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In Search of Crime Fiction’s Shadow Cabinet: Adventures of a Long Tail Reader

bookshelvesReading a book that not only entertains but is also deeply felt—deeply realized, created from a highly personal vision, strikes me as a kind of rebellion.

—Jeff VanderMeer (2002)

I was once called a champion of the obscure. Maybe because the books that often get me excited are the ones that others haven’t heard of yet; maybe because I always strive to be willing to try new things. While everyone is jumping up and down about Savages, by Don Winslow (and they should, because it’s a brilliant book and a potential game changer),  I’m the guy jumping up and down about Pike by Benjamin Whitmer. Maybe I’m just a kind of outlier. Or an oddball. I don’t know, that’s for others to decide, but for now, how about a new term: “Long Tail Reader.”

There’s nothing quite like finding that undiscovered small gem of a book, unknown to most or forgotten in time; the book that yields little if anything when you Google the title and author; the book that requires some proselytizing. Finding those books and bringing them in from the cold to be among a fellowship calls for a willingness to go just about anywhere in search of story: to other genres, to other mediums, to very small presses, to other communities.

I can’t speak for other Long Tail readers, but one thing that bothers me is when lists are made and the authors of said lists claim to have made an effort to include items that are “off the beaten path” or that are mavericks,” but they haven’t. My beef isn’t with the intent or even with the compilers of the lists; it’s the choices that often baffle me. If you’re going to choose something out there, then really make it out there.

I think it’s worth acknowledging up front that yes, there is a high level of subjectivity to what’s about to come. More important, though, I want to be very clear that this column is intended to be open-ended. I want this to be the start of a conversation that goes on and discusses more and more books. So talk to me. Not just for the rest of the day or until the next column is posted, but beyond that.

Some books are true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool members of the “Shadow Cabinet” (defined by Jeff VanderMeer as “an anti-canon that exists in the minds of those readers who have not been colonized by the all-too-familiar”). These books have either absorbed the history of the genre without being encumbered by it or have chosen to ignore it. This is crime fiction that fights against regressive trends and forces and looks ahead. Such books are innovative in ways that others aren’t. They may be more daring. They may be more structurally innovative. If these books share a common factor, it’s that they often don’t have any or many conventional or easily recognizable genre markers (to paraphrase George Pelecanos, not crime fiction per se but in the criminal milieu). Because of this they may require a more active reader who is willing to do some of the lifting or at least share the load. They can be difficult, and they can be challenging, but often they aren’t. Sometimes these books are already or are destined to become the cult classics of the genre.

Somewhere along the line Elmore Leonard’s famed rules of writing became carved in stone for a genre that already worshipped at the altar of transparent prose. The problem that I have with this is that “The Rulz” shouldn’t stand as the only entry point into the crime genre and the writing of crime fiction. I’m not railing against transparent prose here (or even Leonard); I’m just saying it cannot be the only way. If transparent prose represents the main paradigm in crime fiction, then maybe these books offer an alternative. The books in the Shadow Cabinet aren’t necessarily better, but they are different and worth considering, because at their best they expand the possibilities of what crime fiction can be.

.In recent years we have seen the republication of one of the great lost novels of any genre, period-end-of-sentence-go-buy-the-book: The Death of the Detective by Mark Smith. It’s the kind of book you long to find, then treasure when you do, mixing rhapsodic and original prose to create an eloquent and lyrical crime epic, as if Thomas Wolfe had written a crime novel. I’d even go so far as to say that in some ways Lynn Kostoff has a spiritual father in Mark Smith. Hell,  The Death of the Detective probably sits somewhere near the head of the Shadow Cabinet table as far as I’m concerned.

There are others.

Give them the chance, and Kostoff may knock you on your ass with a six-hundred-plus-word sentence; Jim Nisbet’s and Jack O’Connell’s catalogues may just warp your mind and change your worldview. The Jones Men by Vern E. Smith, will take you down mean streets you ain’t never been down. Robert Ward’s Red Baker will give you the heart of a Baltimore steelworker, and Stone City by Mitchell Smith will drop the detective story in prison and take you into its dark heart.

Did you know that one of the best novels of the ’90s was a serial-killer novel? Really, Blackburn by Bradley Denton, is the best book you haven’t read yet. Years before Dexter there was Blackburn, and everyone who has read or seen Dexter needs to check it out. Not only is Denton the better writer, but Blackburn is also the better character. Beyond that, it is the rare work that will change you. Stephen Graham Jones wrote another brilliant work that happens to be a serial-killer novel, called All the Beautiful Sinners.

How about Lynda Barry’s three-hundred-plus-page suicide note, Cruddy. Ray Shell took us deep into the soul of a crack addict in Iced, and The God File by Frank Turner Hollon uses the epistolary-novel form to tell of an inmate searching for the existence of God. Stona Fitch wrote the cult classic of the last decade in Senseless. Snitch Jacket by Christopher Goffard, may just wind up being the cult classic of the next decade. Brian Evenson and Eugene Marten are writing the best psycho-noirs right now (though their fiction isn’t limited to that subgenre). Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand; How the Hula Girl Sings by Joe Meno; After Silence by Jonathan Carroll; The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall; the works of Jay Russell, Will Christopher Baer, Matthew F. Jones . . .

I could rattle off dozens more, but this is a start.

The core of the Shadow Cabinet grows by at least a couple every year (Steve Finbow’s Balzac of the Badlands was added last year), making room for more experimental, odd, and unclassifiable works and for cult classics. But hey, to borrow a political term (that I swear to God I was going to use before that Don Winslow guy did in these very pages) it’s a big tent. Originally this column was part of a longer piece where I argued for other types of books to be included in the Shadow Cabinet, including translated works and cross/multigenre works (in an interview conducted a few years back, the writer Matthew Hughes stated that he considers himself a crime writer even though his books are acknowledged as science fiction and fantasy). I’ll run those sections over at Spinetingler at some point, but for now I’ll wrap everything up with this.

In this day and age, with all of this technology at our disposal, there is no reason for a good book to limp off into the night. All it takes is one person to write about a book, and chances are it will feature prominently in future information searches. We all possess the ability to become apostles for the books we love. In the words of AirTran, “Go. There’s nothing stopping you.”

It’s hard to say what makes a person choose the unknown quantity over the known one, but being a Long Tail Reader is like sifting for gold—it takes work, but the payoff can be incredible.

This isn’t a diatribe or a polemic; it’s not a call to arms or a manifesto. It’s more of a guidepost and a gentle nudge in a different direction.

Are these books for everyone? No.

Are they all great? No.

Are they worth a look? Yes.

Get bold. Get daring. Get curious. Demand more. Be brave. Write about what you read even if only briefly. And above all else . . .