By Mark Roosevelt, President
I enjoy writing this column and appreciate the positive feedback from many of you. But it takes a good deal of time, so every so often I am going to offer an abbreviated version, some not-fully-flushed-out observations and, down the road a bit, perhaps even a list or two.
In the summer many readers seek “lighter fare.” Sometimes we call such fare “beach reads,” and at the risk of being snooty, a great many such books are not very good. You finish one and feel as you do after eating a bag of chips and a soda—full in an insubstantial way and not satisfied at all.
There are another group of writers who inhabit some sort of intermediate zone between beach read and “serious” literature, and you can incite some rather heated discussions by suggesting names for such designation. For example, some might nominate Elmore Leonard, Pat Conroy, or perhaps Anne Tyler. There are many such writers on bestseller lists and many of their books make for enjoyable and not-very-taxing reading.
Detective stories also incite a great deal of mostly useless debate about whether they should be taken seriously. I enjoy many such books and am enamored with two sub-genres—novels that deeply inhabit a particular place and American detective stories that feature world-weary idealists looking for some sort of justice in a sordid, grimy, highly-compromised place and time.
In the first category I particularly enjoy Donna Leon’s mysteries set in Venice, Italy, a city I have never visited but long to after reading quite a few of her 21 novels. The plots are not the main attraction, which, instead, is the charming and not-yet-truly jaded main character, Police Commissioner Guido Brunetti. Similar to many of his American counterparts, Brunetti is demoralized by the incompetence and corruption of Venetian business and government, as well as the slack ineffectuality of his boss, whose only aspiration is to keep from ruffling the feathers of the powers that be. Amidst this ugliness and the usual murders, two things buoy Brunetti’s spirits—the beauty of Venice and, unusual for a detective story, the pleasures of a happy family life.
My favorite mysteries (if that is what they are) are the novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Both these novelists set their stories in the Los Angeles area, and their protagonists, Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, are gritty idealists—loners who long ago learned not to expect “justice on this side of the grave,” but nonetheless cannot help but search for at least a piece of it for the lost and lonely characters they meet along the way. The best of these novels (my favorites are Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and Macdonald’s The Underground Man) are beautifully crafted with—especially in Chandler—remarkable dialogue and lovely, sad descriptions of the seedy underside of Southern California wealth and the desperate gloom of poverty amidst all that sunlight.
Are they literature? I am not sure what that really means, but if it is true that the fundamental subject of literature is loss, they meet that standard. They also provide great pleasure when you find yourself with a free afternoon or evening at the beach or anywhere else free from oppressive summer heat and the obligations of work.