Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Nose for Justice

A Nose for Justice: A Novel 

One of the recurring themes here at Books and Beasts is an examination of Point of View in fiction -- especially as that relates to the representation of non-human characters and consciousness.  Rita Mae Brown's new mystery, A Nose For Justice, highlights that question in a very interesting way.

Rita Mae Brown is an author who has gone through a number of phases in her writing career.  She first became famous in the early 1970's when her debut novel Rubyfruit Jungle became a cult classic.  It was a coming of age novel featuring Lesbian themes -- one of the first Lesbian novels to cross over into mainstream culture.  She went on to write a series of novels that can loosely be described as "Southern comic" (although never light) featuring strong women protagonists and powerful female relationships, even when the explicit Lesbian themes were absent.  These novels include  Southern Discomfort, Six of One, Bingo, and the civil war adventure story High Hearts.  

But in 1990 Brown began a new phase in her career, when she began co-authoring books with her cat, Sneaky Pie Brown. (With 18 novels in the last 20 years, Sneaky Pie has to be one of the most prolific non-human authors around.)  The "Mrs. Murphy" series, as it is known, includes human, feline and canine characters in an often busy mix.

(I've always wondered about the prominence of felines in mysteries.    I'm a dog person, and while I've known many individual cats that I liked, I must admit that I don't "get" cats.  Having a cat around the house seems  like a never ending first date.  I have no idea what they want and I have the sinking feeling that I'm constantly disappointing them.  Dogs seem to be more natural sleuths and more prone to pay close attention to what humans are doing.  I'm not convinced that cats would expend much energy on the fate of a strange human.)

A Nose for Justice, begins a new series -- starring 34 year old ex-Wall Street broker Mags Rogers and her octogenarian great Aunt Jeeps -- and this time, dogs are on center stage.  When Mags arrives at her Aunt's Nevada ranch, she brings her wirehaired dachshund Baxter with her.  Baxter is definitely the "city dog", urbane and civilized.   Jeeps shares the ranch with her German Shepherd mix King -- who looks on the "fuzzy sausage" Baxter as a dubious intruder.  The first meeting of the dogs and their jockeying for position will be familiar to anyone who spends much time around canines.  

This novel falls easily into the category of "cozy mystery".  Like Sneaky Pie's books about Postmistress Mary Minor "Harry" Harristeen, the classic cozy has a small town or village setting, an amateur sleuth (usually, but not always,  a woman), and often a low-key love interest for the heroine that may stretch out over dozens of books without generating a whole lot of heat.  They are all (or mostly) descendents of Agatha Christie's Jane Marple books.   Despite their grizzly subject matter, cozies are usually light reading, entertaining and not overly demanding.  The introduction of animals into the cozy setting just seems like a natural extension.

At first glance, A Nose for Justice doesn't seem to stray far from the cozy form.  It does have a situation that is a little more complex than most -- the pipe bombing of a local water station, which could be corporate espionage or eco-terrorism,  a series of local murder which seem to be connected somehow to the bombing, and human remains found on Jeep's ranch, which turn out to be the body of a Russian military officer from the late 1800's.  These are the elements of an interesting puzzle.  Throw in some unresolved family history for the main characters, a hesitant mutual attraction between Mags and a local deputy, and Jeep's ambitious plans for the ranch and the community, and you have the makings of a better than average cozy.  Brown clearly knows what she's doing.  She's mastered the formula and hits all the right notes along the way. She even manages to inject political and social issues into the story without slowing it down much.  

 In the best cozies -- and this is true even of a lot of mysteries that don't fall into this category -- what we ultimately remember is the characters.  Years ago I read all of Earle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels, and for the life of me, I can't remember any of the plots.  What I do remember, vividly, is how much fun it was to hang out with Perry, Della Street and Paul Drake, enjoying their funny banter and watching Perry run circles around the District Attorney.  You always knew it was going to turn out well.  The same thing is true of all of my favorite mystery series.  John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee books:  what I remember are the philosophical conversations between Travis and Meyer, and the struggles Travis went through to apply his own peculiar brand of ethics to a changing world.  Virginia Lanier's bloodhound books: I remember Jo Beth Siddon and her friends, sipping sweet tea on the porch, searching for missing people or bodies in the Okefenokee swamp, and most of all the wonderful bloodhounds.  The list could go on and on.  Series mysteries are very much a character driven genre.  If we enjoy the characters and want to hang out with them, we keep coming back to the series.

And because the genre is so main character focused, it gravitates naturally toward the first person -- or its near relative, the third person limited.  (Thinking back on my favorite series it's often hard to remember whether they are in first or third person -- if the main characters is distinctive enough, I tend to remember it in a personal voice.)   Third person limited allows the author to switch viewpoints if she likes, to have different scenes and chapters from the POV of different characters, and thus expand the scope of the story a little.  The strength of this technique is that it can create suspense by showing the reader dangers the main character isn't aware of yet.  The pitfall, in the mystery form, is that the more characters whose POV we enter, the harder it is to keep information from the reader and sustain the mystery.  Brown makes good use of multiple points of view here, and avoids the worst offenses of mystery and thriller writers.  (Such as putting us into the mind of the villain and "cleverly" concealing his guilt at the same time.)  And up to that point, there's nothing unusual about the POV in A Nose for Justice.  But the dogs have other ideas.

King and Baxter are a constant presence through the novel.  Whenever Mags and Jeep are onstage the dogs are usually there too.  And their thoughts are interjected into the story as commentary.  For instance, from early in the books 

Mags opened the front door, which was never locked, and threw in the biggest bag, then set down the other. "Aunt Jeep!"
"In the kitchen," answered a resonant, deep alto voice.
"Who goes there," King growled as he hurtled himself out of the kitchen to draw up short in front of Mags, whom he knew -- although not well -- from her infrequent visits.
But what was this low-to-the-ground lowlife with a trimmed Vandyke?
Faced with the shepherd mix, Baxter stood his ground, saying nothing.
Jeep strode out of the kitchen, her slight limp apparent but in no way impeding her progress.  "King, he's your new best friend."
"That?" The much bigger dog was incredulous.  With a handsome black face with brown points and a regal bearing, he had no patience for what he thought of as inferior breeds.  "I've seen snakes higher off the ground than that."
Baxter curled back his upper lip.  "And I can strike just as fast, you ill-bred lout."

Up until this point, the chapter has been in a pretty standard third person limited, following Mags as she arrives at the ranch, giving us a few hints of back story --  with just a couple of interjected comments from Baxter.  Now however, as King confronts the interlopers, we are in full omniscient mode, not only sharing the thoughts of both dogs, but backing off for a brief description of King (which shows no traces of Mags as a POV) and comments about his opinions that none of the humans would know.

The idea of control of POV, and the dogma of third person limited, has become so ingrained in writing circles in the United States, that the reaction to fiction that breaks those strictures is almost knee-jerk.  If you want to hear fundamentalism at its finest, take any story which strays from those guides -- which includes, say multiple POV's in one scene, to almost any writing group or creative writing class, and watch the pack attack. Several generations of perspective writers have been taught POV as if it were an end into itself, and not simply a technique available to a writer to achieve other ends. This kind of thing is often called "sloppiness" by critique groups and writing teachers (who presumably never read Tolstoy or Melville) . And indeed, in the hands of beginning writers, who don't know what they are doing, or why, it often is just that.  Sloppy and confusing.   I have to admit that I was thrown myself by the early changes in perspective, but a careful reading even of the first page should have alerted me.  The presence of the dogs, and the decision to include their thoughts into the story, destabilizes the third person limited POV and sends it careening toward omniscience.  In fact, the above scene continues from that point with the POV now divided between Mags, Jeeps and the dogs.  It takes some getting used to.

It's also interesting that Brown doesn't make any attempt to make the dogs sound like dogs (whatever that might mean).  Except for a few jokes about bones and such, the dogs pretty much talk as humans would -- and pretty well educated humans at that.  They clearly understand the speech of the people around them and often comment on even the most abstract topics.  For instance, when Mags and Jeep are discussing the problems of water supply and population in Nevada:

"This is a fight worth fighting.  It's a fight not just for the physical space we know as Nevada, it's a fight for the soul of Nevada."
"Do you think people have souls?" Baxter asked King.
"Sure.  Most of them forget it though."
"I think so too," Baxter stiffened his legs ....

And earlier, in one of the few extended scenes that Baxter and King share alone, Baxter explains to King about living in the city, the absence of dirt, having to stay on leash in the parks, not being able to see the stars.  Baxter not only knows that Mags rents a vacation home each summer, but he knows that it's in the Hamptons.  This is canine sensibility translated entirely into the language of people.  These are talking dogs who just don't happen to talk to people.  And still, they are charming, funny, and often poignant.

There are many reason why first person and third person limited viewpoints became so prominent in Western literature in the twentieth century.  The breakdown of belief in an omniscient deity, followed by the challenge to old Newtonian ideas of an ordered, objective universe, called into question the whole idea of some objective, outside POV from which everything could be seen.  Fueled by psychoanalysis, and later by social movements that encouraged the voices of those who had never been able to tell their stories before, the plumbing of the individual psyche and of personal experience became the goal of literature.  (Rubyfruit Jungle, for instance, falls squarely into this trend.) Not only were the ambitions of the great nineteenth century novelist like Tolstoy and Dickens gone, but serious questions were raised about whether it was possible for anyone to legitimately write about any experience but their own -- could men write authentic female characters, could white writers fairly represent people of color, could a straight man write about gays or lesbians?  The political issues behind these questions are legitimate, but the effect on literature is traumatic. Fiction shrinks from the scope of Cervantes or Tolstoy or Dickens to a form that is hard to separate from memoir.   Write what you know, students are told.  To which Gore Vidal replies (with more than a hint of patrician arrogance), "Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all."

Rita Mae brown has always been a political activist, and her feminist and social concerns draw her to questions of community.  This is obvious in her earlier novels, and just as obvious in her mysteries.  In one sense, the cozy form is all about community.  A small town or village, where everyone knows everyone, is disrupted by murder, which puts the whole social fabric in danger.  The murder is solved, and community restored, not through the efforts of professionals, but through one of our own.  It is mainly this sense of community which sets the cozy apart from other mystery forms, like the loner private eye or the police procedural. 

Fans of the cozy mystery -- and of Rita Mae Brown's cozies in particular -- will be very happy with A Nose for Justice (and most of them probably won't notice or care about the POV questions).  It's an entertaining mystery with the added spice of Baxter and King's Greek chorus, and charming black and white illustrations by Laura Hartman Maestro.

But for those of us interested in the form of fiction, it's also a book worth thinking about.  Because it raises interesting questions about POV, and what it means to introduce non-human characters into fiction.  Even in this lighthearted form, the inclusion of the animal voices stretches the framework of the narrative in unexpected way.

No comments:

Post a Comment