I’ve been struggling to write about some of the books I’ve been reading lately, three of them mysteries: this one by Lippman and two by Griffiths in the previous post. Perhaps it’s because I don′t have much to say—an idea that struck me after reading a piece about genre literature vs. “real” literature by Arthur Krystal in The New Yorker. Krystal had been attacked for earlier suggesting a dichotomy between genre fiction and “so-called straight fiction.” In this article, he clarifies his stand:
What I’m trying to say is that “genre” is not a bad word, although perhaps the better word for novels that taxonomically register as genre is simply “commercial.” Born to sell, these novels stick to the trite-and-true, relying on stock characters whose thoughts spool out in Lifetime platitudes. There will be exceptions, as there are in every field, but, for the most part, the standard genre or commercial novel isn’t going to break the sea frozen inside us.
I think Krystal is right. A mystery, even a fine one, isn’t going to resonate in the same way a great novel does—say, Middlemarch or Anna Karenina, or to cite a more recent novel I think is pretty wonderful: Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville. There are probably only so many Middlemarchs I’d want to read in a year, but I’ve got to start finding more In Zanesvilles.
Not that I plan to give up reading mysteries, detective stories, and the occasional romance. The deeper end of the genre pool still promises certain delights, as Krystal notes:
Genre, served straight up, has its limitations, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise. Indeed, it’s these very limitations that attract us. When we open a mystery, we expect certain themes to be addressed and we enjoy intelligent variations on these themes.
And so: I enjoyed Another Thing to Fall, an entry in Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series set in Baltimore. The plot involves mischief and mayhem in the production of a TV series with a local, historical angle (giving Lippman ample opportunity to parade her knowledge of Baltimore past, present, and peculiar). It was a satisfying read, spiced with plot twists and narrative wit.
An odd thing to note, I know—but I especially liked the title, which is from Measure for Measure: “’Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus/Another thing to fall.”
Following standard mystery practices, Lippman’s tale illustrates how wrongdoers descend from blameless temptation to bloody results. The title would have been apt for so many examples of the genre, it’s a wonder that it’s never been used before.