Sometimes a writer needs to look outside their comfort zone to find constructive inspiration for a story. When writers draw inspiration solely from within the confines of their own genre, writers run the risk of sounding repetitive, like their rehashing parts of someone else’s story. Hardboiled crime writers can lose their individual voice in the echo chamber of their genre just like any other fiction writer. It could be the case that a genre writer looking for inspiration could find it within unconventional stories that challenge traditional devices of the genre. Below are three books that manipulate traditional hardboiled crime fiction in ways that could reinvigorate writers and readers to the subject.
P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley
A crime writer for over twenty years, British-born P.D. James is no stranger to the genre. What sets her newest novel Death Comes to Pemberley apart from its peers is the subject matter and the narrative style. James sets her story in the same Victorian setting as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and by the same setting I mean the same characters, the continuation of the same storyline that ended with Austen’s novel. But don’t be scared away by the premise! James uses her skill as a crime writer to investigate the dark, gothic underbelly that belies the relatively sunny atmosphere of the British socialites in Pride and Prejudice. The novel playfully inverts the decorousness of its Victorian subject matter: bloodied corpses are discovered, shady characters sully the main characters’ decorous conventions, friends betrayed, and mysteries beget mysteries. It’s an entertaining and refreshing reinvention of the Victorian mystery fused with the best elements of contemporary crime fiction.
Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice
Thomas Pynchon might be called a lot of things in his illustrious career as a fiction writer, but “crime writer” is not usually among them. His huge and dazzlingly complex novels have garnered him decades of critical acclaim while the author himself remains shrouded in anonymity, a mystery novel unto himself. His relatively breezy 2009 crime novel Inherent Vice playfully engages the elements of hardboiled fiction in the drug-haze of early 1970’s Los Angeles. The story follows the main character, Private Investigator “Doc” Sportello, through a series of bizarre investigations begun with a small job taken on behalf of his ex-girlfriend. Follow Doc through a hilariously drug-induced fog of paranoia and half-baked mystery that plays out like a well-crafted Coen brothers movie.
Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me
Most recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, Jennifer Egan is a writer’s writer. Her prose is as florid as it is thought provoking and complex. Her 2001 novel Look at Me focuses her critical eye on the theme of identity, how people perceive of themselves and others. The story interweaves several narratives, but the main story concerns a spiritually lost private eye and a has-been fashion model trying to hunt down a mysterious figure known to them only as Z. As the story progresses and Egan reveals more background about every character, you start to gain a deeper understanding of the stereotypical private eye, their job, their lives, and the interconnectedness of the lives around them. It’s a compelling read well worth your time.
Byline: Jane Smith is a freelance writer and blogger. She writes about criminal background check for Backgroundcheck.org. Questions and comments can be sent to: janesmth161 @ gmail.com