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  • Policing the Globe: State Sovereignty and the International in the Post-9/11 Crime Novel

Two recent studies of 9/11 literature—Anne Keniston and Jeanne Follansbee Quinn’s edited collection Literature After 9/11 and Kristiaan Versluys’s Out of the Blue—entirely dismiss the contributions that crime and espionage novels have made to ongoing attempts to map the significance of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath. Versluys counts thirty novels “that deal directly and indirectly with the events on that bright September morning” and qualifies this assessment with the proviso that “this is not counting juvenile or detective fiction” (12), as though both genres constitute an affront to serious attempts to do justice to an event that he describes as “unpossessable” (1). The implication of both studies is clear. While “literature” is somehow able to “restore the broken link” between “the network of significations” (4) enacted by the unrepresentable trauma of 9/11 in order to achieve “a kind of affective and empathic understanding” (12), or “resist mass cultural representations that evacuate history” (Keniston and Quinn 11), genre fiction ends up suppressing this trauma “for ideological and propaganda purposes” (Versluys 13). It does this by providing overly neat or formulaic resolutions that render readers and viewers “passive” and “atroph[y] their critical faculties” (Keniston and Quinn 11). “Those few novels that succeed in engaging the full [End Page 403] range of the imagination, beyond patriotic clichés . . . resist such premature closure,” Versluys claims. “They affirm the humanity of the befuddled individual groping for an explanation” (13). This essay directly refutes these assumptions. It is certainly true that Keniston and Quinn consider a wider range of cultural texts than Versluys, but both studies tend to privilege the kind of “literature” that “affirm[s] the humanity of the befuddled individual” in the face of the traumatic events of 9/11 (Versluys 13). My point is that precisely because of this emphasis on bearing witness, literary fiction is singularly ill-equipped to illuminate the complex geopolitical arrangements that the events of 9/11brought sharply into focus. I want to demonstrate that crime and espionage fiction has excelled at the task of responding, often in critical and imaginative ways, to the security environment in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. One could go even further to argue that while crime and espionage fiction has always sought to address issues relating to the exercise of state power within and beyond sovereign borders, the kind of literature favored by Versluys is depoliticizing in the sense that its focus on individual disorientation means that the wider geopolitical canvas is unacknowledged.

In making this argument I am certainly not trying to suggest that every crime and espionage novel manages this feat or that the ability of a genre novel to effectively comment on traumatic events isn’t at least partially compromised by the expectation that the circumstances of the story and the motivations of the characters will be fully explained. Keniston and Quinn are perhaps right to argue that “aesthetic forms that resist mass cultural representations” (11) are best able to “express what remains unrepresentable about 9/11” (2), and bear witness in “stuttering and stammering” ways (Versluys 13), to the appalling devastation wrought by the 9/11 attacks (though James Lee Burke’s vivid account of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in The Tin Roof Blowdown [2007] suggests that the crime novel can also bear witness to horrific events). Still, in making the focus of this essay not the events of September 11, 2001, themselves but rather responses to the 9/11 attacks in the US and elsewhere, I want to show both the effectiveness and indeed the limitations of the crime novel as a vehicle for exploring the complex nature of the post-9/11 security environment, within and beyond US borders. Of the three novels considered here, I am most critical of Sara Paretsky’s Blacklist, which I argue is indicative of the more general limitations of the crime novel when trying to map the fault lines of contemporary geopolitics. John le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man and Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog may...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 401-424
Launched on MUSE
2011-09-24
Open Access
No
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