The 1965 novel Ripper by John Williams is one of those wonderful works of fiction where not much happens, or at least not much that would make for a good flip copy. The hero is a very lonely literature professor who reads a lot of books. It is more or less that. And I loved it.
But – we might ask ourselves, in the spirit of trying to improve everything, even masterpieces that don’t need improving – what if there was only one little more plot? What if we cast Stoner as the architect of a small-scale heist, or the owner of a modestly successful meth lab?
Wouldn’t that make the book even better?
Well, no, probably not.
The stakes would feel off. When the criminal element comes up, it’s hard to focus on anything else. If you were at a poetry reading and someone yelled, “That’s a robbery!” then it would become, from there, very difficult to concentrate on the poet. You would first want to know about this flight company.
Criminals and teachers don’t think the same way. We cannot therefore write about them in the same way. Standard models will not work. We have to build new models.
It is very difficult to do.
But here are six books that did. They are great works of literary fiction that take as subjects characters who have chosen a life of crime.
Gatsby the magnificentF. Scott Fitzgerald
We never see Jay Gatsby commit a single crime in this novel (unless you plan on plotting on the phone or having sex with Tom Buchanan’s wife), but those who go to Gatsby’s parties are drawn to his garish mansion, in the least in part, because they think he must have done something fishy – kill a man or spy for the Germans, maybe – to get ahead in the world. I may have been drawn to the novel for the same reasons, “both enchanted and repelled” by the alluring depictions of wealth and excess, but it’s the book’s many ideas that bring me back again and again. Again. Of the eight most important characters in this book, five come from the upper class and three from the lower class. These last three all end up dead.
“A good man is hard to find”, Flannery O’Connor
There’s a killer on the loose, and they call him The Misfit. Eventually, he and his minions will do something so gruesome that it will have to take place mostly off-screen. We hear it but we don’t really see it. If O’Connor’s short story was solely focused on The Misfit, then all we’d have would be a (presumably gratuitous) portrayal of a psychopath. But the story isn’t really about The Misfit. This is the family he meets in Florida. Not a friendly family. In fact, they’re pretty much the worst family ever. The story is a comedy. It’s about faith and what’s coming for all of us, especially when we ask for it.
American PastoralPhilip Roth
At the heart of this novel is a bombardment. The bombing is an act of domestic terrorism or political protest, depending on your perspective. And this novel offers a masterclass in perspective. The bomb destroys a post office in an idyllic small town, but what interests Roth and his narrator, Zuckerman, most is what has been packed around the detonator, all the shrapnel of American life. Specifically, upper-class Jewish life in New Jersey, though that’s not a precise enough description in the book. The life of Swede Levov – former athlete, blond Jew, married to a former Miss New Jersey named Dawn – becomes a full life, a real life, and by the end of the book, we know him to the bone, and we understand why the criminal acts that tore his family apart represent the kind of detonations that tore the country apart in the middle of the last century.
lush lifeRichard Price
Most of the writers on this list write literary fiction that could, at least once, qualify as a detective story. But Richard Price writes detective novels which are almost always qualified as literary. It’s not easy to understand what’s going on in a Price novel – the characters talk to each other in shorthand, as if you’re not there, as if they’ve never even heard of a reader – but, little by little, you acclimatize. Learning the language makes you an insider. If you are a fan of Thread (a show Price wrote for), then you know the experience and you’ll be a fan of Price’s work (if you aren’t already). In lush life, Price follows the fallout from a shooting on the Lower East Side in 2003. Time and place matter. Price examines the threshold between old New York and new New York, a city that is gentrifying but not quite there yet. The characters live parallel lives, separated by class, race, and profession, until a homicide throws them all together.
As lush life, Netherlands is a 2008 New York novel set in the aftermath of 9/11, but there’s no new language to learn, perhaps because there are so many echoes of Fitzgerald in the prose perfect lyric. Price was born and raised in New York, while Joseph O’Neill is an Irishman raised in Holland. The narrator of Netherlands is a Dutchman who plays cricket named Hans and works in finance. Hans becomes infatuated with a Gatsby-like character named Chuck Ramkissoon, a hustler from Trinidad. Like the lower class characters in gatsby who dare to do something on their own, Ramkissoon ends up dying in the Gowanus Channel (but that’s not a spoiler; Hans learns of Chuck’s death in the Time on the third page of the novel). What killed Chuck is a mystery that has never been solved. Or maybe it is. Maybe what killed it was the American grind. The main characters of Netherlands are all immigrants, and some of them will do anything to live the American dream, even if it means breaking a US law or two.
Not all criminals wield a gun, and not all crime books begin with a corpse. Privileges follows a cheating family to the top, but perhaps the book’s genius is that the family doesn’t start cheating right away. We get to know the two protagonists as a young couple, Adam and Cynthia, on their wedding day in Pittsburgh. This first chapter is a tour de force, to literature what The Godfatherthe wedding scene is at the cinema. Adam falls badly midway through the novel, concocting an insider trading scheme. There is not so much mystery here. We basically know what it does and why. This is how white collar criminals become white collar criminals. It’s what their choices do to their relationships. And to their children. Children do not inherit the family business, but they inherit the wealth and privileges generated by the business and all the baggage as well. How they come out will determine if this dark journey was worth it.