Murder, He Read: Crime, Punishment & Sex. (of Several Minds)

Article excerpt

When I was a child I had an illness that kept me out of school for a year and left me pretty much unable to do anything but stay at home and read and draw. I was seven, and my lifelong addiction to reading started with mythology and fairy tales. Pantheon had published the complete Grimm's Fairy Tales, a book I read over and over again; I loved Padraic Colum's great retellings of the Norse and Greek myths. A little later came C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and his adult science fiction and fantasy, though much of it was beyond me. I discovered the pulpier forms of science fiction when I was nine, and for the next few years that was my passion. Then, when I was a freshman in high school, I picked up a copy of Raymond Chandler's thriller, The Lady in the Lake. I was hooked on Chandler from then on.

It's not that I read nothing but thrillers and the pulps; in high school I also read Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, which came as a kind of saving grace: it helped me understand that real life might be found even in a middle-sized Midwestern town. I loved poetry, especially the beats, but also Whitman, Blake, Robinson Jeffers, and Robert Frost. Recently, on re-reading Chandler, I wondered about the reading habits we get into. Why is it that, although I still read some of the better science fiction writers--Philip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin--I do so only occasionally? Mysteries have been the constant, and usually only a particular kind, the sort called "hard-boiled." (This is to set them apart from the Agatha Christie variety, the British sort that has some urbane Scotland Yard pipe smoker figure out how the man in the locked room got murdered.)

Why mysteries, and why the hard-boiled variety? At one level, the attraction is probably no more subtle or sophisticated than the reason people are drawn to erotic literature. Sex is interesting. So is violence. People slow down to look at accidents. The bad people in the novels of Dennis Lehane are really bad, and when they meet with their invariably violent comeuppance we feel an understandable, if not defensible, satisfaction. It's not so much that the good guys win as that the bad guys don't. And in some of these novels, the distinction between good and bad guys isn't all that clear. Elmore Leonard, one of the best practitioners of the craft, often writes about con-men and half-criminal sorts you wind up rooting for because they aren't as bad as the people they're up against. It helps that Leonard's style is fast-moving and does just what he wants it to do--he said once, when asked why his novels were such brisk and entertaining reads, that he leaves out the parts that readers skip. He is also often laugh-out-loud funny, and the dialogue is great.

There is another reason I keep going back to this sort of reading. …