This week, I’m loitering in the F’s in my alphabet of crime, because I’ve got an axe to grind.
Recently, Atlantic Monthly added its voice to the endless, senseless eyebrow maneuvers (highbrow/lowbrow) that persist in the foothills of the culture wars, in a piece by Maura Kelly called A Slow-Books Manifesto. The gist of the piece is to get more people spending more time reading, which is great, but the author goes wrong when she presumes to know what kind of reading is good for you. As the piece dictates: “Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.”
I’m going to step around that particular pile of doo-doo, rather than stepping right in it here on Shelf Talk: there’s a vast comment thread that follows the article, if you feel like discussing it with the nation. But for anyone who may have taken it too much to heart and decided that the mystery section was a bad neighborhood to be hanging out in, I thought I’d step over to the same range in the literary fiction aisle and point out a good mystery by any other name is still a good mystery.
No less a literary lion than William Faulkner tried his hand at mystery stories, and the result — the six tales of detection comprising Knight’s Gambit — gave us some of crime literature’s most haunting stories. The stories feature Yoknapatawpha county attorney Gavin Stevens as he puzzles through human mysteries both solveable and ineffable. There is tremendous pathos here, as in the story “Monk,” in which a befuddled, gawpish man-child seems to have confessed to a crime he did not commit, or the unforgettable “Tomorrow,” as good as anything Faulkner ever wrote, in which Gavin’s investigation into a hung jury reveals the harrowing life story of one of its members. You may recognize Gavin from Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, itself a fine murder mystery and legal thriller, and a good entryway into Faulkner’s oeuvre for the uninitiated.
Standing here by Nobel-Prize winning mystery writer William Faulkner in the Literatchah aisle, I have only to cast my eyes to right and left to see other top-drawer crime novels, from Carlo Emilio Gadda’s That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, fit to stand comparison to James Joyce, to Umberto Eco’s lush historical whodunnit The Name of the Rose, to Dostoyevsky’s fevered suspense novel Crime and Punishment, and his compatriot Anton Chekhov’s Night in the Cemetery and other tales of crime and suspense. There’s Wilkie Collins’ uber-puzzler The Moonstone, and there’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fate-drenched Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The stacks cry out with bloody murder all around me.
So how about our own manifesto, crime fans? “Read mysteries. As often as you can. Wherever you may find them.”