Can genre fiction be literature too? This detective novel definitely is

The Baltimore Sun


By Nicola Griffith

Riverhead (Penguin) / 480 pages / $26.95

The debate springs up every so often: Can writing that is also mystery, science fiction, gothic or romance still be literary and address serious issues? Or is it all just glorified beach reading?

The argument has been raging anew for months, fueled by comments and commentary by the likes of such award-winning writers as Michael Chabon, Ursula K. LeGuin, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham and Stephen King. After years of teaching genre writing as literary fiction and vice versa in college courses, it's difficult for me to over-emphasize how blurred the lines between genre and "literary" often are. Is Jane Austen "serious" or just another romance writer? What about Dickens? Is Crime and Punishment literary discourse or a murder mystery? Oprah turned Tolstoy and Faulkner into popular, best-selling fiction; does that make Anna Karenina and Light in August any less literary?

Distinctions about what is and what is not "literary" are often artificial, and never more so than when discussing detective fiction.

Writers of classic detective fiction - Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, P.D. James - all explore issues of morality and criminality, Good and Evil, the gray areas of modern life, which are just as often the subject and substance of "literary" fiction.

Nicola Griffith has dealt repeatedly with the darker sides of human nature in her detective fiction, but the set-ups and underlying plots are distinctly literary in construct. Her protagonist, Aud Torvingen, the six-foot-tall, blonde-haired, gray-eyed former Atlanta cop who can best any man except the one who murdered the love of her life, is a classic noir figure. Aud, introduced in The Blue Place, is damaged goods, as all detectives tend to be. Dealing with the seamy underbelly of modern life is definitely as emotionally damaging as not being kissed by Mr. Darcy or being rejected by Count Vronsky.

In Griffith's latest, Always, Aud is more broken than ever, her heart still mangled, her spirit still muted by the violence of the loss of her lover in the mesmerizing beauty of the snow and ice in her mother's native Scandinavia.

Her mother, Else, the Norwegian diplomat, features anew in Always. Aud travels to Seattle to see her mother and do some light detective work, unknown to her mother. But it is the self-defense course she has been teaching to fill out her time and keep her mind a little blank that sunders her uneasy peace. Aud has been teaching a range of women - soccer moms, society ladies, store clerks, secretaries - but when her students need to use their newfound skills, mayhem breaks loose and Aud is on The Case again. Her good friend Matthew Dornan, who has accompanied her on her trip to Seattle, is in the wings for succor and, as in Griffith's last novel, conflict as well.

Aud has always been a tightly wound character: interior and gristly in the mode of the hard-boiled detective. Her femaleness softens her not one iota - if anything she is, like Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, even tougher because she's a woman in a wholly male world. In Always, Aud is at her tipping point: Her efforts to make women more self-sufficient and safe backfire dramatically. The guilt she already carries over the death of Julia in The Blue Place is intensified exponentially by the catastrophic events in Always. Can she come out of this one with her soul intact?

The basic tenet of all detective fiction is whether Good can win out over Evil. It's supposed to, but it doesn't always happen that way, as Dostoevsky made crystal clear. Aud has always walked a fine line: The world of the detective is one of moral absolutes and survivalist imperatives. Kill or be killed isn't a question or suggestion, it's the sampler over the bedpost, the mantra chattered beneath the quaking breath while running on a dark, lonely street. Killing either dehumanizes or breaks one. Which will happen to Aud?

In her last foray with Aud, Stay, Griffith introduced us to her in a state of suspended emotional animation. She was chopping wood and bird-watching in the woods of South Carolina and trying to maintain some semblance of self, before Dornan dragged her into a case and out of her gloom.

But it didn't take. As Always opens, Aud is with Dornan on an airplane to Seattle, but she's as emotionally shut off from people - even her friend - as she was when he lured her out of the woods in Stay.

The intensity of the series of crimes Aud investigates in Always, and the subplot of a liaison with a stuntwoman, Victoria "Kick" Kuiper, with whom Dornan is also smitten, force Aud's vulnerability to the surface. She has to feel. She can't deny her own humanity any longer. But at what price to her own hardened sense of self, the only protection she's been able to devise?

It's a complicated plot: real estate fraud, assault, danger on a TV pilot set involving OSHA and the EPA, Aud's own mettle tested when it turns out she's being duped by someone who works for her - another woman, no less. Then there's Aud's feelings for her mother. Her feelings for her friend, Dornan. Her feelings for the murdered Julia.

The course of detective fiction never runs smooth, but it's not supposed to. Crime stories remind us of the fine line between our animal selves and our moral human selves and how easily we can end up on the wrong side of moral and ethical, if not actual criminal law.

In Always, the award-winning Griffith ratchets her fiction, plot and narrative up yet another notch. The schematic moves between the brutal and the subtle, the sublime and the grisly. As ever, Griffith's prose is honed and polished and her descriptions of place are both exact and atmospheric. We can smell the self-defense class, feel subsumed by the black water in the night off Puget Sound, touch the dampness of the constant Seattle cloud-deck. Most importantly, however, we cannot extricate the literary from the genre. Always follows in the footsteps of other classic detective fiction - it draws on our need to see wrong righted, it preys on our fears that justice will not be served and it presents a damaged, nearly broken character as capable of strength and moral purpose and certitude. Always is a novel of compelling and complex literary substance.

Victoria A. Brownworth teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent books are "The Golden Age of Lesbian Erotica: 1920-1940" and "Bed: New Lesbian Erotica."

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