RARA-AVIS: Sallis (and others) speaks

From: Frederick Zackel ( fzackel@wcnet.org)
Date: 15 Apr 2006

"Marquee of mystery: Hollywood gets a clue, declares season of the gumshoe" by Bill Muller of The Arizona Republic (Apr. 15, 2006.)


"I see the mystery . . . as a direct extension of that whole myth of the frontiersman, the white knight of (Raymond) Chandler going out to correct society ills," says James Sallis, a Phoenix author whose crime novel Drive has been optioned to Universal, with Hugh Jackman to star.

"We're going to ride into town, fix the town's problems, and, by God, we're going to ride out again, before it corrupts us."

Sallis says that detective stories, by eventually collecting all the loose ends, perpetuate the idea that there is a design behind an otherwise random existence.

"It's trying to show that, yes, behind all this 'dailyness' . . . there is a pattern, there is meaning," he says. "It may be an ugly meaning, but there is a meaning. People are looking for there to be more."

Sallis says this phenomenon can be found in The Da Vinci Code, where
"there's this one great secret, and if we can penetrate that, everything will start to fall into place, everything will make sense. We still want everything to add up, even if we sincerely believe that it doesn't."

Christopher Sharrett, a film-studies professor at Seton HallUniversity, says mystery/crime stories appeal to a culture that feels increasingly powerless and seeks escape from a complicated world.

"Folks feel empowered in the thrill of taking part in finding out what the truth is," Sharrett says. "That's the big fascination behind The Da Vinci Code, which really throws in basically every conspiratorial notion."

He adds that a detective story is "a way of providing closure and a sense of assurance, which, of course, life itself doesn't provide. At the end of day, you don't have easy answers to life's problems."

Crime thrillers offer consolation, Sharrett says, because "you have some really challenging and extremely threatening problems, which are suddenly resolved by a skilled hero who becomes a kind of surrogate for the audience."

Though Miami Vice is more about flash and panache than crime-scene search, Crockett and Tubbs are still detectives.

The most clear-cut example this summer is The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown's bestselling book. The movie stars Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon, an American symbologist who follows a string of clues found on famous pieces of art, such as Mona Lisa, to solve a murder.

"These are really quest novels, and quest novels are the oldest form of narrative," says Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen bookstores in Phoenix and Scottsdale and editor of Poisoned Pen Press.

"Homer's Odyssey is a quest novel. It deals with how Ulysses got home from the Trojan War."

Peters says the structure of such stories work well for movies.

"The hero is moving across a landscape and he meets with obstacles, either bad guys or it's roadblocks or it's trying to decipher clues," she says.

"The Da Vinci Code is a quest novel, but it's more of a treasure hunt with clues along the way."

Georgetown literature professor Maureen Corrigan says the appeal of mysteries come from audience participation. She says Poe, who invented the detective novel with Murders in the Rue Morgue, called his mysteries "tales of ratiocination" for a reason.

"What he's saying . . . they're tales about thinking," she says. "All of the movies . . . we're watching the detective figure something out. And we're figuring that something out along with the detective. That's part of the thrill of these stories. They suck us in because we get to put the pieces together, too."

It also looks like a really fun job.

"You think about what the detective does," Corrigan says. "He's autonomous. He gets to call the shots, names his price, and he has this job that, as some of the scholars say, unites head with hand. He does get to think and he does get to act.

"It's also this fantasy of 'What would work be like if it were really the greatest job?' And you get to save the world."

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