Mysterious Reading Update

I’ve begun working my way through some of the books I’m considering as additions or alternatives in my Mystery and Detective Fiction course (thanks to everyone who offered suggestions and advice). So far, I’m not sold on any of the ones I’ve read.

I really didn’t enjoy Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers: like Miriam, I found it nearly “unreadable,” perhaps, as she proposes, because of a poor translation, but also I didn’t like either Wallander or the crime story particularly. To be sure, I don’t have to like a book to assign it, but then I need to see it as offering something important and new to the class, and I already have an example of a gloomy police procedural featuring a dysfunctional, divorced, hard-drinking detective. I also don’t have to assign the first book in the series and maybe they get better, so I’ll probably browse a couple more to test this first impression.

In a strange way, I did enjoy Chester Himes’s A Rage in Harlem, which is certainly one of the more surprising books I’ve read in any genre. It’s not really a detective novel: I think it’s best categorized as a “caper” story, or, as one reviewer in the cover blurb says, a “mayhem” story. It is grim and violent but surreally comic at the same time. One of the more spectacular scenes is a car chase through Harlem featuring a hearse loaded with a dead body and a trunk supposedly containing gold ore. An excerpt will give a sense of Himes’s striking, high-velocity prose as well as the outlandish character of the novel:

When Jackson took off in the big old Cadillac hearse down Park Avenue, he didn’t know where he was going. He was just running. He clung to the wheel with both hands. His bulging eyes were set in a fixed stare on the narrow strip of wet brick pavement as it curled over the hood like an apple-peeling from a knife blad, as though he were driving underneath it. On one side the iron stanchions of the trestle flew past like close-set fence pickets, on the other the store-fronted sidewalk made one long rushing somber kaleidoscope in the gray light before dawn.

The deep steady thunder of the supercharger spilled out behind. The open back-doors swung crazily on the bumpy road, battering the head of the corpse as it jolted up and down beneath the bouncing trunk.

He headed into the red traffic light at 116th Street doing eighty-five miles an hour. He didn’t see it. A sleepy taxi driver saw something black go past in front of him and thought he was seeing automobile ghosts. . . .

“Runaway hearse! Runaway hearse!” voices screamed.

The hearse ran into crates of iced fish spread out on the sidewalk, skidded with a heavy lurch, and veered against the side of the refrigerator truck. The back doors were flung wide and the throat-cut corpse came one-third out. The gory head hung down from the cut throat to stare at the scene of devastation from its unblinking white-walled eyes. . . .

Jackson went along 95th Street to Fifth Avenue. When he saw the stone wall surrounding Central Park he realized he was out of Harlem. He was down in the white world with no place to go, no place to hide his woman’s gold ore, no place to hide himself. He was going at seventy miles an hour and there was a stone wall ahead.

The climactic scenes involve a gender-bending character named Billie:

She was a brown-skinned woman in her middle forties, with a compact husky body filling a red gabardine dress. With a man’s haircut and a smooth, thick, silky mustache, her face resembled that of a handsome man. But her body was a cross. The top two buttons of the dress were open, and between her two immense uplifed breasts was a thick growth of satiny black hair.

Billie knows how to defend her own:

She put her whole weight in a down-chopping blow and sank the sharp blade of the axe into the side of his neck with such force it hewed through the spinal column and left his head dangling over his left shoulder on a thin strip of flesh, the epithet still on his lips.

Blood geysered from red stump of neck over the fainting girl as Billie dropped the axe, picked her bodily in her arms, and showered her with kisses.

It’s all sort of awesomely horrible. Honestly, I wouldn’t know where to start if I were teaching this novel. But my curiosity about Himes is certainly piqued, so I’m going to look into his novels that focus more clearly on his detectives, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones.

Stylistically, I’m impressed at what I’ve read of Yasmina Khadra’s Double Blank, one of the few of his detective novels I found at my public library. (I actually don’t read much literature in translation, so here and with the Mankell I was puzzled at where to lay the blame or credit for the qualities of the prose, but since I would have to work with the English version, what matters in the end is how well it reads.) But it takes me so far afield from what I usually teach in terms of historical and cultural context that I think it would be difficult for me to do an adequate job of it.

So: more to read, more to think about. In the meantime, I’ve also learned of what looks like an excellent anthology to consider as an alternative to the one I’ve been using, the Oxford Book of Detective Stories: the Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction. Just going by the product description, it seems to have a good selection of primary material but also an interesting array of critical supplements. It’s not clear to me yet that it would be available for my class in an acceptable format. Perhaps its limited availability in Canada explains why I hadn’t turned it up before, though it is not a new volume.

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