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Rarefaction, Riches—or Readers?

I bristle at the notion that basic science, which eschews the crassness of economic utility, is more virtuous than applied research, which pursues gritty questions and messy answers needed by farmers, nurses and soldiers. Maybe this distinction is rooted in the Plato’s separation of the heavenly forms and the shadow on the cave wall (when in doubt, blame Greek philosophers).

In reading Erik Dussere’s, America is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture, I was intrigued by his incisive analysis of the pure/tainted distinction in literature, which I’d sensed since moving from science to creative writing. Today, I write mysteries in the noir tradition, which resonates with my having spent years figuring out better ways to kill grasshoppers.

With the rise of low-brow consumerism in the 20th century came the backlash of high-brow modernism. As Dussere puts it, “Modernist writing—with its self-conscious difficulty, its avant-garde sensibility, and its dense thickets of allusion to literary tradition—imagined itself as a bastion against the commercial appeal of mass culture.”

Obtuse artistry was appreciated by the elites; crude writing was “consumed” by the riffraff. But, of course, even the loftiest authors must eat. William Faulkner supported his modernist writing with profitable ventures such as his mystery novel, Sanctuary, and a screenplay for Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

Noir rejected the higher/lower cultural distinction, choosing authenticity over both empty aestheticism and corpulent mass culture. My writing kin crafted compelling stories of society’s dregs, while critiquing social injustice. The mystery writers I know are not interested in being praised for rarified art nor paid for commercial schlock. They seek neither reverence nor riches, but readers.

So, maybe good mysteries (there are crappy ones, along with godawful literary fiction) defy the binary alternatives of opera and football or caviar and mac-and-cheese (I enjoy all of these). As my character observes in MURDER ON THE FLY in response to an avant-garde, Philip Glass opera:

The utter lack of any narrative element or conventional structure reminded me of my half dozen ill-fated attempts to read James Joyce’s Ulysses out of a misplaced loyalty to Irish literature and a belief that, like Glass’s opera, the thing was supposed to be one of the great modernist works of the 20th century. I’ve come to understand that “modernist” is another word for “pointless”—or perhaps the point is to quit trying to make sense out of an opera or novel.

Riley then sardonically considers explaining to those who need him to solve cases of murder and extortion that he’s a modernist investigator, so his reports would be too erudite for regular readers to understand. But, of course, he’d never use the word, “erudite” when “snooty” would do.

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