I’m a big-city sort of person.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, longtime resident of San Francisco. Except for college, some hippie wanderlust, and a miserable suburban adolescence that’s best passed over with a shudder, I’ve
spent most of my life in cities and am glad of it.
So when it came to writing my first romance, The Bookseller’s Daughter
, I sent my heroine from Languedoc and Provence to Paris for the novel’s denouement. To Paris, where in 1785 revolutionary sentiment was simmering, and where everything I love in cities was (and still is) writ large:
Art, style, crowds, diversity.
Street life. Small business. Upward mobility (or so I like to hope).
And while I know full well that rampant urban consumerism can hardly be depended upon to give way to progressive social change, I think you can make the case for Enlightenment Paris. As (not surprisingly) did my heroine, Marie-Laure, in these meditations:
In stuffy, provincial Montpellier… you always knew who everybody was: merchant or magistrate; servant, shopgirl, or laborer. You knew by their dress, but also by their bearing. Somehow, you’d intuit a person’s place in the scheme of things as soon as you saw him or her on the street.
Whereas in Paris, decoding the identities of the mass of people rushing past her was like trying to read the patchwork tapestry of posters, playbills, and announcements pasted on the walls. New ones half covered old ones, bits were torn off or worn beyond recognition; you couldn’t get a fix on any single reality. In this city of actors and strivers and seekers -- of shoppers -- everyone was busy patching or replacing the roles life had handed them. Or trying to piece together something new, striking, and original, at the best possible price.
I still enjoy that intuition Marie-Laure and I shared about modern urban life: all those possibilities to remake your identity, and at the best price possible; mastering that particularly modern urban competence of keeping everybody guessing who you really are.
And I was forcefully and fascinatingly reminded of it during the last few weeks, since I’ve begun auditing a class at San Francisco State University in Detective Fiction - or to give it its full, formal title: “Mystery, Modernity, and Identity: Anglo-American Detective Fiction from the 1840s to the 1990s”.
Because what I’ve been learning in this terrifically interesting course is that it was the rapid advent of nineteenth century urbanism that created a new fictional genre - from the “urban mystery” to the detective story (the term was invented by Poe). And that it was exactly the sort of urban flexibility and fluidity of social role and appearance that made “detection” -- “reading” your fellow city-dwellers - a new and sensational concern. That fellow in a flash suit might be an embezzler. And as for that the smartly-dressed lady strolling in the Bois de Boulogne: who knows what sort of a past she had before she married her wealthy husband?
We’re reading, and will be reading some classic authors (Poe, Hammett, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Cristie, Herman Melville’s great story “Benito Cereno” - even Gertrude Stein attempted a detective novel, I learned). But we’re also be reading some lesser authors - at least in terms of what we think of as literary quality - who were wildly popular in their day. And we’re learning about important stops on the way to the modern detective story - the gothic novel of the Georgian and Regency periods, and the wildly popular “urban mystery,” of the 1840s.
Because before Poe created C. Auguste Dupin, the first detective hero (and one who applied himself to the crimes the Paris police couldn’t solve) “Urban Mystery” fiction exploited a generation’s fears of the dark, crowded, often pestilential conurbations that had expanded so rapidly with the rise of industrialism, and which swarmed with people who might be - anybody
, even murderers.
The overarching urban mystery was how such places had come to be.
What my heroine Marie-Laure had seen as a dazzling site of self-creation, the heroes of urban mysteries began to see as a terrifying site of impenetrable masquerade, limitless conspiracy, and rampant hypocrisy (often in the figures of self-serving clergymen).
Eugene Sue had begun the vogue for such fiction with his 1842, which was read by everybody and counted Karl Marx among its reviewers. Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris
is all but forgotten now, but it sold in huge numbers, published in magazine installments with suitable cliff-hanger endings -- and I’m told it remains one of the most widely read novels ever. ) The Mysteries of Paris
spawned a host of imitators: there were Mysteries of London - even to Cincinnati, Ohio and Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
Our professor pointed out that the term “mystery” comes laden with earlier meanings: from the classical tradition, a sense of initiation into occult knowledge (as in the Eleusinean mysteries of ancient Greece), from the Gothic novel, a sense of the return of the repressed, of buried horrible family crimes.
In an urban setting, the mystery motif took the perversely pleasurably form of allowing the reader to feel herself privy (an initiate, if you will) to secret understandings (or perhaps urban legends) of an underworld, a crime hierarchy presided over by an evil genius. In the urban mystery we’re reading, George Thompson’s 1848 City Crimes
, an unsavory character called The Dead Man presides over just such an underworld - literally an underworld, btw, of buried caves and waterways crawling with rats and reptiles (presaging that deathless Manhattan urban myth of the alligators in the sewer system).
Copping a detail from an earlier urban mystery and scooping Batman’s Joker by almost a century, urban villains like Thompson’s
Dead Man deform their faces with acid - to hide their identities, or to reveal the inner horror of their souls? The ambiguity remains powerful even now.
Thompson (who also wrote in magazine serial form) lards his action with details ranging from gory to noxious to downright nauseating; his style is cheap, sensational, redundant, prurient (much is made of every lady’s “ivory globes”); his writing, for all that, is wonderfully, bracingly, compulsively readable. Things keep happening; just when you think he can’t top himself he does.
As a writer in a popular genre, I tip my hat to him; as a reader, I award him a grin and an appreciative shudder, and then turn to Wilkie Collins’ deeply comforting and beautifully crafted The Moonstone
, granddaddy of a long line of genteel English country-house detective novels.
Because - although we haven’t discussed this in class yet - it's clear to me that one of the paradoxes of the detective genre is this movement from city to country. My guess as to why this was inevitable, is that at least in England, for much of that country’s history land was always the source of wealth and power, and the centuries of culture that surround this are too rich and dense, engaging and downright wonderful not to yield their own mysteries.
I’ve posted here already
about Pemberley as one of the Great Good Places in the history of the English novel and of the romance as well. And yet Pemberley also had its secrets, didn’t it, to be revealed to Lizzy Bennet in the course of the development of the romance plot?
For myself, I discovered the power of the mythology of the English country house story when, in early versions of Almost a Gentleman
, I tried to limit the action to London and discovered that I couldn’t - because…
But you’ll have to come back for the next installment of my own discoveries in this wonderful sister genre.While as for questions: Do you read mysteries? Which ones do you especially like? How do they compare with your romance favorites? And for those of you out there (Tracy?) who combine the suspense element with the romantic, how do you see these issues?
Labels: Almost a Gentleman, Edgar Allen Poe, George Thompson, The Bookseller's Daughter, Wilkie Collins