It doesn’t often happen that a book keeps me awake until 3:00am and it happens even less often that I’m unable to explain why even to myself – and yet this happened last night, and Bill S. Ballinger is the one to blame. Ballinger is one of the few noir/hardboiled writers I really like, mostly for the often experimental nature of his writing. Books like The Longest Second, The Tooth and the Nail or Portrait in Smoke were among the most innovative crime novels of their time, and still pack a punch today thanks to Ballinger’s powerful writing and storytelling skills. Provided that his bleak worldview doesn’t bother you, he is a writer to cherish for anyone with a taste for unorthodox and challenging crime fiction.
The Darkening Door, the unpotdownable book I told you about in the opening of this post, is as unorthodox and challenging as anything Ballinger ever wrote and it may even be his finest work in purely literary terms. It is beautifully if uncompromisingly written and the characters, however unpleasant most of them are, really come to life. It also lives up to its « novel of suspense » label as you keep turning the pages just to see what’s going to happen, how the whole thing will end and whether some redemption is in order for anyone (spoiler: there is none) The only problematic thing about the book, and the reason why I hesitated to tell you about it, is that it’s entirely devoid of any criminal element. I don’t only mean it lacks a puzzle; even I am broad-minded enough to know it’s not a disqualifying factor. I mean there is no crime in sight; no one gets murdered or attempts to murder anyone and the only violent death is self-inflicted. Even by today’s very generous standards, The Darkening Door is neither a crime novel or a novel of crime.
Readers of this blog may remember a post I wrote last year about Charlotte Armstrong’s A Dram of Poison and whether it really qualified as a mystery (I thought it did, but Curtis Evans disagreed) Well, The Darkened Door makes Armstrong’s book positively traditional in comparison and indeed one of the reasons I kept reading was to see when it would finally become a crime novel – and it never did. Yet Ballinger’s book was marketed both at home and abroad as crime fiction, so a double question familiar to my readers arise once again: What is crime fiction, and when does it stop being so? What’s more, the fact that both Armstrong and Ballinger’s experiments were lumped in the ever-elusive « suspense » genre leads to one more question also often asked here without any conclusive answer so far: What exactly is suspense? Actually it even muddles waters a little more as suspense being seemingly able to do without any puzzle or even crime element makes one wonder whether it is actually part of the crime fiction genre, or a genre in itself that happens sometimes to overlap with it. Maybe crime fiction has become too big a tent for the sake of clarity, and it needs to be defragmented.
Whatever the answer(s) books like The Darkening Door offers interesting challenges to the purist and confirm another pet theory of mine that the Fifties were the Golden Age of offbeat criminous (rather than crime) fiction. I would be curious to know what the reception of the book was at the time, most particularly Anthony Boucher, always on the prowl for something out of the box, thought of it. If you happen to know, please drop a comment. As for me, I’m not yet quite sure what to make of it. As I said above, it is a pretty impressive literary achievement on its own right but I’m not quite sure I really liked it. To admire a work of art and to actually love it are quite different things, as the late Bertrand Tavernier pointed out about the films of Stanley Kubrick. This makes for one more question to ask about this book: Why did I read it?
Not too bad for a book devoid of any obvious mysterious element.