Friday, July 20, 2007

The supernatural in crime fiction

In the James Lee Burke novel "Jolie Blon's Bounce," he introduces a character named Legion Guidry, a man who appears by the end of the book to be, if not the Devil himself, then at least pretty high up in Lucifer's chain of command. Burke has flirted with the supernatural before, with the ghosts of "In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead" and the dead partner who occasionally shows up to offer advice to Billy Bob Holland in "Bitterroot" and "In the Moon of Red Ponies."

I mention this because I love this sort of thing in a mystery -- just a hint of the paranormal, an element of mystery that might persist even after the main plot is resolved. Recently I read Ruth Rendell's "13 Steps Down" and it initially seemed that she was hinting at the actual ghost of a serial killer making his presence known to a young man with an unhealthy interest in such things. In the Karin Fossum book I just finished, "He Who Fears the Wolf," there were a couple of occasions where it seemed that one bizarre character might indeed possess paranormal powers. I found the books better because of these things, and confess to a slight disappointment when all was explained in a conventional way.

What other crime fiction has incorporated supernatural elements in a subtle, sophisticated way? Is this something that draws you in, or puts you off?

6 comments:

Uriah Robinson said...

Fred Vargas in Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand hints at the supernatural when the main suspect is a dead man. The whole story is quirky in a pleasant sort of way, with an ancient lady computer hacker for example.
If it is done well I am not put off but the supernatural without subtlety is a non starter.

Dave Knadler said...

Yes, I prefer that any supernatural element be ambiguous enough to remain only a possibility. I recently sold a story to EQMM involving what other people said was a ghost, although the protagonist himself was having no part of it.

Peter said...

This may be a coincidence –– pure coincidence, that is, nothing to do with the supernatural –– but I am reading or have recently read and posted about two novels with such elements. One is Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, as cited above by the estimable Uriah. The other is The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill.

I'm more skeptical of such elements than is Dave, whom I had heretofore regarded as a purely rational sort. I prefer to think of such elements as the unexplained, rather than the paranormal. In any case, Cotterill handled these elements well, easing into them gradually, with the protagonist's revelatory and disquieting dreams, before moving on to more intense manifestations, such as trances and possession by spirits.

I'm only a few chapters into the Vargas, but she may be doing a similar slow buildup. Early in the novel, the protagonist, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, experiences unexplained attacks that leave him faint and feverish and rob him of his appetite. The narrator significantly calls the attacks "intrusions," but it transpires that each has a rational basis: On each occasion, Adamsberg has seen a reminder of a case that had haunted him years earlier.

===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders

Peter said...

Vargas may have borrowed the ancient lady computer hacker from another crime novel, whose title I will not reveal lest I give away a plot element.
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Dave Knadler said...

Actually, it was the mention of those two books on your blog (and Uriah's) that got me thinking about supernatural elements. Maybe I should have mentioned that, but since I haven't read either of the books I thought better of it.

Peter said...

You see? A rational element lurks behind that which at first appears mysterious.
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/