Friday, May 18, 2007

Pink is the new black

The upcoming New York Times Book Review includes Marilyn Stasio's regular roundup of crime and noir fiction. I don't always agree with Ms. Stasio's taste but whatever, that's par for the course. But what really stopped me in my tracks is a sentence in her review of Kjell Eriksson's The Cruel Stars of the Night (which, incidentally, is sitting in my "to read" pile). The novel seems to be rather grim: Stasio talks about "the autumnal melancholy that pervades the story," while a detective acknowledges "a nauseating feeling of indifference." No surprise here: We're talking not only about a crime novel, but about a Swedish crime novel.

But then Stasio muses, "Why genre readers are tickled by such morbid views of suffering humanity is anyone's guess."

Come again? Stasio wasn't describing, say, gratuitous scenes of torture by that Thomas Harris hack but a cop who doesn't just have a blues day, but an entire blues month. Ms. Stasio, the title of your column, which you have been writing for years, is "Crime." We indeed may be talking about genre here, but it's not romance or science fiction—it's not called noir for nothing. Suffering humanity is the name of the game, and acting all prim about it strikes me as either hypocritical or deluded. Should crime books have more happy endings? Should they be either about cats or cowritten by them? Would the inclusion of recipes help? What about even more cutesy bios for the lead characters, like a nun-turned-investigative mechanic, a snooping golf pro or a sleuthing chiropractor? And should these characters be put on a solid diet of antidepressants, lest they give the readers a bummer of a ride?

And what about that use of "tickled," as if readers of noir fiction found its often-pitch-black worldview sexy? Of course readers get tickled, but Stasio gets the source of that tickling wrong. Or should we assume that someone who's been reviewing genre lit for the Times for years isn't, on some level, tickled—not by violence but by clever plotting and well-drawn characters? I, for one, certainly hope she is.

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