Hi, and welcome to the “launch” of The Means At Hand. I thought I’d get us started here at TMAH by talking, somewhat informally, about what got this project going and what direction it should be taking ideally.
The general birth of the idea is a doctoral dissertation concept I was considering a few years ago, based on a few observations;
The first was that in classic noir, so many of the characters who “matter” (the protagonists, the victims of crimes, etc) were clearly meant to be of lower socioeconomic status than everyone else, but not so low that they would have never crossed social paths the perpetrators, who always seemed to traditionally be people with money. So, middle class.
The second was inspired by an observation in Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder” about how prevalent detective novels are in bookstores and libraries, compared to “literary fiction” and the path that type of writing takes, from flavor of the week to back of the store to the bargain bin outside. It’s popular, and it’s perpetually popular for a reason.
The academic aspect of this never really came to fruition, but I’ve always loved genre fiction and talking about it, mostly because a part of it appeals to my punk rock background and sensibilities. It’s derided as cheap and niche, it’s derided as juvenile, and it also has this amazing ability to criticize and reflect back at us the ugly realities of our culture that we build up and then ignore as the consequences of them roll out.
Like punk, crime fiction is about problems coming back to haunt you. Not necessarily just your problems personally, but also the problems of the culture that you’ve built and live in, the problems of the industry that you work in, the problems of the space you occupy, all of which get pushed to the side or under the rug in a post-war economic boom time to create a facade.
What is crime fiction, or detective fiction? It’s a literary genre that reflects its readership. It’s an incredibly popular one that, as the war changed Western society, was a genre that grew to not only give us puzzles to solve, but also talk about the ways in which the world was changing around us. After all, what is the “middle class?” If we go off the idea we’re taught in Eco 101 or basic modern American history, it’s a socioeconomic class that grew up after WW2, built the suburbs and formed the modern for the “norm” that we hold to this day as “the American Dream.” If we go off of more complex analysis though, we can argue that it’s a constantly-evolving level of social, racial, and economic comfort and security that straddles much older levels, the rich and the poor. The idea of “new money” and being able to create a niche for yourself in the US through socioeconomic mobility isn’t exactly new, but we never vocalized it much or codified it as a canonical aspect of the US In 2018 the idea of the middle class is drastically different from 1968, and in reading about fiction from both these time periods, we can see that. Especially with detective/mystery/crime fiction.
Just what goes on in that straddling, that relative newness, that’s what crime fiction is so good at. Combined with its historical roots in cheap pulp fiction and the revolutionary role that played in increasing literacy, fiction that ideas with mystery, crime, and crime-solving, once freed from the confines of the trappings of exoticism and the upper-class getaway locations in remote and unrealistic places and sets, was free to offer a look to readers at the flip side of their new socioeconomic status. It’s a chance to escape little bit, to indulge in the “what if” fantasy that fiction has been telling you isn’t that far from the truth.
So what are we trying to do here? What are we hoping to accomplish?
What I am hoping to do here is have an ongoing showcase on and focus on aspects of crime/mystery writing that reflect the idea of it being the realm of, and a mirror of, the varied and ever-changing middle class, whatever that might entail.
What we’re hoping to accomplish? Showcasing some interesting some ideas, some great writing, and offering a look on mystery and crime writing that might not necessarily be critical or analytical lenses you’re used to seeing.
So, sit back, crack open a seltzer or a hard cider, make yourself a sandwich, and enjoy what The Means At Hand is trying. We’ll hope you stick around, watch us grow, participate when and if you can, and tell everyone about what you like.
See you around.