There Is No Satisfying Her
by Melodie Johnson Howe
Recently I attended a cocktail party in Los Angeles. Most of the guests work in â€œthe biz.â€ Clutching my chardonnay, I found myself listening to a TV writer. He was talking about himself. I nodded my head and tried not to stare over his shoulder at the other guests. I donâ€™t like it when this is done to me. Through the din of the chatter I heard him say, â€œIâ€™ve written a book.â€
I lifted my eyebrows.
â€œItâ€™s literary,â€ he added.
I lowered my brows.
â€œMore of a mid-list book. Do you know what mid-list means?â€
I nodded. â€œIâ€™m a writer.â€
His eyebrows arched. â€œHave you been published?â€
â€œYes. I write mysteries.â€
â€œOh, well. No wonder you got published. Itâ€™s much easier to get published in that genre. Iâ€™ve had some short stories published in a few literary journals.â€
â€œMine have been published in Ellery Queen.â€
Now he was looking past me at the other guests. I drifted away.
The irony is we were being hosted by a man who has made his living creating mysteries for TV. He deeply respects the genre. He writes for Ellery Queen. He loves what he does. However, the man I had been talking to was writing for the acclaim he thought he deserved.
Back in Santa Barbara, I went to a screening of a murder/suspense movie called â€œFractured.â€ The man who introduced it announced that he didnâ€™t usually like this kind of movie. He never explained why. But his tone of voice conveyed a certain taste for more â€œsophisticatedâ€ fare. He then quickly went on to say he did like this movie a lot. Probably because the writer and director were sitting in the audience.
A few weeks, later in the comfort of my own kitchen, I read a review of a thriller novel. The reviewer used up his one column to explain to the reader why he doesnâ€™t usually like these kind of books. Finally in the last two tiny paragraphs he informed us that he did like this book, with qualms, because the author chose to use Che Gueverra as his lead character. Of course heâ€™d like that. The academics and the â€œseriousâ€ artists have turned Che into a God. Iâ€™ve wondered what would have been Cheâ€™s legacy if he had not been soâ€”gaspâ€”romantically gorgeous?
What do these three incidents have in common? In the long run, not much. In the short run they irritated the hell out of me. Iâ€™m tired of the genre that I love so much being the kicking boy for the unspeakable spouting the unfathomable. Iâ€™m tired of the books I love being compared to Kleenex. Use it once throw it way. A book you can get sand on at the beach. Or leave on an airplane when youâ€™re through with it. Good mystery novels are not disposable. You can read them over and over, even if you know who did it. That is the sign of good mystery.
On the other hand when I find our genre being accepted by the academics and the literary-know-it-alls it also irritates the hell out of me. There are chat books, one is called Clues, that deconstruct, puree and frappe a good mystery novel until itâ€™s well â€¦ pulp â€¦ without the fiction. In Clues they take a thrilling and wicked stylist like Margaret Millar, turn her into stone, and then grind her to dust as they search for her intellectual essence. It does not occur to them that what they discover is their own projection of what they think is her intellectual essence. BLAH, BLAH. BLAH.
When Eudora Welty blew literary kisses to Ross Macdonald it was really the kiss of death. (By the way, I love both writers.)
You can tell when a mystery writer is trying to be literary. You can feel the prose sliding in to parody. When academia begins to dissect Nancy Drew (coming soon) you will know we have stumbled into satire.
I have more to rant about but I have a novel to edit and a short story to finish. I hope when my book is published somebody will get sand on the pages at the beach. I hope they take the book off the plane with them. I hope they reread it just for the pure joy of it.