Strange Angels; detectives in contemporary fiction

man-feeding-the-seagulls-on-haeundae-beach-busanAn interviewer asked about the detectives in the Limbo Trilogy. The question came as a surprise and got me thinking.

Why are literary suspense writers increasingly drawn to detectives in all their guises?

Detectives in fiction are often alcoholics on the fringes of polite society. We relish the fact that they are loners and that they don’t stop until they find answers.

Somehow, we need people like them to exist. They are strange angels, working cases that relate to the darkest chapters in human affairs, yet not allowing themselves to be co-opted by the shadows. Unlike policemen, they work independently, navigating the sub-realms of the apparently bright world we live in (nobody knows the nuances of light and shadow better than they do).

In Stieg Larsson’s Millennium crime novels, crusading investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and misfit hacker Lisbeth Salander work together to fight right-wing evil. If they occasionally operate outside society, they never operate outside morality.

The detectives in Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap accompany Paola Dante on her journey of transformation – the career woman who walks into the portals of the underground organisation that has swallowed up her husband is not the same person who walks out on the other side.

If anyone can help Paola to impose some kind of order on the chaos she finds herself in, it’s these oddly maverick presences. Gregory ‘The Rottweiler’ August, with his miniature liquor bottles, and recovering alcoholic and ‘has-been PI’ Elijah Bloom, are accustomed to looking for things the police have missed. Bloom, the “pale red-haired warrior”, is Paola’s brother-in-arms in her quest to find her husband. But will he be up to the task? Instinctively, we believe that he will. Nathan the Bear is a new kind of detective for a new age where we are all under constant surveillance. Like Lisbeth and Mikael, he uses computers to solve crimes.

Detective are also clichés. They almost parody themselves in fiction, which makes them reassuring. Paradoxically it is this familiarity that has allowed a new kind of literary fiction to emerge that blends genres and marries different styles to express the complexity of modern life.

Haruki Murakami, in an interview with TheParis Review, describes his novels as a mix of Dostoevsky and Chandler, and says that the tropes of the hardboiled detective story allow him to alter the rules of the game and examine aspects of existence. Like Murakami’s character in A Wild Sheep Chase who sets out to find a mysterious sheep, Paola Dante is personally affected as she searches for what is missing and lost.

As writers, we uncover and cast light on the hidden or secret worlds of others as we explore the themes that interest us. Like detectives, we start with a mystery or a puzzle and do not always know the outcome ourselves.

If I  write about crime, it’s because the underworld of the psyche holds great fascination – the violent emotions that direct our actions. Conflicting forces have the potential to spill over into our tidy lives. At this juncture, the possibility of crime exists. I’m interested in the law abiding citizen who breaks the law due to passion or misjudgement. The plot unravels around the consequences, societal and psychological.

Detectives are equipped to navigate the disruptive chaos of criminality – only they appear capable of sifting through conflicting clues and bringing some kind of order back to the world.

To lend our story a cohesive structure while we hunt down metaphysical meaning, we create these emissaries from the other side. They can solve mysteries that appear to be unsolvable, achieving a kind of societal order, but in contemporary literary suspense fiction this multilayered truth is both concrete and metaphorical, real and elusive.

Sometimes a mysterious sheep remains mysterious and a missing husband remains lost but the last line of the story must be written.

Writers make and unmake worlds. It is their job to lead the reader towards a satisfactory conclusion and it helps to follow a skew halo shining in the dark.

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