As a reader of fiction, I’m cursed with an an inability to suspend disbelief. And I’m usually only able to finish reading novels I believe in.
I don’t believe in the supernatural. But I believe in Bram Stoker’s vampires. I believe in Stephen King’s ghosts. Because, though fictitious, what they write is true.
But there are some fabulously talented writers whose violent fiction is more of a pornographic daydream.
I was struck by this especially hard twice in 2013, when reading novels by authors whose work I’m normally powerfully affected by.
One was The Double, the latest novel by George Pelecanos, whom I consider to be one of the greatest US fiction writers of the last two decades. With the exception of the lamentable Shoedog, I had found all of his previous 19 novels to be emotionally and intellectually compelling. I was particularly looking forward to this new one, because it was the second in a new series that had started with The Cut, about the travails and triumphs of Spero Lucas, a young war veteran working as a private investigator. The Cut had made me care about Lucas, his courage, wounds, lusts and weaknesses, and I wanted to know what would happen to him next.
I have a rule when reading: I never turn the page unless the book compels me to. As a writer, I know the reader owes me nothing, and as a reader I’m ruthless with my time. I have never understood people who force themselves to finish books they don’t like. I especially don’t understand when they say, “Well, I’m halfway through it, so I might as well read the rest.” If they’re being beaten, and someone offers to call the cops, I imagine they say, “No, that’s okay, he’s halfway through beating the hell out of me, so I might as well let him finish…” I also suspect they’re forgiving of bad sex.
I don’t want anyone to finish reading any of my books unless they feel compelled to—and, of course, I want everyone who starts reading any of my books to read to the end. I know I have to make them believe, and I’m unwilling to accept less from any author.
The Double is clumsily-written, with some sentences I had to reread to make sense of, and others that made no sense to me however many times I read them. I forced myself to finish it, because I was trying to give Pelecanos the benefit of the doubt, but it was a slog, and not just because the prose was so uneven. There are books far more poorly-written that have kept me hooked. The problem with The Double was one that I had never before encountered with a Pelecanos book…
I didn’t believe it.
I stopped caring about Spero Lucas, because I stopped believing he was real, that the story was real. The part that made me stop believing might seem trivial to some. It was when the omniscient, third-person narrator referred to the safety catch on a Glock.
Glocks don’t have safety catches.
Trivial, right? I should just forget that little error and keep on believing, right? I wish I had the ability to do that.
The other book that turned me into an unbeliever was also one that I was excitedly looking forward to, the second novel by Jake Hinkson. His first, Hell on Church Street, stands alongside James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Vicki Hendricks’ Miami Purity and George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle as that rare thing, a perfect first novel. In my review of it, I wrote, “it seems like something that’s happening rather than something being read.” Though the story has the luridness of Grand Guignol, I believed it from twisted start to depraved finish.
So, you can imagine how glad I was when his second one, The Posthumous Man, arrived. But the gladness didn’t last for long. It disappeared along with my belief.
It’s not as brilliantly-written as Hell on Church Street, but you can’t hold that against it. The chances of pulling off two perfect masterpieces in a row is about the same as one’s chances of winning the lottery twice in a row. The Posthumous Man is based on a great, though improbable idea, but Hinkson tells the story so effectively that its improbability didn’t stop me.
Its impossibility did.
Early on, there’s a scene where corpses must be disposed of, as corpses must when they got that way because you murdered them. Makes sense to me. But what the characters did before disposing of the bodies made no sense at all.
They stabbed the bodies in order to drain them of blood.
But corpses, even recently-rendered ones, don’t bleed much when cut. It takes a heartbeat to pump out a lot of blood. Shortly after death, the blood settles, and it will take more than a few slashes or punctures to get it out of there. I knew that, but Hinkson didn’t know it any more than Pelecanos knew that the Glock doesn’t have a safety catch, and so for me what had been a strong story now seemed silly and contrived. In each case, the story was drowned out by the voice of a storyteller who didn’t know what he was talking about, and so I didn’t believe the story because I didn’t believe him.
I hope it’s clear by now that this isn’t a quibble about the mechanics of guns or corpse-disposal. As someone who has experienced more violence than most civilized people (from both the victim and the victimizer), my inability to believe in these stories feels like it has less to do with their lack of accurate detail than the fetishism exposed by that lack of accuracy. Guns are not toys, and neither are corpses, and there’s something distasteful about scenes of violence written by people who clearly don’t understand the actualities of violence. I’m not suggesting that novelists should write from experience (I rarely, almost never, do); I’m arguing that in order to imagine truthfully, we need to know what we’re talking about. There’s a major difference between creating crime fiction that’s true and being a little boy playing with guns. Jean-Patrick Manchette said, “the crime novel is the great moral literature of our time.” It was true when he said it, and it’s even more true, even more urgent, a couple decades after his death. When crime fiction tells the truth, however brutal and vivid the writing, it speaks with compassion and insight to the precarious lives we live. When it bullshits and poses, it does the opposite. It is, as Orwell put it when discussing Auden’s romantic view of “necessary murder,” like children playing with fire who don’t understand that fire is hot. It is morally and artistically necessary that crime fiction be written by adults.