Continuing with our discussion of Georges Simenon’s The Engagement, Mark Binelli responds to Chad Post’s earlier blog entry about the book and even recommends some of his own picks for fans of detective fiction.—Editor’s note.
Well, see, I’d actually dispute Gray’s entire premise. Like you, Chad, I’m definitely not a mystery novel aficionado, but I have read more than five, and it seems to me that Gray’s argument about Simenon could easily be made about writers like Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, James Ellroy or Patricia Highsmith, to name four genre practitioners who I think are just as dark and pessimistic as Simenon but who are much better writers. (Again, this should all be hedged by the fact that I’ve only read The Engagement.)
I agree that the book works best as a character study. It’s all just undercut, for me at least, by the hacky plot points that Simenon seems incapable of not returning to, and which work completely at odds with his supposed cold-eyed realist’s worldview. I think if you put your toe in genre, you have to do it right, otherwise the unsatisfying aspects of simple plot mechanics get in the way of everything else.
As far as books that play around with the detective genre that I like, it’s funny—I feel like so many writers attempt this kind of thing (Auster, Lethem, Murakami) but it’s tough to pull off. I thought Colson Whitehead’s first book, The Intuitionist, was pretty great. Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark also comes to mind. It’s very noirish and cinematic. Though I don’t remember any detectives per se. I’m curious about that new Chabon book, but haven’t read it. I can think of many more examples of films that do this successfully. (The gold standard, of course, being The Big Lebowski.) Not sure why this is. Maybe “detective genre” prose is often so stylized that it makes imitation, even by more literary writers, incredibly fraught… I’m not sure.