Sunday, February 8, 2009

David Geherin's "Scene of the Crime"

David Geherin is a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his Edgar Award-nominated book, Scene of the Crime: The Importance of Place in Crime and Mystery Fiction, and reported the following:
I have always been especially interested in how writers use place in their fiction. While literary examples like Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner come readily to mind, it is crime and mystery novelists who seem to use place more extensively than most authors. In my book, Scene of the Crime: The Importance of Place in Crime and Mystery Fiction, I examine the significant role place plays in the works of fifteen such authors: Georges Simenon (Paris), Donna Leon (Venice), Tony Hillerman (American Southwest), Walter Mosley (South Central Los Angeles), George P. Pelecanos (Washington, D.C.), Sara Paretsky (Chicago), James Lee Burke (Southern Louisiana), Carl Hiaasen (South Florida), Ian Rankin (Edinburgh), Alexander McCall Smith (Botswana), James McClure (South Africa), Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Stockholm), Paco Ignacio Taibo II (Mexico City), Leonardo Sciascia (Sicily) and Lindsey Davis (Ancient Rome).

As an admirer of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, I hoped that what he said about page 99 would apply to my book. Alas, that’s not the case. Page 99 comes in the middle of Chapter 7 where I discuss how James Lee Burke uses the Southern Louisiana landscape to symbolize the role the past plays in his fiction. On this page I describe a scene in Burke’s In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead in which a bolt of lightning during a violent storm sends his detective hero Dave Robicheaux’s truck off the road. In the distant mist he spots a group of Confederate soldiers. Soon he becomes engaged in conversation with a dead man, a famous one-legged Confederate general named John Bell Hood. Is this a delusion caused by the accident? Or has Robicheaux slipped through a hole in time and ended up in 1865?

This encounter with a legendary figure from the past is one example of Burke’s symbolic use of setting. But it is actually on the previous page where a passage occurs that does capture the essence of the chapter and illustrates the overall thesis of the book.

One of the most pronounced influences on Burke’s writing is William Faulkner, whose Sound and the Fury he once lauded as “probably the greatest novel written in the English language” (Carter 42). Faulkner’s fiction displays an almost obsessive fascination with the palpable weight of the past. In novel after novel, Faulkner dramatized what one might call the pastness of the present and the presentness of the past as he explored the various ways we are molded, shaped, and haunted by the historical and personal past and its continuing presence in our lives.

Burke shares Faulkner’s interest in the same theme and has created a fictional setting, as Faulkner did, that embodies it. Because of its history, the south in general, and southern Louisiana in particular, have been left with a rich residue of the past. New Orleans and New Iberia are awash with mementos of the past, from the stately ante-bellum homes that line its storied streets to the Civil War minié balls, quartz arrowheads, and rusty Confederate revolvers that lie underfoot. As Robicheaux notes, “You cannot grow up in a place where the tractor’s plow can crack minié balls and grapeshot loose from the soil, even rake across a cannon wheel, and remain impervious to the past” (Stained 265).

Darn! If only I had been a little wordier at the beginning of this chapter, this passage would have ended up smack in the middle of page 99.
Learn more about Scene of the Crime at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue