IN DEFENSE OF MYSTERIES – Tim Hallinan (Murder Is Everywhere)

Those of us who read mysteries (obsessively, in my case), are often looked down upon by those who prefer “literary” fiction.

Tim Hallinan offered this piece, the Genre Ghetto, on his blog,, on 12/20/2009.  It was in response to an article by Janet Maslin in the New York Times.

Tim is the author of the Poke Rafferty thrillers set in Bangkok ( the four books are reviewed on this blog) and the Simeon Grist mysteries set in Los Angeles (now available as Kindle editions on Amazon).  The Stupid 365 Project is the tongue in cheek title of the blog Tim has vowed to write for a year (  As part of the blog, Tim will be posting an original Halloween story, “Spirit House”,  beginning on October 29 and ending on October 31, Halloween.



Genre Ghetto


In a New York Times review of Dan Chaon’s estimable Await Your Reply, Janet Maslin, who should know a hell of a lot better, wrote: “[the book] bridges the gap between Literary and pulp fiction.” (The cap “L” is mine.)

Talk about snobbery. The ill-chosen word “gap” suggests that we exist in a sort of bifurcated world, where the lovers and creators of Literary fiction lead heightened lives, subsisting on the fragrance of oranges, sunlight, and a wry acceptance of the human condition, while the rest of us grub around on our elbows in the muck, grunting at each other and trying to keep the drool off our copy of the new mass-market paperback by Stuart Woods.
By pulp fiction, Maslin means what she undoubtedly thinks of as genre fiction: mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, romance — you know, the stuff people read. And I’ll admit that some of it is awful, but I’ll also say that some of it is every bit as good as Literary fiction. And even when genre fiction is bad, it’s not as bad — nothing is as bad — as bad Literary fiction.
I believe that one of the things that agonizes many Literary critics (and editors) about genre fiction — okay, about mysteries and thrillers — is the prevalence of happy endings. No book can be taken seriously by the critical establishment unless it ends on a gray, cold beach, shrouded by fog, with a gull screeching unseen as a child’s brightly colored shoe washes ashore. I mean, that’s life. Life as it really is. With a bad ending. Bleak is the new black.
In today’s criticism, a bad ending, by which I mean an ending in which the characters are considerably worse off than they were in the beginning, is almost a requirement for fiction to receive serious artistic consideration. Happy endings are a convention. They’re vulgar. They’re not real.
It will not come as news to the writer or fan of mysteries and thrillers that everyone dies sooner or later. Most of us understood that before we began to shave wherever it is that we shave. We actually do realize that all happy endings are temporary. And so what? One of the essential creative acts in writing a book is putting a frame around the story: it begins here, it ends there, it goes no higher than this and no lower than that. Painters and

photographers face the same challenge. For a work of art to be about anything, there have to be things it is not about. That’s the function of the frame — to exclude the irrelevant.
And (this is a secret not to be shared with critics) we all experience happy endings all the time. The biopsy comes back benign. We marry the one we love. We have kids. We get home from the dry cleaner without being hit by a dump truck. The sun goes down at the end of the day and everyone we love is still alive. Those are perfectly good places to say the arc of a story is complete. Why would it be better or more honest to wait until the sofa on which we gather at day’s end is empty, perhaps with the family dog, in the midst of starving to death, looking mournfully up at it?
Mysteries and thrillers are fundamentally optimistic. Whether they have happy endings or not, they’re about the restoration of order. They take a situation (or a person) that’s broken, and the main course of the action is about fixing the break. The truth comes out. The innocent are vindicated. The guilty eat it, one way or another. Life can move on again.
Sorry, but that’s not a definition of pulp, not unless it’s very badly done. That’s a consciously constructed approach to a novel, with the frame the writer chose to impose on the material.
Look, do we criticize a wedding portrait, the commemorative shot of two people at a high point in their lives, because the photographer didn’t back the camera up so he could squeeze in the church cemetery, where the blushing bride will eventually be buried? Or mount his lens on a satellite so he could put the nuptial celebration into the larger perspective of global ethnic cleansing?
All I ask of an ending is that, whatever it is — happy, mildly happy, bemused, unsettling, tragic — it has to arise naturally from the story and the characters. It has to be consistent with the world the novel presents. If it isn’t, if it’s a phony, tacked-on, cobbled-together resolution plucked out of nowhere, then it doesn’t matter whether it ends a 180-page private-eye novel or the latest 468-page sofa from a Literary Novelist. It’s pulp. Even if it’s sad.
Because pulp is about quality, Ms. Maslin, not about genre. And you should be ashamed of yourself.
The type says it all: going downhill.
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7 Responses to IN DEFENSE OF MYSTERIES – Tim Hallinan (Murder Is Everywhere)

  1. kathy d. says:

    Oh, I hate this artificial, snobby dichotomy. A good book is a good book, with or without a dead body in it. A bad book is a bad book, no matter the genre.
    What do we call Adrian Hyland’s “Gunshot Road”? It’s better than much so-called “literary” fiction. Fred Vargas is a genius; she comes up with plot inventions that go out into the universe somewhere and I’m glad to go with her. Few can match her.
    Malla Nunn’s books (and I only read her second) are sensitively written, understanding of the human condition, racism, poverty, etc.
    I could go on and on here.
    There is so much creativity, and so many genres mystery fiction. One can visit the globe or one’s own city, laugh or cry, turn pages quickly or ponder the words–depending on the book.
    And with “literary fiction,” there is good writing and horrible writing, entire pages of one paragraph (I hate this), boring plots and characters, or interesting ones.
    I agree with whomever said it on a mystery blog: There are two types of books–good ones and bad ones.
    We might all have our own opinions on what fits into which category; that’s fine, it’s healthy human discourse and discussion. We read, we discuss, we learn, etc.

    • Beth says:

      Reading is a personal occupation and what we choose to read is based on personal preferences and experiences. Before Hurricane Katrina, I read and enjoyed Julie Smith’s Skip Langdon series set in New Orleans. Skip was a child of the upper-class Garden District who became a policewoman, not an occupation for a southern belle. A second series was centered on Talba Wallis, by day a private detective, by night a poetess. Both series are most enjoyable and should be read in order.

      I haven’t been able to read them since Katrina, nor has the author added to each series, because the New Orleans of wonderful fiction is gone and will not likely return. I had spent time in New Orleans and had friends there; none of them are still in Louisiana. The books are still wonderful but the city is not. The books read almost like fantasy.

      There can never be enough mystery fiction, of whatever genre, for me. In that I don’t read any other type of fiction, literary or otherwise, I guess I would fall into the category of “too dumb to recognize good writing.” Hallinan writes prose like poetry. Read the Poke Rafferty series on order and you will find examples of that in numerable passages of NAIL THROUGH THE HEART and BREATHING WATER.

  2. Wow, Beth — it reads much better now than it did when I wrote it. It’s good to know that whatever enthusiasm propelled me to put it online wasn’t completely misguided.

    The whole issue still ticks me off. And the NY Times is the worst offender, just total nose-in-the-air snobbery. They refused to review Michael Chabon’s great “Mysteries of Pittburgh” when it first came out, saying they didn’t give notices to “regional writers.”

    What a bunch. And thanks again for putting this back into the light of day.


  3. Beth says:

    More to come, Tim

  4. kathy d. says:

    I plan to read Tim Hallinan’s series. Did not mean at all to leave out his books, have read nothing but praise for them. I’m just worried I’ll get very upset about conditions for women and children in Southeast Asia, which is what good writing does–conveys the reality of what people go through. But I am going to read the series.
    This is another reason why the artificial dichotomy between mystery and “literary” fiction is absurd. We learn so much about life worldwide and in our own countries from reading all types of fiction, including mysteries.
    We can read the news, but the feel for the people of a country comes from fiction, whether mystery or not.
    If a book is good–with or without a dead body in it–it’s worth reading.
    Grrr-I really dislike this ridiculous snobbery, including in the NY Times.

  5. Beth says:

    Kathy – You don’t have to be concerned about the manner in which Tim portrays his characters. Miaow, the street child Poke and Rose adopt, comes into their lives “off screen”. Tim creates some of the strongest female characters in mysteries or any other genre.

    I read the Simeon Grist mysteries as they were published so I knew how well Tim writes. Simeon’s girlfriend, Eleanor, wouldn’t be anyone’s victim so I took a chance of NAIL THROUGH THE HEART. That book and BREATHING WATER has some of the most beautiful writing a reader will find in any kind of genre.


    The Poke Rafferty books are A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, THE FOURTH WATCHER, BREATHING WATER, and THE QUEEN OF PATPONG. These should be read in order.

  6. kathy d. says:

    Thank you. I’ll add these books to the “informal” global reading challenge I’m doing which has certainly increased my horizons and knowledge about different countries.
    Am currently reading “City of Veils” about Saudi Arabia, by Zoe Ferraris. It’s very interesting, not a culture I know much about, but one I have to think about, not only about relations between women and men (and the inequality of women), but about the role of religion in people’s lives.
    Thanks for these excellent book reviews.

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