Tuesday, December 9, 2014

David Geherin: The Ever Expanding Crime Fiction Genre

I'm a collector of crime fiction reference books, and I have all of David Geherin's books, so when I saw he had a new one coming out, Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction, I not only had to have it, but I wanted a post from David for Mystery Fanfare. He is so gracious and sent this right away. David Geherin is professor emeritus of English at Eastern Michigan University.

I've now read Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction (McFarland), and it's a must for your reference shelf. In it David Geherin examines the way "several contemporary American crime writers are employing small towns in their crime fiction...writers of realistic American crime fiction have discovered new creative possibilities to be found in quite, peaceful, and remote locations. The results are once again helping to expand the boards of crime fiction in a new direction. This book examines ten of the best of these writers.


Although I devoured the Hardy Boys books as a youth, I don’t remember ever reading any other mystery novel until 1969, when I was a graduate student studying for my Ph.D. in English Literature at Purdue University. One day, while I was supposed to be writing my doctoral dissertation, I stumbled upon a review of The Goodbye Look by Ross Macdonald that appeared on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. The reviewer, William Goldman, argued that Macdonald’s mysteries were “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.” Wow! Not only had I never heard of Ross Macdonald, as an undergraduate major in English and now a Ph.D. student, I was discouraged from ever wasting my time reading such lowbrow “popular” literature. What was I missing?

Curious as to why The New York Times would bother reviewing Ross Macdonald (and also looking for any excuse not to be writing my dissertation), I read The Goodbye Look. At first I felt guilty about slumming, but when I learned that Macdonald himself had a Ph.D. in English Literature, I felt better about my “waste” of time. When I discovered that Macdonald was an author of intelligence and literary style who fully captured my imagination, I concluded that there was nothing “inferior” about writing like his.

Later that year (after finally finishing my dissertation) I began teaching courses at Eastern Michigan University in 20th Century British and American fiction. And catching up on my reading of Chandler and Hammett. It wasn't long before I began to realize that what interested me most about the novels I was teaching—language, narration, character, setting, an ability to explore social, political, even moral issues— could also be found in the mystery novels I was reading. I soon began to take an academic interest in them, which led to my first publication on crime fiction in 1975, an essay on Ross Macdonald’s use of the Hollywood setting in his Lew Archer novels. Times were changing and the academy’s bias against genre literature was starting to fade. Book publishers were also beginning to take an interest in serious critical studies of the genre, which gave me an opportunity to write four books on the subject in the 1980s: Sons of Sam Spade (1980), John D. MacDonald (1982), The American Private Eye: the Image in Fiction (1985, nominated for an Edgar Award) and the first book-length study of Elmore Leonard in 1989.

At the same time, I also began teaching courses on crime and mystery fiction at Eastern Michigan. One such course I developed was titled “Murder in Literature.” Here I was, not that many years from believing that reading popular genre books was a waste of time, teaching a course that featured Raymond Chandler, Sue Grafton, and Elmore Leonard alongside Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

After a twenty-five-year hiatus from publishing (I usually joked it was because I had run out of things to say, but it was largely due to increased departmental responsibilities and several study-abroad teaching assignments), I wrote Scene of the Crime: The Importance of Place in Crime and Mystery Fiction (2008). This book (which received both Edgar and Macavity Award nominations) grew out of a longtime interest in the role of setting in novels that dated back to my very first published article on Ross Macdonald’s Hollywood settings. During the course of researching that book, I began reading several notable European authors of crime fiction, among them Georges Simenon, Leonardo Sciascia, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. This whetted my interest in international crime fiction, particularly the rise of Nordic noir, which resulted in my next book, The Dragon Tattoo and Its Long Tail: The New Wave of European Crime Fiction in America, in 2012.

Reading European writers like Andrea Camilleri, Henning Mankell, and especially Karin Fossum then got me thinking about the devastating effects of crime on a small town, which prompted me to write my latest book (just published), Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction. While small-town settings have long been used in crime and mystery fiction, they have usually been found only in cozy mysteries. But in recent years, writers of realistic crime fiction about cops, private eyes, and county sheriffs who might otherwise have set their novels in big cities have discovered fresh creative possibilities in small-town locations. In my book I focus on ten authors—K. C. Constantine, Daniel Woodrell, Dana Stabenow, William Kent Krueger, Steve Hamilton, P. L. Gaus, Karin Slaughter, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Craig Johnson, and Nevada Barr— who are putting small towns and out-of-the-way places on the map of the contemporary American crime novel. 

As I look back on my reading and writing over the forty years, I am struck by the remarkable ability of the mystery genre to evolve and expand in new and exciting ways. For example, when I wrote my book on the American private eye, the genre was almost exclusively a male one. Had I written it five years later, I would have been able to talk about a wholly new direction in the genre made possible by the revolutionary work of Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, and Linda Barnes. Adaptability and growth keep revitalizing the genre, expanding its readership in the process. And its acceptance by the literary community. No better evidence of that is the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters awarded to Elmore Leonard in 2010, the first time a crime or mystery writer has so been honored.

There has never been a time like today when so many talented authors have been writing such an interesting variety of crime novels, and at such a high level of artistry. Perhaps not every one of these novels reaches the level of a Hemingway or a Faulkner. But anyone looking for a challenging, entertaining, and richly rewarding reading experience will undoubtedly be able to find it in a good crime or mystery novel. And after all, isn’t that why we read fiction in the first place?


Edie Dykeman said...

I started reading mysteries when I was in elementary school and still read at least one a week all these years later. I thoroughly enjoyed this article and agree that mysteries set in small towns have now taken their rightful place among the best.

Cyndi Pauwels said...

Love your overview of mysteries, and I take your comments as encouragement!

I write more-than-a-cozy police procedural and private eye and amateur sleuth (hacker) crime novels set in small(er) town America, all with strong female protagonists.

Thanks for the lesson!