Is Dectective fiction inferior to literature?

For my last response in my “London’s Fiction” class, I posted a tongue in cheek answer to the question, “Is Detective fiction inferior to literature?” Some of my classmates got the joke, but two women were incensed by my remark about Twilight. My response? If you consider Twilight a masterpiece, you don’t deserve a Master’s of Liberal Arts degree.

'Well, Mabel, I disagree. I thought the writing style in 'get cremated, not buried when you die' was fine, but there was no plot.'

Many a times my bibliophilic friends and I have solemnly gathered together to answer the age old question’ “Does detective fiction count as literature?” You may laugh, but I’ve seen long time friendships end over this debate, and once we were escorted out of a library after a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses was hurdled across the table as a cry “Is this weighty enough for you?!” rang out. I’ve learned this is a very sensitive question but given that none of you have access to my office, I think I am safe. I hope I’m safe. I may answer this from behind my couch.

Let me begin with two important points. 1. I would rather see people read anything, than not read at all. Okay, I take that back……I would rather see people read anything other than the Twilight series, than not read at all.  2. Read what you like and don’t let book snobs like me make you feel inferior, (unless it’s Twilight..sigh, seriously put the book down).

Whenever I am engaged in a book debate and this topic comes up, I remind everyone that no matter what, people are entitled to like what they like. This has defused a few tense book club meetings and left everyone with a sense of relief, well expect for the snob who only reads Jane Austen. She hasn’t been the same since Anne Hathaway (an American!) played Miss. Austen.

While I cannot make the leap that all Detective fiction is inferior (some of the most well written books I’ve read have come from the pens of European crime writers) I will attempt to argue that there are many aspects to Detective fiction that are inferior to serious literature.

  • Detective fiction is usually broken down into three parts; the crime, the investigation, and the solution/resolution. There is little plot development in Detective fiction, oh there may be a few twists and turns (thank Christie for fooling me twice) but this is more plot devices than real plot development.
  • Plot development goes hand in hand with character development. Rarely are characters of Detective fiction moved to develop. All, including the protagonist, are one dimensional; assigned roles that are never deviated from.  This is one reason I do not care for American Detective fiction, the villains are so one dimensional and flat as to be laughable.  At least to me. Their evil-doings bore me to tears.
  • Description of setting is usually kept to a minimum (unless your name in Dan Brown…then every blade of grass is talked about…in painful detail, I might add). An early example of this can found in Doyle’s The Red-Headed League. Here we see Holmes note a commercial city block. We learn the names of the businesses but not what the buildings look like. As readers, we are left to our own imagination as to sights and smells when reading Detective fiction.
  • With Detective fiction we are guaranteed a satisfactory resolution. We know the crime will be solved, we know the criminal will be brought to justice.  We are assured that our expectations will be met. We cannot say that in general for literature; some of the best pieces of literature throw us for a loop. Come on admit it, you didn’t see Willy Wonka’s escape by glass elevator coming, now did you? And for the love of god, can someone explain the ending of The Turn of the Screw?

Personally, I used to read Kellerman, Patterson and the like, but I noticed a disturbing trend; characters appearing out of nowhere. Just when we think we know who the killer is, or how he/she did it, a never before mentioned character comes out of nowhere so that the author can tie up all loose ends. If memory serves, Doyle does this to some degree with The Hounds of Baskerville. Having someone come out of the woodwork to either stand accused of the crime or prove a solid alibi is sloppy and lazy.

Formulated, flat, boring, with sloppy writing is how many book snobs (I mean, Fans of Literature) view Detective fiction and why it has the reputation of being inferior to literature. Having said that, I was delighted to read Doyle’s work (but to be fair, I spend all weekend reading The Divine Comedy before picking these up). Yes, we know the mystery will be solved. Yes, we know Holmes always manages to find connections “off stage” that appear to be lazy work by Doyle, yet I love Holmes. His stories, like most Detective fiction, can be compared to comfort food. We know it is not great, but we love it all the same.

As a movie “Horns” is out of tune


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This morning I learned that the movie adaption of “Horns” is available as a limited release before it hits the theaters. Is this a sign of a bad movie or a very good marketing ploy? I decided to find out.

There’s a scene in which a character goes on a very bad trip after swallowing a plate full of pills and snorting a bag of coke. His mind races between several disturbing images, climaxing with his body being pulled into a nasty forest. This sums up Alexandre Aja’s adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel “Horns”.

We all know movie adaptations often deviate from the novel that it’s based on. Given time constraints it is never surprising when changes occur; characters and events are cut out, etc. As book /movie lovers we accept this. Oh we may grumble here and there at minor changes, but overall we accept that what we read may not be what we see. What we should not accept is a director rewriting the plot. It is unforgivable that a director would decide that the original material is not good enough to sell. This is exactly what what Aja has done. He has taken a really good book and turned it into sludge. I couldn’t tell if what I was watching was supposed to be a dark comedy or a campy horror movie. I have a sneaky suspicion even Aja could decide which it should be. The results are disastrous.

For those of you unfamiliar with Horns, here is a review I wrote after reading it for a second time. In short, it is an intellectual horror story that begs the question, “At what point do we become the person others expect us to be?” To sum it up, Ig Perrish is accused of murdering his girlfriend after several witness see them fight on the night of her murder but there is no proof. For this Ig is carries around the stigma of murderer. After a night of heavy drinking he wakes up to find he has grown horns. As the story progresses Ig must decide how he is going to cope with his devilish problem. His moral dilemma is deciding what kind of person he truly is.

The novel centers on Ig and the psychological damage inflicted on him by others. We watch as Ig tries to navigate through personal trauma. We sympathize with Ig and come to understand his emotional move from numbness to blind rage. The movie centers on Ig’s transition and his use of it in order to find his beloved’s killer. There is not a lot of sympathy with this Ig, as he seems all to happy to embrace his situation, and uses his new powers, not because he feels pushed to do so, but because he takes joy in hurting others.

Sometimes the written word does not translate well into spoken dialog. This is never truer than with Horns. In the novel the scenes in which the towns people interact with Ig are creepy and lased with malicious undertones. In the movie these same lines are played for laughs. It does not help that several of the secondary actors are so bad that their lines feel forced, as if they cannot believe what they have to say. What could have been truly ugly and horrifying came across as campy at best, and worst, I’d say this movie would be a Razzies winner.

Aja has Ig narrate several of the scenes, as if as he is unsure of himself as a director. At the beginning of the movie he has Ig set the plot, as if the movie audience would be too dumb to figure out the movie’s subtle theme; st least in the book the theme is subtle. Ig’s transition from outcast to devil is not always clear, yet we know the change is happening. I don’t know why Aja bothered with narration. In his version it is very obvious what is happening as the movie goes from an odd murder mystery to a very campy horror story. They say the devils in the details, but Aja doesn’t bother with details. His way of storytelling is to hit his audience over the head with obvious plot points by over use of dialog and gore.

The body count in Aja’s movie is high, the deaths are unnecessary and implies that the director was out for blood. The ending is absurd and so thick with religious imagery I wouldn’t have been shocked to see God come down and point his finger at the killer. This illustrates Aja’s limited understanding of the novel. That Joe Hill seems happy with the movie is surprising. Sorry Joe, stick a pitchfork in this turkey, it’s done.

If you read the book, don’t bother seeing this mess of a movie, but if you like campy cheesy horror movies, movies that make you laugh at inappropriate places, by all means watch the movie. It may be one of the best cheesy movies you’ll ever see.


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