“All that outward friendliness could hide any number of secrets. ” Lori Rader-Day on the murderous Midwest

For most of my life I have lived in the eastern part of the country—most recently Boston, and before that Brooklyn, and before that Philly, and I was born in D.C. and grew up in Maryland. I did go to school in St. Louis, though, and I currently live in Indianapolis, which, like many thriving, cosmopolitan cities in the Midwest, is nevertheless a half hour drive in all directions from eerie fields of corn and dark midnight skies.

When people think of the Midwest they think of county fairs and kindness, not murder and mayhem, but in this installment of my Reverse Blog Tour, the very clever Chicagoan Lori Rader-Day (author of the brand new The Black Hour and the Vice President of the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America) explains why they better think again.  

After enjoying her piece, you’ll want to go catch Lori TONIGHT (Friday, July 25) in Indianapolis, at the incomparable IndyReads Books.

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Rader Day_Lori 2
Under the sweet Midwestern smile, Lori is plotting dark plots.

Do mystery novels make you think of Miss Marple, of Hercule Poirot, of nosy ladies in pearls and mustached men pulling all the suspects into the drawing room of an English manor to hash out a killer’s identity? Or maybe your heart belongs to the seedy underbelly of Chandler’s lonely Los Angeles and Dashiell Hammett’s boozy New York?

But have you considered the darkness between the rows of a cornfield? Or a barren North Woods lake? If you’ve never been the lone figure walking hunched against the wind coming off a frozen Lake Michigan, you may not know that the Midwest has its own particular brand of darkness and dread. Check out the bookshelves. The Midwest’s dim corners make for sinister reading: William Kent Krueger’s Boundary Waters, Minnesota. Steve Hamilton’s Upper Peninsula Michigan. Clare O’Donohue’s urban Chicago TV filming locations, down Lake Shore Drive from Sara Paretsky’s South Side stomping grounds. Don’t forget Michael Koryta’s Indiana landmarks. Gone Girl? Heard of it? Gillian Flynn’s small-town Missouri was as creepy as anything the New York Times bestseller list has seen in a while.

What makes the Midwest so mysterious? It’s not necessarily that Midwestern people are more criminal or that terrible things happen here more than other places. I think it’s only the Midwest’s varied landscapes contains so much potential for darkness. Serious potential. Acres and acres of potential. Sure, Chicago gives off whiffs of New York-style organized crime. St. Louis has a few bodies buried. Cleveland? Have you not heard what horrors Cleveland is capable of?

barn
This stock photo of a barn is probably not a meth lab. PROBABLY.

But in between these middle cities lies all that wide-open space, all those tidy small towns where everyone knows everyone else—and their business, you betcha. Look around: 4-H fair prizes, tractor-shaped mailboxes, flags flying from the porch. And smiles. Too good to be true, don’t you think? All that outward friendliness could belie any sort of emotion, any number of secrets. Those barns make excellent meth labs.

By all means, mystery writers, let middle America hand you a favor. A small town, population 380 or 1,500, creates a tidy closed community reminiscent of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead. And if you want tension and heightened circumstances? In Chicago, there were 40 murders last weekend. In a small town, a murder changes everything, and an unsolved murder means forging on with life knowing that one of the people you know—and you know them all—did the unthinkable. You might go to church with the killer. You certainly went to high school with him. Your children will continue to go to school with the murderer’s children.

I just gave you, like, five story ideas.

In short, mysteries are about seeking the truth when it’s being hidden. Where’s a better place to hide the truth but in all that empty space among all those reticent people?

As a writer, you’ll find the empty space is also a fine place to get your work done. The pace of life is just a little looser, a little more laid back. A lot fewer cocktail parties. A lot fewer bookstores. Spotty internet service.

It’s quiet out in the middle of nowhere. Have you ever heard the sound a breeze makes rustling the dried autumn husks of a cornfield?

 

Sometimes maybe a little too quiet.

Black Hour cover web***

Thank you, Lori! And thank you also for writing The Black Hour, which Publisher’s Weekly called “an exceptional debut…an irresistible combination of menace, betrayal, and self-discovery.”

While you’re at your favorite bookstore, pick up World of Troubletoo.

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“I like many comics, and I like many romance novels” — Noah Berlatsky on eclecticism

When you are a kid and your older cousins have huge comic book collections, you think they are the coolest people in the world. Imagine how much cooler it is when they both grow up to be actual recognized experts in comic books? THAT HAPPENED TO ME. My cousin Eric Berlatsky is an English professor, but he’s the kind who publishes books about Alan MooreHis brother Noah, meanwhile, is not only a prolific freelancer but also the proprietor of this insane website about superheroes and…well, superheroes and everything else—here, I’ll let him tell you…

thehoodedutHey all; I’m Noah Berlatsky, Ben’s cousin. I write at the Atlantic and edit a comics and culture website called The Hooded Utilitarian. (or sometimes HU for short.) Ben asked me to contribute to his reverse blog tour, and since I have known Ben since before he was born, I figured I should say yes. So here I am!

As folks here know, Ben’s Last Policeman series is a detective/sci-fi genre-crossing extravaganza. Ben saw a bit of a parallel there with my criticism, since I write about lots of different genres (YA, and comics, and sci-fi, and literature, and romance, to just stick to print ones.) And, for that matter, for a blog that’s ostensibly about comics, HU is quite eclectic when it comes to what genres we cover. We have posts on wine, posts on fashion, posts on film and posts on music, just for starters.

So, Ben asked me, what’s with that, exactly? Are there benefits to crossing genres? Or does it just sow confusion?

Unknown
This is not a comic book.

The answer is maybe some of both. There are definitely disadvantages to eclecticism. The main downside is that aesthetic experience in our culture is organized, often quite intensely, around genres. Lots of folks of course have different genre interests — but nonetheless, if you go to a comics website, you tend to want to read about comics, not fashion or music or wine. So just in terms of marketing and retaining an audience, crossing genres as often as we do at HU can be a bad idea. You confuse the brand.

Crossing genres can also be uncomfortable in other ways. Genres aren’t just category designations; they’re communities. Refusing to embrace one genre means to some degree that you’re refusing to fully occupy one community — and that means people can end up seeing you as untrustworthy or as an interloper. I’m interested in romance novels and comics, for example, but I’m not exactly in the fandom of either, which means I haven’t necessarily read as much as people who are more fully committed. I’ve had both comics fans and romance novel fans be super-welcoming, and interested in what I have to say. But I’ve also had people from both communities basically argue that I don’t have enough expertise to speak, or that I’m morally compromised when I talk about the genres because I’m an outsider.

I don’t mean to dismiss those critiques. It be difficult, or uncomfortable, or problematic, to write as an (at least partial) interloper. Just as it can seem needlessly alienating, I suppose. to write fashion posts on a comics blog. Still, I think it’s worth doing both for a couple of reasons.

First, I get bored writing about the same thing all the time. I like many comics, and I like many romance novels, but I don’t want to just read and write about comics, or just read and write about romance novels. I doubt that that’s especially unusual or anything — most people have different interests and like to dabble in different things to some extent. But fear of boredom is a big part of the impetus for me to try new things and write about new things, so I thought I should mention it.

detective comics
This is not a romance novel.

The second reason is a little more involved. Maybe I can explain best through a book by Carl Freedman called “Critical Theory and Science Fiction.” In the book, Freedman points out that while we usually think of art being broken down into genre, it’s actually more accurate to say that genre precedes, or defines art. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, are art. Shakespeare’s laundry lists are not art. The genre of plays are seen as aesthetic objects, worthy of analysis and fandom. The genre of laundry lists are not. Recognition of genre, then, precedes the perception of art. For art to be art, it needs to be in the right genre.

I think this is true beyond just laundry lists and plays. Freedman points out that sci-fi, by virtue of its genre, has often been seen as lesser or marginal — Samuel Delany isn’t a laundry list, but he’s not quite perceived as (say) Borges either. Romance novels are even more denigrated. Wine often isn’t exactly seen as an aesthetic experience at all — or at least not as one that can be usefully discussed alongside film or television or literature.

The question here might be, so what? Why does it matter if people want to think about comics rather than fashion, or literature rather than romance novels?

Sometimes, maybe it doesn’t matter all that much. But, as genres are social constructions, the way they’re manipulated can also have social effects, for better or ill. Freedman notes that African-American literature, for example, is often treated as a specialized genre, marginal to capital-L literature. Romance’s denigration has a lot to do with the way it is perceived as art by and for women — which is why fashion is often seen as not-quite-art as well. Genre designations tell us what is important, what has quality, what is of interest. And they do so in a way that is often beyond analysis, because the recognition of, or use of, genre, precedes, and creates the grounds of, the analysis itself.

trollope
Trollope’s beard is considered by some to have been its own genre.

Which is why I’m interested in trying to engage with different genres, and to think about the ways (for example) in which comics fandoms and romance fandoms are similar and different, or to include posts about video games alongside posts on Trollope. Genre shapes how we look at art, and so at life. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily— but it seems worth shaking it up occasionally too, if only to see who’s being left out of which landscapes.

As in Ben’s books, a different investigator can maybe help you see where the world ends, and where others might start.

 

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Thank you, Noah!

This, dear readers ,is the level of discourse you will always find at The Hooded Utilitarian, though very rarely here on my website. We do keep it classy with our next guest, though: Laura McHugh, a fellow midwesterner, whose fierce debut novel is  The Weight of BloodLaura will be here later in the week to talk about another odd crossing of genres: “author” and “parent.”

Onwards!

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