Television gets it all wrong. There, every
office is dark and moody, with a barometer lamp at an odd angle and a
flat-panel computer monitor projecting WordPerfect blue. Shadows dance
across faces lit with absurd dedication or sinister undertones. On
television, every police station is furnished by an IKEA 50 years in
Real police stations know only two states
of lighting: pitch darkness or Miniluv bright. Supply sergeants seem to
have heard only of one bulb: the florescent tube. The effect is
hypnotic. There are clocks, but there is no such thing as time. There is
only increased fatigue with the occasional spike of strong coffee.
Station houses reek inexplicably of engine grease, and bathrooms more
likely than not have bars of Lava on washbasins.
In 1944, Raymond Chandler wrote an essay for The Atlantic entitled "The Simple Art of Murder."
It was a critical evaluation of the detective story as literature. Of
Dashiell Hammett, he wrote, "He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he
did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all.
He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before." Most
famously, perhaps, he wrote that Hammett "gave murder back to the kind
of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and
with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and
tropical fish." The essay is known for its dismemberment of Dorothy
Sayers, and for its methodical deconstruction of The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne. Chandler's conclusion: the art of crime fiction requires emotional and intellectual honesty and integrity.
It requires the dirty police station.
The debate sparked by Chandler's essay has not been resolved. According to Bill Cameron, author of the critically acclaimed County Line
and one of Portland's most celebrated novelists, "A lot of people in
the mystery community are constantly wrestling with what our craft means
within a larger literary landscape." The continuum of the genre, he
says, travels linearly from the "traditionals" by Sayers and Agatha
Christie, to "cozy mysteries" by such contemporary novelists as Barbara
Colley. "The definition, they say, of a cozy is one where somebody gets
killed but nobody gets hurt."
On the far end
of the spectrum are the noirs—the hard-boiled novels where, Chandler
wrote, "far too many people got killed," and their passing is
"celebrated with a rather too loving attention to detail."
Cameron's work pegs closer to the noirs, and have a strong tendency
toward the literary. "A lot of genre fiction is oriented toward solving
some problem presented in the story." While his characters do seek
resolution, he says, "I have a realist approach to storytelling. Not all
problems are neatly resolved. That's how life really is: sometimes you
get answers and sometimes you don't."