a student did their project on it last year, because I knew it would be spoiled for me if I didn’t. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t find the time or opportunity to do so, so all the interesting elements of the plot were revealed in their work. I still wanted to read it – had a copy of it from years ago, looking all unloved and forlorn. But it’s a sad truth: once you know the plot twists, they strike you as pretty obvious.

That said, I did quite enjoy the psychological elements of this, which reminded me of a really old Elliot Gould movie (forget the name of it) which begins with a man looking for his wife, who’s gone missing – I think they were on holiday, somewhere where there weren’t many people around. Everyone acts suspiciously, strangely, and the husband seems like the victim of some larger conspiracy with them all plotting against him and making out like he’s irrational, mad. It has one of the most satisfying denouements, though, a beautiful plot twist: the man was a big fat liar and had killed his wife, then pretended she was just missing; there was a conspiracy: the others were really the good guys – police etc. – driving him mad to the point where he confessed. I watched it as a kid; it’d be pretty dated now.

Gone Girl wasn’t the same story as that film at all, of course, but I do enjoy stories where people aren’t who they seem to be, especially when they’re the protagonist and are fooling you, the reader, as well as everyone else. The ultimate unreliable narrator! Plus, the way it all works out in the denouement is truly disturbing, and made me think about the idea of appearances versus reality, of the versions of reality we create, the facades we keep, the lies we tell – even as good people. Even having the plot and the twists spoiled for me, it was a good, fairly gripping read, which speaks well for the novel. [Read in November 2015]

deep waterAt the end of last year I considered teaching Deep Water, this year, a) because it’s an Australian crime fiction text, and b) because it seemed to have an environmental angle that I thought would be good for studying. This is the only Cliff Hardy book I’ve read – it’s #34 in the series – and it was a major disappointment, reminding me why I don’t read more books in the detective genre. Hardy is more along the lines of hard-boiled private eye than a ‘classic’ detective (an American rather than British style), with his drinking, getting hurt and estranged relationships. The novel both begins and ends with Hardy in hospital – in America where, according to this book, Medibank Private is covering his hospital bills. Uh, no. It doesn’t work that way, and this kind of inaccuracy always destroys the credibility of a story for me.

I approached this book with no preconceptions but a willingness to hear a good yarn. I may have forgotten almost all the details of the plot by this point, but a lingering impression of dullness remains. Perhaps if Cliff Hardy had been a nostalgic or beloved character for me, as Phryne Fisher is, I would have had a different experience. Instead I found it formulaic – and not in a fun way – and not even particularly strong on social justice issues, questions of family, the environment or any of the other elements that I look for. Plot holes, inaccuracies and a narrator whose thought patterns didn’t really gel made this quick read a fairly forgettable one. [Read in December 2015]

a most peculiar malaysian murderInstead, I turned to Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series, of which A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder is the first volume. This detective novel, more in the ‘classic’ or ‘golden age’ British style than the American hard-boiled one, delivered the good stuff: while the majority of my teenaged students reported that they found the book slow and boring, and the many characters hard to keep track of, it has proved to be very effective for the particular English course that I teach, where we study the representations of cultural values in texts and how these ‘versions of reality’ position (the new term is: “invites”) readers to endorse or challenge particular ideas, values and attitudes, and what prevailing ideologies are ultimately privileged.

Inspector Singh is a fat, sweaty, ‘fleshy’ Sikh man from Singapore who is sent to Kuala Lumpur to ensure that ‘justice is seen to be done’ in the case of a high-profile Singaporean ex-model, Chelsea, who married a wealthy Malaysian businessman, Alan Lee, now murdered outside the family home. The couple had divorced and were in the midst of a bitter custody battle over their three young sons, when Alan suddenly converts to Islam. According to the law – which in Malaysia is both secular and Islamic (they have a two-court system), this conversion automatically made the children Islamic as well, and case would move to the Shariyah court which would rule in favour of the Muslim parent. Chelsea reacted violently to this news in court, attacking Alan and threatening to kill him. Not long after, he was shot and Chelsea immediately arrested as the prime suspect. However, Singh – using the hunches or instinct that separate the protagonist-sleuth from other police officers – just knows she is innocent. Here, in this novel and this world, the Malaysian justice system is the antagonist, a system that cannot truly protect the innocent or the disadvantaged. It is a story of wealth against poverty, the powerful against the lower classes, capitalism against conservationism. This aspect is captured in the other, parallel (and related) storyline which concerns Alan’s two brothers, Jasper and Kian Min, his timber company and what the company is doing – illegally – in the Borneo rainforest.

I don’t want to give too much away, and I can’t, unfortunately, discuss the denouement, but for once the sleuth character seems not to be the real protagonist – there are two other characters who are equally important, but it is telling that the sleuth, Inspector Singh, is only directly involved in one of the two parallel denouements – in order to maintain the integrity of the sleuth, he remains with the Chelsea storyline, doing something noble but not all that illegal. It’s a very interesting resolution, one that speaks of the grey areas in morality, of the idea that some bad deeds are worse than others, some murders more evil than others. Really interesting book to discuss. As I remind my students when they start complaining, “You might prefer Sharp Objects, to read, but Malaysian Murder is the better book to write on in the exam!” [Read in January 2016]

girl-on-the-trainWhen term break rolled around (today marks the last day – back to work tomorrow!) I thought about how nice it would be to go and see a film, something entertaining, a no-brain-required affair, and saw that the adaptation of The Girl on the Train was about to be released. It’s always best to read the book first, and since I already had a copy, it was just a matter of finding it (which, on my densely packed shelves, took about half an hour!) and then making the time to read it. The novel, a psychological thriller set in and around London, reminded me somewhat of SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, both in terms of tone, setting and cheesy denouement. And as with Watson’s debut novel, after reading this I had zero interest in seeing the film.

The Girl on the Train is an okay read, but I can’t give it much more than that. I quite liked having a protagonist who is an alcoholic with a failed marriage, who has lost her job and is, in general (and by most people’s terms), a bit of a loser. Hawkins takes the idea of the flawed sleuth to new heights, as with Camille in Sharp Objects, but Rachel does wear your patience down a bit. She’s not the only narrator in this novel, though: Megan, the missing-then-found-dead woman narrates, beginning a year earlier up until her death, and Anna, the woman Rachel’s husband Tom left her for, also increasingly gets her voice heard. What’s interesting about this book and these three women is the idea, captured in the dominant male characters, of women’s voices being silence in a patriarchal society – and not just silenced, but redefined. It is the men who decide what the women are, and the women who absorb that and take it on as fact, before turning on each other. That aspect of the book makes it worth reading, but as a psychological thriller there was virtually no tension, absolutely no twist – the truth is so gradually revealed and carefully constructed that you see it a mile before Rachel does – and the ‘thrills’ are completely absent.

The crime – the disappearance of Megan Hipwell which, later, turns into a murder investigation – begins on a Saturday night, a night when Rachel, drunk, returns to Whitney where she lived with Tom in the house by the train tracks, on a ridiculous errand. Megan and her husband, Scott, lived just a few doors down. Rachel wakes up on Sunday in a sorry state and with absolutely no memory of what happened. It’s this absence of memory that drives her to involve herself in the case, making her an amateur sleuth. As an alcoholic, the police consider her to be an unreliable witness and this, coupled with Anna’s vehement hatred and fear of her, pushes Rachel into the fringes: with a stable place to live (renting a room at a friend’s house), she’s only one step up from a homeless person. The memory lapse is the only thing that kept me reading what is, essentially, a rather slow and uneventful book – wondering, for a while, not what she saw, but what she did. I think a previous review I had read led me to think that Rachel was the real villain, some kind of disturbed character – and the idea of a psychological thriller told from the perspective of the stalker intrigued me. Well, that’s not it at all. I must have misread that review entirely. The Girl on the Train is simple, rather straightforward and, after about the halfway mark, fairly predictable. [Read in October 2016]

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