China Mieville and the Conundrum of Crime Fiction

Over at John Scalzi’s site, China Mieville contributes a guest essay on crime fiction, a genre he’s tried out – very successfully, I might add, as did Denise Hamilton at the LA Times – with his new novel THE CITY AND THE CITY, which is published today. The essay tackles what too often is a big problem for crime novels, which is that endings invariably do not live up to the expectations built up over the course of the entire narrative – or as Mieville puts it, “crime novels are impossible. Specifically, impossible to end.” He explains further:

Because crime novels are not what they say they are. They are not,
for a start, realist novels. Holmes’s intoxicating and ludicrous
taxonomies derived from scuffs on a walking stick are not acts of
ratiocination but of bravura magical thinking. (Not that they, or other
‘deductions’, are necessarily ‘illogical’, or don’t make sense of the
evidence, but that they precisely do so: they make it into sense. The
sense follows the detection, in these stories, not, whatever the claim,
vice versa.) The various manly Virgils who appear ex nihilo
to escort Marlowe through his oneiric purgatories are not characters,
but eloquent opacities in man-shape: much more interesting. Dalgliesh’s
irresistibility to hyperrealised moral panics du jour – the
poor man manages to contract SARS – is an elegiac opera of Holland Park
angst, rather than any quotidian gazette of a policeman’s unhappy lot.
Detective fiction is a fiction of dreams. Not only is this no bad
thing, it is precisely what makes it so indispensable.

Secondly, detective novels are not novels of detection, still less
of revelation, still less of solution. Those are all necessary, but not
only are they insufficient, but they are in certain ways regrettable.
These are novels of potentiality. Quantum narratives. Their power isn’t
in their final acts, but in the profusion of superpositions before
them, the could-bes, what-ifs and never-knows. Until that final
chapter, each of those is as real and true as all the others, jostling
realities all dreamed up by the crime, none trapped in vulgar
facticity. That’s why the most important sentence in a murder mystery
isn’t the one starting ‘The murderer is…’ – which no matter how
necessary and fabulously executed is an act of unspeakable narrative
winnowing -  but is the snarled expostulation halfway through:
‘Everyone’s a suspect.’ Quite. When all those suspects become one
certainty, it’s a collapse, and a let-down. How can it not be? We’ve
been banished from an Eden of oscillation.

The fanciful part of me now wants to figure out how exactly to write a Schrodinger’s cat version of a crime novel, but Mieville’s point is a good one: inevitably crime novels are led around the noose by our own expectations of how they may resolve, and if said resolution doesn’t fit with expectation – especially if we’re hoping to be surprised – it leaves a bitter aftertaste from having invested so much time and energy into a novel that ultimately fails. That said, since Mieville offers up Darcy Sarto’s LADY DON’T FALL BACKWARDS as “the only flawless novel ever completed,” I will counteroffer with William Hjortsberg’s FALLING ANGEL, even as explaining why it is flawlessly constructed would ruin the book for those who have not read it.

And even though I can’t make it tonight, I strongly suspect Mieville’s joint appearance with Japanther at the Union Square B&N will be an excellent event.

UPDATE: Christopher G. Moore offers his thoughts in “The Quantum State in Contemporary Crime Fiction.”

UPDATE 2: Ray Banks unearths the very sketch Mieville was referring to, and thus reminded me what a genius Hancock was (I used to watch his stuff when I was a kid.)