The Given Genre
My review of Dennis Lehane’s THE GIVEN DAY runs in the Los Angeles Times today. I’ll get to that in a bit, but it seems fitting that it runs just as that old literary/genre saw gets dredged up again, thanks in part to a throwaway line in Janet Maslin’s review last week that [Lehane] has written a majestic, fiery epic that moves him far beyond the confines of the crime genre.” Which led David Montgomery to assert the following:
I’ve been thinking about that statement since I read it, wondering
exactly what the confines of the crime genre are. And near as I can
come up with, a crime novel has to have a crime (either past or future)
play an important part in the plot, or else it somehow has to deal with
crime or the aftermath of crime in a significant way. Other than that,
I think anything is fair game.
By and large that rationale is correct, but it also depends on the definition. LUSH LIFE by Richard Price, which Montgomery terms a crime novel, isn’t one in my book because the problems the book tries to solve have more to do with social change, race and class structure and what’s above/below the surface. It’s why AMERICAN TRAGEDY or APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA have death and crime hanging over them in significant fashion, but neither of those are crime novels as we define them now.
Which circles back to the other example of the literary/genre saw with regards to Lehane, one that’s pretty much due to the slant given by Entertainment Weekly’s writers. First we have Jennifer Reese opening her review of THE GIVEN DAY with one of the silliest paragraphs I’ve read in quite a while: “While it’s become hip for highbrow writers to pop out thrillers in
their downtime, you don’t often see a cool noir master risking his cred
with a literary novel. Why chance an embarrassing failure when you’ve
got a moneymaking formula down cold?”
Nitpicking that statement feels rather like searching out a mathematical proof that will provide a logic workaround to “have you stopped beating your wife”, and anyway, it’s more endemic of the faux dichotomy EW’s setting up here – never more evident than in the accompanying profile of Lehane by Gregory Kirschling. A handful of people seem to be put off by Lehane’s comments, framed as they are by Kirschling’s “bold” assertions that “Dennis Lehane is done writing whodunits” or “And yes, mystery fans, Lehane thinks he really is
done with Patrick Kenzie.” Well, duh. Lehane’s been saying that, more or less, for as long as he’s been working on THE GIVEN DAY, and likely a lot longer. This is not news. Wondering if a 700-page historical novel fits within the confines of crime fiction is less interesting than wondering whether a 700-page historical novel fits within the confines of Dennis Lehane.
And this brings me back to my review, which tries to put Lehane’s new, seeming departure in context with his earlier work and comes up with a lot more thematic similarities than differences. The penchant towards melodrama. The descriptions of epic love, often gone horribly wrong. The emphasis on emotion over reason, and though it’s not elaborated on in the piece, how Lehane’s seemingly straightforward syntax actually works to better serve his more dramatic flourishes. The wrapping may be different, but whether it’s a PI novel or a crime thriller or an historical epic or whatever someone happens to call a particular book at any moment, the problems Lehane’s trying to work out in his fiction tend to stay the same. And that’s fine: look at Philip Roth or Paul Auster: revisiting the same thematic territory time and time again hasn’t hurt their respective literary reputation.
So sure, I think Kenzie & Gennaro are done.* They aren’t an appropriate vehicle for Lehane’s current literary quests, and I don’t think they should or will be in the future. Then again, I bet John P. Marquand didn’t expect to revisit Mr. Moto two decades after winning the Pulitzer Prize for THE LATE GEORGE APLEY, either…
_*For a while, whenever Lehane was asked the question about his PI duo’s possible return, his answer varied on the theme of “they have to knock on my door with open arms” and “I won’t plug them in and have
them take a cruise where the chef gets killed_ **and only Patrick and Angie
can solve it**.” I suspect, however, that story would be infinitely more interesting if it went something like this…