Saturday, March 29, 2014

Invidious Distinctions

Today's guest is Barbara Fass Leavy, a literary critic who retired as a full professor from the Department of English, Queens College, the City University of New York. She still retains her honorary appointment as Adjunct Professor of English in Psychiatry at the DeWitt Wallace Institute for the History of Psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University. Leavy taught courses in crime fiction, specifically in Women and Crime Fiction and Crime Fiction and Culture (the ethnic detective). She has lectured on the elements of psychology in mystery novels to members of the Institute for the History of Psychiatry.

Where is comes to reading mysteries, I have a somewhat split personality. I have devoured crime novels since my early adolescence, enjoying a good read and a teasing puzzle. When I started teaching and writing about mysteries, however, I focused on the so-called literary mystery, which for me is a novel or body of work by a mystery writer that yields to the kind of literary analysis on which I spent my professional career. But it can also be described as crime fiction that one will reread, perhaps several times, even if one knows whodunit.

This description is not original with me. I have borrowed it from John T. Irwin’s study The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story. Irwin wants to identify the point at which detective fiction can qualify as art. He starts with the assumption that the mystery genre’s “central narrative mechanism seems to discourage the unlimited rereading associated with serious writing.” He asks what he thinks is a simple question about detective fiction, how does the writer create a “work that can be reread by people other than those with poor memories?”

As a writer and teacher of literary criticism, l welcomed Irwin’s theoretical ground for taking crime fiction as seriously as any other literature. Especially because my academic colleagues were puzzled that I, who had published four university press books, considered mysteries worthy of my efforts. I ran into a similar lack of comprehension when I tried to publish my study of Ruth Rendell’s fiction. An editor from England (Rendell’s home ground, after all) wrote to my agent that he would read the manuscript but cautioned that his press restricted literary criticism to serious writers. Fortunately for me, the publishers of Poisoned Pen Press were willing to take a chance on a revised edition of what was originally a book I self-published out of frustration.

But as a mystery reader, I worried about Irwin’s book-length answer to his own question. Despite his taking the detective story seriously, did he not ultimately join those critics of crime fiction who denigrated its status, placing most mysteries near the bottom of a literary chain of being? Wasn’t he still asking, as did Edmund Wilson, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd” (I did)? Was he so different from Raymond Chandler who, taking on the persona of a reader of discernment, directed his satire against “old ladies” who “jostle each other at the mystery shelf to grab off some item [entitled] The Triple Petunia Murder Case or Inspector Pinchbottle to the Rescue.” Such trivial books were, according to Chandler’s essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” being published in editions of fifty or one hundred thousand copies while serious books were moldering on resale shelves.

My mother eventually became one of those old ladies, for throughout her life she read as many as several mysteries a week, until her eyesight gave out (I couldn’t persuade her to listen to audiobooks). She was still living when in 2009,Newsweek, which devoted most of an issue to mysteries and true crime writing, headlined one article, “Death Becomes Them: When Literary Superstars Turn to Pulp.” The author resurrects Edmund Wilson’s “eye-rolling put-down of detective stories” and wonders if today, when so many mysteries demonstrate fine writing, Wilson would change his mind. He thinks not.

I won”t apologize for enjoying mysteries I probably will not read more than once. I also think it is impossible for any mystery writer to come to the genre without ideas about evil, justice, and the many reasons why people commit crimes–which is never a simple matter. It is a rare mystery that does not get me thinking about such subjects. Colin Dexter worried that his books were nothing more than the jigsaw and crossword puzzles Inspector Morse occupied himself with. But who would be intrepid enough to dismiss Dexter as a trivial writer.
I love literary criticism, as did Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford, who solved a crime after reading a study of Wordsworth. Although his wife Dora is puzzled by his tastes, he enjoys biographies of writers and critiques of their works. But I wouldn't want anyone to think that I do not with great pleasure spend much of my reading time on mysteries I do not need to subject to literary analysis.

Read more about Barbara at


Donis Casey said...

First of all, Barbara, welcome to Type M!
This argument about the unworthiness of "genre" fiction is what has made mystery authors tear their hair for generations. Any discerning reader realizes that crime novels are the ultimate study of human nature. They speak to something deep in the human psyche. Something mythic, like a hero quest. A confrontation of evil and an overcoming. Genre is a false construct, anyway, created by giant bookstores as a convenient shelving technique.
But enough ranting. I'll just reiterate Tony Hillerman's definition of Literary Fiction as "a tale in which nothing happens to people you don't care about."

Eileen Goudge said...

My love affair with mysteries began with Nancy Drew. As an adult, and author of 15 women's fiction novels and a teen mystery series, I find the prose unreadable, it's so bad, yet the character of Nancy stands the test of time. That's what I try to keep in mind, as I sharpen my pen in picking it up to write an adult mystery: It's the characters that matter most. If you can create an indelible characters, that's more than half the battle. I would follow Nancy into any dark room or up any creepy staircase.

Barbara Leavy said...

When I was young, Eileen,I did not have a set of Nancy Drew--as did many of my friends. I was too embarrassed to ask to borrow them and too unsophisticated to consult the librarian in the young adult section of the library. Perhaps this frustration and my mother's addicion to mysteries explains why her influence was so significant. Our family budget allowed my parents to buy me books on fairy tales, folklore, classic authors in editions young people could easily read, such as Mary and Charles Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. Most of my scholarly work did end up being on folk and fairy tales, and when I needed a change, I thought "why not mysteries." I never expected mysteries to yield as much as they did to someone trained to write about so-called literature. They WERE literature. For as Donis says, they are the "ultimate study of human nature." I argued with my friends and colleagues about whether Crime and Punishment is a mystery. Of course it is! As are other books by Dostoevsky. And then I discovered that this controversy exists in published essays and in reference books. The need to rescue Dostoevsky from the taint of writing crime fiction just about says it all!