ISBN: 0 946488 13 4
- Dashiel Hammett: Taking the Lid Off Life
- Raymond Chandler: The Exaggeration of the Possible
- Ross MacDonald: Unhappy Families
- Honky-Tonking and working Out
- Crime Comes to Harlem And LA
- Miami Blues
- Urban Deserts and Desert Landscapes
- Lay That Pistol Down, Babe
- Guide to Further Reading
British Association for American Studies All rights reserved. No part of this pamphlet may he reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. The publication of a pamphlet by the British Association for American Studies does not necessarily imply the Association’s official approbation of the opinions expressed therein.
hard-boiled fiction: a tough unsentimental style of American crime writing that brought a new tone of earthy realism or naturalism to the field of detective fiction. Hard-boiled fiction uses graphic sex and violence, vivid but often sordid urban backgrounds, and fast-paced, slangy dialogue.
New Encyclopedia Britannica
Twenty years ago, over-reacting to the popularity of Mickey Spiliane’s books, George Grella announced that the day of the private detective was over: he had been replaced by a monster of sadism and fascism. The recent renaissance of the hard-boiled novel has shown this assertion to be premature. One explanation for the revival is that the termination of the Cold War has brought about the eclipse of the spy thriller creating more space in the market for the fictionalization of crime which, as in the period of Al Capone and Prohibition, fills the newspaper headlines. Another factor is the continued availability of new landscapes and settings: run down, rusty Detroit, the glitzy casinos of Atlantic City and the pastel Art Deco of Miami Beach all feature in the thrillers of Elmore Leonard. Racial and gendered minorities have found voice and visibility in Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Policemen and the homosexual detectives – male and female – of Joseph Hansen, Barbara Wilson, Mary Wings and others. These examples and the creation of a German, American-style private eye Bernie Gunther by the British writer Philip Kerr indicate the extent to which the formulas and restraints of the genre can be stretched for particular purposes and meanings.
Yet perhaps the most compelling reason for the recent popularity is provided, ironically, by Grella himself. Emphasizing the romantic and literary nature of hard-boiled fiction, he refers to it as “an expanding metaphor for universal sinfulness” (a perception especially applicable to the later novels of Ross Macdonald). In the contemporary world a dominant example of such a metaphor is the image of the city as a waste land devastated by drugs, violence, pollution, garbage and a decaying physical infrastructure. Only detectives, cops and their surrogates temporarily check the enfolding chaos, but ancient moral oversimplifications are out of place and the role of the detective figure is increasingly problematized.
Todorov’s claim that to improve upon detective fiction is to write “literature” is a highly questionable and elitist construction of categories of discourse. The process of undermining that position was beginning in the late 20s when Hammett was able to move rapidly from the pulp aura of Black Mask to the respectability of publisher A.A. Knopf. Hard-boiled detective fiction in the twentieth century both emulates High Art Literature and challenges the hierarchies produced by categories through intertextuality. The blurring of the distinction between Popular and High Art in the work of such novelists as Robert B. Parker enables hard-boiled fiction to be regarded as a new hybrid and self-consciously intertextual form.
Hard-boiled fiction has repeatedly acknowledged earlier American literature and culture, in particular the self-reliance and stoicism of the frontier experience and the Puritan perspective of seeing life as moral drama, which animate such works of classic American literature as Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter. The archetype for the hard-boiled detective has been identified by Henry Bamford Parkes as Natty Bumppo in his important essay, “Metamorphoses of Leatherstocking”. In The Drowning Pool (1950) Ross Macdonald’s sleuth Lew Archer refers to himself as Leatherstocking, and in the later novel, The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962), uses the name Bumppo. The two idealised figures of detective and pioneer share a multiplicity of characteristics: professional skills, physical courage affirmed as masculine potency, fortitude, moral strength, a fierce desire for justice, social marginality and a degree of anti-intellectualism. Bouncing between two worlds they are fully integrated into neither. However the politics of deference which Leatherstocking represents has long since disappeared. Hard-boiled dicks are conspicuously bloody minded towards official institutions and their agents, such as the incompetent, brutal or corrupt police officers who enforce “the law”.
The antipathy towards the intellectual and the scholarly (implied in the very term hard-boiled) has diminished and been reversed. It was in any case often deflected towards the target of the sexually aberrant or merely effete, such as the men in Chandler’s novels who have carefully manicured nails or who use cologne and jewelry. The Maltese Falcon (1930) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940) provide instances which document this manoeuvre: In the latter novel Marlowe describes the living quarters of Lindsay Marriott (ex-Harvard),
The carpet almost tickled my ankles. There was a concert grand piano closed down. On one corner of it stood a tall silver vase on a strip of peach-coloured velvet and a single yellow rose in the vase…. It was the kind of room where people sit with their feet in their laps and sip absinthe through lumped sugar and talk with high affected voices and sometimes just squeak. It was a room where anything could happen except work.
The hard-boiled detective novel is one of the few fictional genres where the depiction of work is a major concern, sometimes pushing the original crime to the periphery. The central focus becomes the detective at his job, reflecting, phoning, making notes, following leads and suspects, interviewing witnesses – and engaging in violent acts. The fictional PI, Kinsey Millhone, gives an ironic account of herself at work in A is for Alibi (1986): “The basic characteristics of any good investigator are a plodding nature and infinite patience. Society has inadvertently been grooming women to this end for years.” (pp.30-31,) A notably economical use of workplaces is found in Barbara Wilson’s Murder in the Collective (1984) when the print workshops run by a left wing group and a lesbian collective become the setting both for murder and for the exploration of sexual and other issues.
In the case of Hammett’s Continental Op, who skilfully elicits information from telephonists, cashiers, taxi drivers and transport workers, professionalism and satisfaction with the work coincide, as the Op himself announces in “The Gutting of Couffignal” (1925). Unlike his successors, he works for employers, the Continental Detective Agency, a business organization representing in microcosm the capitalist state. It is based on Pinkerton’s for whom Hammett was an agent both before and after World War Two and whose motto “We Never Sleep” along with its logo of a staring eye implied the unseen surveillance of a security network. Cold and cynical, the Op demonstrates how devotion to his job makes him both an ideal employee as well as an amoral, irresponsible manipulator.
Foucault described detective fiction as the discourse of the law; others have regarded it similarly as the re-affirmation of the socioeconomic order. The fictional narrative in the hard-boiled novel reproduces the bourgeois individualistic diegesis of capitalist society, discovering crime but mystifying and concealing class, race and gender relations. Traditionally however the hard-boiled detective has been a kind of people’s champion answering, as Philip Marlowe does, the cries of voices heard in the darkness of night. As the voice of the voiceless he appeared to reverse the powerlessness of his audience and to provide a kind of revenge for the betrayals of the democratic promise which the class system continued to commit. At the end of the nineteenth century, the fervent Populist and dystopian writer Ignatius Donnelly in his novel Caesar’s Column (1891) asserted that “the most utterly useless, destructive and damnable crop a country can grow is – millionaires”. This populist sentiment would not register as incongruous in the hard-boiled novel, a genre in which distrust of the wealthy is a recurrent motif: in Chapter 39 of The Long Goodbye (1953) a character insists there is no honest way to make a hundred million dollars. The hostility of the hard-boiled sleuth has also been directed at both criminals and police. Living in modest circumstances (a sign of probity) and opposed to corrupt politicians, decadent plutocrats, careless industrialists, brutal policemen and slimy hoodlums, he has been the focus for populist resentment towards the power over others and over the material world exercised by authority. The contradiction is evidence of the diversity of the crime novel (often displayed through language). Meanings are not fixed and the text can be appropriated for a variety of ideological and formal purposes.
It is nevertheless legitimate to refer to a hard-boiled tradition, one which is manifest in the way its own conventions are replicated, explored and even interrogated. Pre-existent structures are involved thus foregrounding connections with other texts and authors, especially Chandler and Hammett, but also Hemingway and Fitzgerald. In Paul Auster’s deconstruction of the detective story The New York Trilogy (1985-6), the references (among many) are to Hawthorne and Poe, and thus to the origins of the mystery story in the United States.
The “urban jungle”, vicious, savage, devoid of spiritual values, would become normatively the site for the detective’s quests and discoveries. Hard-boiled fiction writers have depicted the American city in modernist terms as a wasteland or desert ruled by an organized plutocracy and a criminal underworld often in collusion with each other. The glamourous surfaces of this world are specious, concealing danger and deceit: lovers turn out to be murderers (The Maltese Falcon), friends are finally shown to be false (The Long Goodbye), a cop may turn out to be a killer (The Lady in the Lake, 1943). Corruption is general, undermining law and order, spreading without interruption to the suburbs and, in recent novels, to more remote areas such as the Florida Keys (James Hall), Montana (James Crumley), and the bayous of Louisiana (James Lee Burke), though the availability of Florida as a crime novel location was established in the Fifties by John D. Macdonald. The fiction of Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald is set in California, the terminus of the frontier journey, described by Chandler in The Little Sister (1949) as the department store state. Thus the disparity between the promise and abundance of the region and the reality of its neon/plastic decadence (symbolized by Los Angeles) is continually present like a dark trace.
The detective then, from our perspective, typifies the alienated urban individual and this constitutes a significant portion of the genre’s audience appeal. The settings in city and suburb and the text’s juxtaposed stories are easily identifiable, and although the PI enjoys a freedom beyond domesticity and routine the reader is provided with a means of interpreting his/her experiences. In their speech, personal style and attitudes the detectives are recognizable American characters. Above all, the brisk, serviceable, colloquial modern style facilitates consumption, avoiding what Jim Collins in Uncommon Cultures calls “semantic imperialism” in favour of a shared language, one with which readers are familiar or which they are willing to learn. It is a language suited to the fast, aggressive modern world of the city depicted so often by movies whose representational style of apparent neutrality informs many hardboiled works of fiction.
Conventional hard-boiled language is terse, laconic, acerbic and witty. One of its enduring vernacular techniques, adopted recently by female PIs, (“I gave him the invitation and drove down the driveway, which was lined by lilac bushes that were about to come into bloom and Mercedes-Benzes that already had”, Judith Van Gieson, North of the Border, 1988, p.63) is the wisecrack, a stylized demonstration of knowledge which expresses an irreverence towards authority and institutional power. Wisecracks put to use as weapons are an assertion of autonomy, a defiant refusal to be browbeaten. They introduce an unsettling element into the interplay of discourses so the chances of the truth gradually unfolding become greater. In novels written in the last quarter of a century characters often employ a language that links detectives, criminals, lawyers and politicos. As professionals sharing wisdom and undergoing similar experiences, they need their own “business” discourse. Wisecracks and verbal toughness are the means of ordering and interpreting experience, marking the investigator out from the crowd. He/she is still an average human being Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone who eats a lot of fast food describes her life as ordinary, uneventful and good – but one who commands and exercises the power of language.
As Scott R. Christianson recently argued, that power is limited since the narrative represents the process of making meaning as a struggle. The detective all too frequently achieves only partial understanding or local effectiveness. Congruent with the ideology of populist cinema (Ford, Capra), evil is resisted but does not entirely disappear. Modern life is fragmented and complex so that the texts of detective fiction can be used deconstructively, undermining efforts at control and closure. Such novels tend towards the feelings of melancholy, regret and emptiness suggested by representative titles: The Big Sleep (1938), The Long Goodbye, The Last Good Kiss (1978). Christianson analyzes the language of hard-boiled fiction as unitary, and numerous texts can be cited in which the detective’s voice is monologically in control. By insisting that detective fiction is a straightforward discourse and (erroneously) that it is not parodic Collins might appear to be lining up in the same camp. However, invoking Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia he adds an important qualification; “In the hard-boiled text, one does indeed find an emphasis on common street language; but one also finds that language set in conflicting relationships with other languages present within the same text.”
Literature in the USA has been a clash of diverse voices. Texts as different as Parker’s A Catskill Eagle (1983), Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Constantine’s Always a Body to Trade (1983) show how Afro-American discourse can challenge the notion of a unitary language system. Street talk in hard-boiled fiction emerges as the privileged voice in contestation with other modes of expression: the cynical misanthropy of Potter in The Long Goodbye, the smooth, devious clubman’s rhetoric of Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, or the nervous sanctimony of Meade Alexander, undermined by Spenser (“I like it. I eat French crap a lot”) at a classy restaurant in The Widening Gyre (1983).
Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, (1929) includes a relevant exchange between the Continental Op and the godfather figure Elihu Willsson who “owned Personville, heart, soul, skin and guts.” Willsson recognizes the Op’s talent for straight talking but initially clings to his own colourful style: “I want a man to clean this pig-sty of a Poisonville for me, to smoke out the rats, little and big…” (p.39) The Op remains unmoved by this “poetry”: he will undertake a reasonably honest job at the right price, “but a lot of foolishness about smoking rats and pig-pens doesn’t mean anything to me.” Willsson cannot get through to the Op until he adopts the agent’s “sense”. There are other voices in Red Harvest, the hoarse whispers of Max Thaler the gangster, the educated tones of Dan Rolff, but the first-person voice of the Op dominates for both formal and ideological reasons, though Willsson’s poetry is retained in order to represent Poisonville’s inhabitants as animals (monkeys, wolves, hogs) and the Op as their hunter.
The Op’s straightforward talking has certain narrational consequences. A direct, neutral observer and an anonymous figure whose motives are vague, he provides minimal interpretation and analysis for the reader. Paradoxically, as Sinda Gregory intelligently shows, the very proliferation of resulting details, such as the names of people and places, only intensifies the situation: “This sheer bulk of facts actually works against our ability to understand and draw conclusions in the novel. We are so overwhelmed by specifics that it is difficult to separate the significant from the trivial or to gain an overview of what is going on.” Understanding, knowledge and “truth” – and the chances of locating it – are major concerns in Hammett’s novels; they are linked to assumptions of cosmic and social chaos, so that Hammett’s metaphysics impinge on his ideology.
The most illuminating account of “reality” in the work of Hammett appears in Steven Marcus’s justly renowned 1975 introduction to The Continental Op. Reality is existential and nominal, created by individuals to satisfy particular needs; in response, the Op has “to deconstruct, decompose, deploy and defictionalize that ‘reality’ and to construct or reconstruct out of it a true fiction, i.e. an account of what ‘really’ happened” (p.xix). Yet the Op’s version is no more definitive or scientific than the discourses presented to him. Hammett too as author is making a fiction, more comprehensive and coherent than those of his characters but similarly restricted as a subjective view of “reality”.
Hammett, who would later serve time in prison for his communist sympathies, still manages to construct in his ambiguous texts critical images of the effects of capitalism. Personville known as “Poisonville”, Red Harvest‘s original title, is an industrial town blighted by greed, obsession and lust for power. Published in 1929 the year of the Wall Street crash and a time of social crisis, the novel is contextualized historically by references to the IWW, Prohibition and President Wilson’s peace conference in Paris. The town had been under the autocratic control of Elihu Willsson, whose power was now challenged by the gangsters he had imported to smash the Wobblies’ strike. Running the city as a “legitimate” crime syndicate, the criminals, like their counterparts in Hollywood movies of the period, offer a type of authority that ironically seems to work, unlike that of Herbert Hoover who has lost both economic control and the nation’s confidence.
Hammett’s text functions less through realism than through parody, irony and incongruity. “The West” historically the region of frontier promise and opportunity is now as ugly and polluted as the rest of the USA; gangsters behave as though still in Chicago, dislocated in their bizarre long black cars. As Red Harvest and other early novels make clear, Hammett is not in the business of developing moral and heroic protagonists. In Red Harvest, the Op shoots two policemen and acquiesces in the killing of the Police Chief (part of the town’s corruption). He is as guilty and morally reprehensible as the gangsters he exposes and helps to destroy. By precipitating over twenty killings, he is Hammett’s means of escalating violence, anticipating the murderous world of the spaghetti western.
The Op’s complicity must be acknowledged in assessing the extent of Hammett’s radicalism. The corruption of capitalist society is exposed in muckraking fashion, though some readers have commented on the limitation of the exposure to a localised system. (Chandler texts are open to the same charge.) However, Steven Marcus has interpreted Hammett’s novel in terms of Hobbes rather than Marx, so that the milieu represented is one of universal warfare. The result is social anarchy and ideological relativism. On the one hand Hammett’s early work was part of the popular culture of the 1920s when violent industrial conflicts occurred regularly, and taking a drink was for ordinary Americans equivalent to breaking the law. Elihu Willsson in Red Harvest, a combination of Rockefeller and Capone, demonstrated the inseparability of business, politics and crime. On the other hand Hammett’s version of the social and political fabric is universalized: corrupt wealth, along with the power it generates, and capitalist democracy are ubiquitous – and permanent. Hammett’s opposition to big business and machine politics resembles populism which typically rejected not the status quo but the corporate interests in control of it. The Op has no commitment, personal or social, beyond the accomplishment of his job. His creator offers no political solution. Politics too implies fictions and systems which can be manipulated for base motives and which are operated by individuals with at best a tenuous hold on ethical and social values.
The Dain Curse (1929), Hammett’s next novel, turned the crime novel genre and its conventional resolution inside out. A “solution” is only one rendering of reality so that Sinda Gregory’s comment is appropriate: “final solutions are merely fictional projections of our need to impose order on an inexplicable and fundamentally mysterious universe.” (p.78) The structure consists of three sequences: successive sections are used by the writer to undermine each arrived at conclusion. Hammett’s parodic action involves the selection of several types of mystery story – the country-house text, the gothic thriller and the rural, small town tale. But although the first section, “The Dains” takes place in a bourgeois domestic setting with the refinements of rugs, furniture, and artworks, there are suggestions of a murky European past. Edgar Leggett, a strange scientist is described as physically ascetic but mentally sensual like characters from Hawthorne, Poe and Brockden Brown. The impression of literary gothic is increased by the name of the supplier of this sketch: Owen Fitzstephan.
Thus Hammett anticipates the gothic element of “The Temple” which includes a grand guignol depiction of Gabrielle Leggett that appears to derive from Poe’s Madeleine Usher: “She was barefooted. Her only clothing was a yellow silk nightgown that was splashed with dark stains…. There was a dab of blood on one of her cheeks. Her eyes were clear, bright and calm.” The titular temple houses a weird cult, the Temple of the Holy Grail which claims a history stretching back to King Arthur. The cult, which proves to be fraudulent prefigures similar California groupings in, for example, Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target (1949).
The final part of The Dain Curse “Quesada” casts the Op in a different role, but one which brings closer no single solution or truth. The Op’s hunt is futile since his discussions throughout the text have been with Fitzstephan (a professional novelist) who proves to be insane and the sought after killer. Hammett’s sleuth admits that one guess at the truth is as good as any other, so he is interested in the fiction that appears to fit and which he can reasonably take to court. Fitzstephan is blown in two (surviving to face trial), suggesting the double consciousness or doppelganger device which recurs in Poe’s tales.
Sam Spade, the protagonist of The Maltese Falcon (1930), is for many Hammett’s most memorable creation and in the company of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe the most famous fictional investigator of the hard-boiled type. Hammett described him in the terms of a masculinity dream: “your private detective … wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to tee care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with. . .” Like Marlowe, Spade has a tendency to provoke cops and politicians, but the similarities have been exaggerated in the general mind by the casting of Humphrey Bogart in both roles in the movie versions of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep; later in 1980 the protagonist of The Man with Bogart’s Face would be named Sam Marlowe. Spade, like Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key (1931), is inclined to lose his poise (voluntarily, as an act, but also involuntarily) a characteristic satisfied by the choice of star. There was in the Bogart persona, a hint of instability, of menace, of being psychologically on the edge which emerged more powerfully in In A Lonely Place and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Unfortunately the film of The Maltese Falcon insisted on neutralizing the textual ending where Effie realizes what a rat her boss is. Although Spade is a near-psychopath, the movie, obeying the imperatives of Hollywood narrative and genre, closes with the scene in which he arranges the distribution of guilt, thus confirming the character as both self-sufficiently potent and romantic; asked about the black bird Spade (Bogart) describes it as the stuff that dreams are made of.
The Continental Op was a two dimensional figure and, although Spade is given a name and a private life, he too is a stylized character, constructed visually in modernist terms:
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another smaller V. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose…” (p.5, Pan ed., 1975)
Through Spade, albeit using the third person mode for narrative purposes, Hammett exposes the society of which Spade is a mirror image and sets down the themes of his earlier work: the ubiquity of crime, duplicity and corruption, the manipulative but necessary operation of role-playing – and the impossibility in a complex, predatory environment of Fe-imposing order through the solution of crimes.
Spade’s actions derive from a philosophy of the universe as a random series of unrelated contingent events, and some of the features of Spade’s behaviour – impersonality, the concealment of thoughts and information, the need to maintain detachment and control (as in the famous Hemingwayesque account of rolling a cigarette) – are brought into play as he attempts to cope with his situation and his knowledge. While those attempts command respect, they fail to render the character more sympathetic. His long speech offering reasons for turning in the murderer Brigid O’Shaughnessy has been read as constituting a code of honour, morality and professionalism. Morally however Spade is only slightly ahead of his partner Miles Archer and the crooks against whom he pits himself. Critic James Naremore is explicit: “the speech is about nothing more than self-preservation…. Brigid obviously can’t be trusted anyway, and if he did not turn her over he would have no job or anything else.” Like the Op Sam Spade has found a job that suits a temperament which in certain circumstances would allow him to function as a criminal.
The world of The Maltese Falcon encourages its inhabitants to engage in duplicity and false appearances, thus producing a climate of dishonesty and insecurity. Shapeshiftings and masquerades abound, but in this Darwinian universe they are survival strategies. Despite the date 1930 this is no proletarian novel, nor is there any Bakhtinian sense of the carnivalesque in these masquerades, of the overturning of authority.
In the middle of The Maltese Falcon Spade relates the parable of Flitcraft which refers to his own belief system. Flitcraft, an average family man is alarmed by a falling beam. “He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.” In other words, life is random, unpredictable, arbitrary. He changes his life simply by moving away and taking another wife, but his new life strongly resembles the old. “He adjusted to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted to them not falling.” (pp.59-60) Whatever interpretation is placed on this anecdote, the narrative context is important: Spade tells the Flitcraft tale to Brigid, delivering a warning about his behaviour and intentions – he too will adjust in order to survive – though the warning is characteristically ambiguous.
Spade is also giving a verbal performance to match those of Brigid and the other thieves: a second type of warning. More frequently the pitting of Spade against his antagonists has an international dimension – tough-talking American detective takes on exotic, duplicitous representatives of the decadent Old World. Brigid who poses as a damsel in distress is also known as Miss Wonderly and Miss Le Blanc (the nihilism of whiteness in Melville comes to mind) while her apartment number 1001 suggests Scheherezade and her fictions. Cairo, a fin-de-siecle dandy and homosexual is less powerful, but Gutman, “the Fat Man” resembles Brigid in his deviousness and ruthlessness. Another visually modernist figure composed of “bulbs” and “pendant cones”, the former shifting in movement like “clustered soap-bubbles”, Gutman in his well-cut suits offers a misleading facade, one made more specious by his wit, charisma and hearty clubman banter, the battle between him and Spade being joined at the level of discourse also. The civilized exterior is a sham. Gutman is responsible for the drugging and near-death of his daughter and despite some regrets he agrees to the sacrifice of his “son” Wilmer. His pose of romantic adventurer decorates the murderous scrabbling for The Maltese Falcon as a guest for the equivalent of the Grail.
The falcon itself generates the action and “stands as the most central symbol for … deceptions and contradictions.” (Gregory, p. 114) The removal of the black paint surface reveals not a treasure but a leaden shape. Like the characters in the novel it is counterfeit but it does function to undermine the concept of private property. No one can claim exclusive ownership of the bird; a commodity-oriented society gives rise to anarchistic greedy struggles over loot.
Like The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key portrays a landscape of duplicity and ambiguity, but it also represents a return to the milieu of Prohibition era big-city politics encountered earlier in Red Harvest. This is the world of machine politicians and their tame DAs, mobsters, senators, and lawless policemen, in which the city boss with an immigrant name, Madvig, seeks the respect which support from the WASP aristocracy will bring. Violence, power and corruption are so widespread that in one sense the narrative again constitutes an attack on urban politics. This is also however the bleak, opaque environment of the earlier novels so that the central figure, Ned Beaumont, a gambler and Paul Madvig’s loyal hanger-on, is not provided with a motive for solving the murder of Taylor, son of the powerful Senator Henry. Practical, intelligent and efficient, Beaumont has a sense of manners and etiquette. He is vulnerable to violence and attempts suicide after being at the receiving end of a brutal attack. It is a characterization that anticipates the high society urbanity and sophistication of The Thin Man (1934). Before that in this challenging text, Hammett’s elliptical, neutral style and third person point-of-view delivers bewildered individuals who fail to understand each other or indeed themselves. On the one hand the ordinary ties of family and friendship stay remote from them; on the other the idea of a coherent, consistent psychology remains a chimera. All the characters are too ambiguous to be explained by a single motivation: Beaumont, like Spade an actor, is ultimately inscrutable and the novel’s end in which he participates is far from conclusive.
The Glass Key was made into two films and a radio serial, but it is in the narrative texts themselves that commentators have located the sources of film noir. Hammett’s first four novels comprise several of the techniques found in noir, including first person narration and the expressionism of dream sequences. There exists a persuasive argument however that Hammett’s sinewy naturalism, a language which the German director Wim Wenders called “concrete, hard and sharp”, is further from the mannered expressionism of film noir than the flamboyant prose of such contemporaries as Cornell Woolrich. Despite the merit of this argument, film noir with its metaphysical sense of alienation and doom, its sombre images of fragmentation and violence, its sterile destructive personal relationships and its pervasive pessimism is an accurate visualisation of the Hammett universe. Even film noir language can replicate the mystery of human personality and the provisional nature of truth and reality. In Crossfire (1947, screenplay by John Paxton), Mitchell, an innocent murder suspect meets a man in a girl’s apartment:
Man: You know what I told you. It was a lie. I’m not her husband. Met her the same as you did, at the joint. I can’t keep away from her. I want to marry her but she won’t have me.
Mitchell: Is that so?
Man: Do you believe that? That’s a lie too. I don’t love her and I don’t want to marry her. She makes good money though. You got any money on you?
Man: She makes good money sometimes. Hey, do you suppose I could be a soldier? Maybe I could be in the regular army. Makes a good rating and make some dough by the next war.
Mitchell: Why not?
Man: Why not? because I don’t want to. What would I want to be a soldier for? Aagh! I don’t know what I want to do ….
Raymond Chandler was born in Chicago of a Pennsylvanian father and an Irish emigrant mother. In the mid-50s, after the death of his wife, he lived in London and La Jolla alternately for a time. In the 40s he wrote screenplays for Hollywood, but as a young man in London (1911-1912) he wrote essays for The Academy, having been educated at Dulwich College where one of the school houses is still called Marlowe. This oscillation between American and English culture evident in his style and fused in his admiration for Henry James, is one of several tensions in his literature and personality.
His chosen hero Philip Marlowe is a sensitive decent man operating in a world that is violent and corrupt so that the novels depend upon the interplay of individual idealism and social decadence. Chandler found that corruption in the politics and policing of the tarnished city Los Angeles which he both despised and romanticized. Part of Marlowe’s appeal is that he satisfies a populist disdain for authority while continuing to work for law and order thereby aligning himself with its agencies. That disrespect derives from the brutality and amorality of police officers, though some of Chandler’s fictional lawmen are depicted as tired, overworked and honest – rather like the ex-cop Marlowe himself.
Chandler has often been praised for identifying and through Marlowe confronting the malaise consuming the body of American society. However as the author himself announced, Marlowe exists in a fictional world of stylized characters, whereas the real-life private eye is only “a sleazy little drudge from the Burns agency”. Chandler PI is an idealized figure: originally named Mallory he is a “shop-soiled Galahad”, a status hinted at in the famous opening of The Big Sleep. Marlowe’s old-fashioned chivalry is incongruous in contemporary Los Angeles so an element of self-parody is consciously generated. Instead of concealing genre conventions Chandler draws attention to literary discourse as illusion. In The Little Sister Marlowe speaks of “all the tired cliched mannerisms of my trade”, and when a woman threatens him with a gun in The Lady in the Lake he grins and admits, “I’ve never liked this scene”. It is the combination of realism and self-referential artifice that establishes irony and parody as distinctive features of the Chandler discourse. That discourse expressed in the form of first person narration “encourages reader identification with the detective, and so with an illusion of coherent subjectivity, represented as moral integrity.” However, Marlowe’s unitary power is subject to instability. He remains an impoverished bourgeois figure, his vulnerability shared with other alienated characters in 30s writing, and with the solitary, immobile figures of Edward Hopper’s paintings, discovered, as Chandler located Marlowe, “in a lonely street, in lonely rooms.”
The detective’s marginality and the attention given to his solitary life have the effect of distancing him from the problems and pressures of the lower classes. Ernest Mandel’s general point applies no less to Marlowe: “… the sophisticated thriller’s hero has to be a tragic figure, a petty-bourgeois (in no pejorative sense) rather than a proletarian revolutionary protagonist.” Consequently the standard hardboiled text (especially when dialogization is minimal) cannot rupture or transcend the conventional ideology. Afro-Americans and other minority groups are often described with unexamined prejudice (see “Noon Street Nemesis”, 1936, later known as “Pick-up on Noon Street”, with its anonymous underworld “negroes”, one of them a “big gorilla”) while materialistic Jews in Hollywood are made the targets of Marlowe’s snobbery. Some big bosses are personable and friendly. Laird Brunette, for example, in Farewell, My Lovely is the gangster as businessman, an almost admirable type with “guts and brains.” The principal threats Marlowe faces emanate from dangerous, sexy femmes fatales like Ellen Wade (The Long Goodbye) or Velma Valento/Helen Grayle in Farewell, My Lovely. Such characters were represented as doubly deviant, aggressive in their (female) sexuality, aberrant in their “un-feminine” rejection of male dominance. They provided a site for the cultural practice of evil removed from class conflict.
An illuminating comparison can be made between the representation of women in The Big Sleep and Howard Hawks’ film of the novel. Vivien Sternwood is played less as spider-woman than as “Hawksian woman”, an equal half of the Bogart-Bacall romantic couple in what remains a conventional celebration of heterosexuality and all-American values. Hawks does create a range of female types including the sympathetic female taxi driver and the girl in the Acme bookshop, whose brief interlude with Marlowe is tender, witty and erotic.
Marlowe’s family and class origins are obscured. With an apartment instead of a suburban home, he is, as Chandler insists, destined to be poor. The author’s extravagant tropes endow him with a subtlety of mind, but Marlowe is a reluctant aesthete who embellishes his conversation with allusions to Hemingway, Flaubert, Shakespeare and the subjunctive mood. Reluctant since the tough, hard-boiled populist role demands an anti-literary stance that conflates culture and decadence. In The Big Sleep Geiger’s bookshop which deals in first editions is a front for pornography.
The discrimination, vanity and narcissism exhibited by Marlowe are used to articulate his responses (and thus Chandler’s) to the criminal world in which the PI becomes embroiled; his role involves “maintaining a self-preserving critique … against social evils which, be they blatantly ugly or perversely beautiful always carry with them a fatal beauty that raises his creator’s senses.” In the first paragraph of The Big Sleep Marlowe may be “calling on four million dollars” but his choice of clothes powder-blue suit, dark blue shirt, tie and handkerchief – is evidence of a wry aestheticism. Foul or steamy air, stale smells, sweat, cigarette smoke and liquor fumes all function in the text as signifiers of impurity and moral laxity, what Chandler calls nastiness.
Chandler’s own fastidiousness is glimpsed in his attitude towards Los Angeles, a city in his view with as much personality as a paper cup. He was nevertheless fascinated by its cheapness, by that ambience of tacky flamboyance and seediness located between ocean and desert. Chandler’s representations of Los Angeles appear to have varied according to the mood of the moment. At times he actively hunts down instances of stylization; ultimately he preferred its Art Deco tawdriness to most other spots on the globe. Later in the 1980s Elmore Leonard would draw upon a lifetime’s love of South Miami Beach’s Jazz Age Deco, crystallized in its ice cream coloured hotels, for the landscapes of some of the major crime novels of the decade.
By means of Los Angeles Chandler presented a disturbing vision of falsity and strangeness. Marlowe thought the man who invented neon deserved a monument; the city at night often seems composed of artificial light, dynamic but anarchic, almost beyond control like Joseph Stella’s Coney Island lights in the 1913 painting. Towards the end of Farewell, My Lovely even Bay City appears from the ocean as “a jewelled bracelet” that fades into a soft orange glow but in The High Window (1943) a neon sign illuminates a funeral parlour. Elsewhere the surface images of Chandler’s staged urban settings fall to yield the nourishing depth that would challenge the unreality. That unreality derives to an extent from Los Angeles’ architecture and, therefore, the industrial contrivance of Art Deco and streamlining. Derivative and deceptive in their rupture of form and function, the city’s buildings seem designed to embody fantasies of kitsch. Fast food restaurants masquerade as palaces. In The Big Sleep Eddie Mars’ Cypress Club, a mouldering Victorian pile with turrets and scrolled porches, is, in its latest incarnation, a gambling den. The gaming area (once a ballroom) has no hint of the modernistic, of night-club “moderne”: Mars prefers crystal chandeliers and rose-damask walls, “a little faded by time and darkened by dust.” (Penguin ed., 1971, p.131)
Amorphous and de-centred, Los Angeles has lured the ambitious and discontented seeking new opportunities and therefore new lives, and this magnetic attraction it possesses for immigrants has generated different literary interpretations: the racial anger of Chester Himes, the savage satire of Nathaneal West. The achievement of Chandler has been to map the environment of LA and demonstrate its variety. He is drawn to the great estates of the wealthy, private landscapes whose distinctive atmosphere facilitates the coherent presentation of its inhabitants. For example, in The Big Sleep the family portraits and stained glass windows of the Sternwood mansion signify tradition and respectability Further detail imposes a sense of the Gothic: there are rats lurking behind the wainscoting. General Sternwood, crippled by debauchery, exists on heat “like a newborn spider” and his humid, malodorous orchid house grows plants whose stalks resemble “the newly washed fingers of dead men.” (p. 13)
From this ominous base Chandler proceeds to construct a dark vicious world of closed spaces, widespread crime and guilt, mistaken journeys and. actions. The Big Sleep is peopled by mobsters, small-time losers, sexually aggressive women, alienated lawmen and the omnipotent rich. Justice remains elusive despite the detective’s small, temporary successes. The limitations of Marlowe’s effectiveness are made evident: his powerful denunciation of Eddie Mars fails to win Silver-Wig, Mars’ wife (Cissy, Chandler wife, tinted her hair silver and wore wigs), “You think he’s just a gambler. I think he’s a pornographer, a blackmailer, a hot car broker, a killer by remote control, and a suborner of crooked cops.” (p. 187) Mars is allowed to go free. Here as in other hard-boiled texts Marlowe is unable to make full use of the truths he has exposed.
The pattern is reiterated in novel after novel. Marlowe struggles to separate reality from delusion, then is forced to discredit or suppress his own revelations …. In both The Little Sister and The Lady in the Lake the revelation of the truth provokes a pageant of bloodshed … (and) Marlowe stands powerless in the wings. Permeated by irony (Marlowe re-enacts the recent life – and almost the death – of the man Regan for whom he searches), The Big Sleep concludes in “loose ends, a detective who fails, and a pervasive sense of individual despair, social chaos, and the triumph of evil.”
The brutality Chandler attributes to the police in Bay City (Santa Monica) and its sleazy promenade are the physical counterparts of the area’s spiritual decadence. The small town has “a faint smell of ocean”, faint since it is mixed with the odour of hot fat and popcorn. Los Angeles in the 30s was little better. A corrupt police force, a reactionary WASP merchant class and a powerful newspaper dynasty enabled the city to profit from the theft of water from the valleys of Northern California. (This scenario would be at the centre of Polanski’s movie homage to Chandler, Chinatown, 1974.) Politically Los Angeles has had a long tradition of conservatism – from General Harrison Gray Otis’s union busting at the turn of the century through to Reagan’s kitchen cabinet – and one of violence and lawlessness. By the 1930s when Chandler started writing hard-boiled fiction “Murder Inc.” was in business and organized crime was on the rise. After the end of Prohibition (1933) syndicates in LA moved into drugs, prostitution, unions, the oil business, in which Chandler worked for most of the 20s, and gambling for which the off-shore ships in Farewell, My Lovely provide a venue. Those floating casinos outside the three-mile limit were owned by an ex-bootlegger named Cornero; Chandler changed his name and those of the boats. His descriptions were accurate: ‘The Royal Crown … a converted sea-going freighter with scummed and rusted plates, the superstructure cut down to the boatdeck level, and above that two stumpy masts just high enough for a radio antenna.”
Marlowe may have been a romantic fantasy but Chandler made the urban background to his novels so authentic that Greater LA itself took on the status of a character. The texts constitute a socio-political history of America’s biggest west coast city. Chandler is exact in his use of locales, the naming of streets and shops, the descriptions of sounds and sights including specific makes and models of cars. Los Angeles it has been claimed has no weather except when it rains in February. Weather and climate are crucial to Chandler’s narratives: the persistent rain in The Big Sleep, the fierce sun and burning Santa Ana winds in The High Window when “every booze party ends in a fight.” Sites and events are precisely located: Bullock’s the magnificent department store on Wilshire, bronze-green and multi-towered; the once exclusive Bunker Hill, its gothic mansions (in The High Window) turned into apartment houses; and Central Avenue where Moose Malloy looks for Velma in a “dinge joint” in Farewell My Lovely and which once rivalled Harlem’s 125th Street as the major thoroughfare of Black America. In novels and short stories the landscape is a feature,the foothills, beaches, mountains and flatlands all playing a part in the narrative’s unfolding drama.
This is especially the case in The Lady in the Lake which in its melancholy greyness anticipates The Long Goodbye and the work of Ross Macdonald who used it as the model for The Zebra-Striped Hearse. Much of the novel is set in small town California close to the Sierra Madre mountains. Little Fawn Lake is “like a drop of dew caught in a curled leaf” yet both nature and suburban society are vulnerable to individual evil. The central image of Crystal Kingsley’s body floating in the lake represents unnatural sin staining nature itself. The text produces familiar types: the lookalike blondes are promiscuous, the doctor (Almore) deals in drugs, and the Bay City police are routinely vicious. However the overall treatment of the law through its representatives is complex. Lieutenant Degarmo is exposed as a murderer while the local sheriff, Jim Patton, is identified as a rural figure associated with homesteaders and the frontier past. The town/country contrast underlines the novel’s melodramatic fixity though the abandonment of moral relativism is yet again concealed by duplicity. Chandler lethal blonde Muriel Chess dresses in black and white.
Set in post-war Los Angeles, The Little Sister interrelates family connections, organized crime and the movie capital. It has the best claim to be labelled Chandler Hollywood novel. The motifs of illusion and deceit are squarely located in the cinema industry, so that while analogies to acting recur in Chandler fiction, the need for metaphor is here obviated. Nevertheless, Chandler’s Hollywood characters – Dolores Gonzalez (“I must have men, amigo”) whose life is a B movie, Jules Oppenheimer, the Mayer-like movie mogul who enjoys watching his dogs pee (anywhere…), and Sherry Ballou, the refined agent as decadent aristocrat – are self-indulgent exaggerations, grotesques providing occasions for the author’s irritation. Their artificiality is most evident in Joseph P. Toad and his nephew, based on Hammett’s Gutman and Wilmer: “We’re just a couple of bit players”,insists Toad but the condition is widespread. For example, one cop advises another who is talking tough not to “try to steal the picture with that nineteen-thirty dialogue.” (p.168)
The New York Times Book Review attacked The Little Sister for its “scathing hatred of the human race.” Chandler admitted the book was written in a bad mood, and one of its features is a succession of diatribes aimed at modern civilization. The immediate focus Southern California is also a suburban microcosm of the nation:
A long time ago … Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but goodhearted and peaceful … Now we get characters like this Steelgrave [a gambler owning restaurants…. Out in the fancy suburbs dear old Dad is reading the sports page in front of a picture window, with his shoes off thinking he is high class because he has a three-car garage. Mom is in front of her princess dresser trying to paint the suitcases out from under her eyes.
The bilious onslaughts are continued in The Long Goodbye, especially in the long speech by the ultra-rich reclusive newspaper proprietor Harlan Potter. He delivers a misanthropic tirade criticizing planned obsolescence, mass production and (generally and hypocritically) the desire for material goods. Potter is another of Chandler rich, baleful power men – at his holiday home he is neighbour to a Nevada mafioso – but the tone and content of his philosophy are echoed by others in the novel, including Marlowe who is romantically involved with Potter’s daughter Linda Loring. The condemnations of American culture in the 50s include: “the awful state of American television, the grotesque betrayal of medical and social ethics … and that endemic disease, the stupidity and emptiness of people who run for public office.” In part Potter articulates the views of an ageing suburban Raymond Chandler, a man Billy Wilder summed up as “bad-tempered – kind of acid, sour, grouchy.”
With its ex cathedra denunciations and three selfportraits, The Long Goodbye is Chandler’s most personal and intense novel (his wife was dying at the time of composition) as well as his most ambitious. Inside the tradition it looks back to The Big Sleep which also portrays a millionaire with two errant daughters, to The Maltese Falcon which also features a quest motivated by the murder or disappearance of someone close to the PI, and forward to Ross Macdonald’s explorations of marriages and family histories. Roger Wade, the alcoholic, self-pitying fictional novelist, refers in a letter to Scott Fitzgerald; as a study in friendship and loyalty The Long Goodbye bears a resemblance to The Great Gatsby. The relationship between Marlowe and Terry Lennox recalls that of Carraway and Gatsby. Its centrality is indicated by one of Lennox’s false identities, Paul Marston, which shares the PI’s initials John Marston the Elizabethan dramatist was a contemporary of Christopher Marlowe.)
Chandler worked as a Hollywood scriptwriter in the 40s and The Long Goodbye was influenced by the private eye movies of the previous decade, a connection emphasised in the 1973 film version. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is both an extension of and a satire upon the hard-boiled novel. Its status as film is determined by a flood of references to Hollywood, and the “world” of the film (its diegesis) already made strange is rendered hallucinatory by means of photography, lighting, colour and restless or circular camera movements. Sentimental and decent, Elliot Gould as the detective drifts through the plot lethargically as Marlowe wanders dreamily through LA in the literary text. However the filmic narrative does trace the fate of the man with a strict code of honour in an unethical society. As Marlowe tells Lennox before shooting him (a radical departure from the novel) he is the only one who cares. The ending is bewildering in its referentiality (Chaplin, The Third Man and Hollywood Hotel but in its wit and buoyancy and its optimistic sense of release, it expresses nostalgia (“Hooray for Hollywood”) for a cinema which used to insist on morality and closure, while challenging on grounds of style the artistic simplicities of that cinema.
Gatsby’s “Oggsford” connections and war service are transposed to Lennox’s career and character – he is a World War II hero (in the English army) and counts among his associates the racketeer Mendy Menendez. Both Lennox and Wade are mirrors of Marlowe’s loneliness. Marlowe quotes the line “To say goodbye is to die a little” and the novel ends on a melancholy note. Lennox, “part of the manipulating endlessly fluid world”, as the critic John Whitley puts it, is exposed as unprincipled, and the detective’s faith in this “moral defeatist” and in their friendship is shattered. Loyalty though futile is as necessary as social bonds, and Marlowe’s vision of urban violence and suffering at the end of Chapter 38 ends with a typically ambivalent verbal picture of LA: “A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness” (Ballantine Books ed., 1974, p.224), an emptiness acknowledged in the text by Lennox tapping his chest with a lighter before murmuring: “In here … there isn’t anything.” (p.311)
From the pages of the magazine Black Mask there emerged in the 1920s a new type of private eye described by Ross Macdonald as “the classless, restless man of American democracy.” In the same essay “The Writer as Detective Hero” (1973) Macdonald refers to Hammett, whose Continental Op stories began to appear in Black Mask in 1923, as the first American to use the genre as a major novelist would, but he addresses himself at greater length to Chandler, while charging that the latter’s vision lacked the tragic dignity of Hammett’s. Macdonald was fully aware of his debt to Chandler and of the urgent need to distance himself and his creation Lew Archer from his Californian predecessor and the Marlowe books. In the 40s he wrote under his real name Kenneth Millar. Subsequently, after a decade of absorbing the Chandler tradition, Macdonald was able to free himself for the expression of his personal perspective.
Just as novelists in the South have sought to acknowledge and evade the posthumous presence of William Faulkner, writers of hard-boiled detective fiction have responded ambivalently to Chandler’s immense influence. His achievement is substantial and visible: by turning the PI of the pulps into a near-mythic American hero, he tested the boundaries of the genre, in the process producing novels of sensibility and compassion set in a corrupt and alienating society. Emphasizing American speech idioms while retaining a formal English structure (his literary heroes included Henry James and Flaubert), he constructed a new colloquial and flexible prose, brisk, witty and evocative. Geared to the physical, the immediate and the sensuous, Chandler’s mixture of slang, wisecracks and similes was responsible for a distinctive modern style, a sort of urban poetry, its mannerisms often close to self-parody. Current writers have perceived Marlowe in terms of ritual and cliche’: “He gets weepy over lost dogs and little kids, he hates authority, he hates big money. He has a witty riposte and an astute sociological observation for every situation that comes his way.” James Ellroy, recalling the films rather than the books, clearly has a preference for a non-heroic and more ambiguous protagonist. As the central figures have shifted so has the urban environment. Novelist Andrew Vachss insists that the term “mean streets” (associated with Chandler) is now historical and totally inappropriate for “these anarchistic places where there’s no law.” The changes can be calibrated in Arthur Lyons’ novels in which a pornographic bookshop, like Geiger’s, now multiplied a hundred fold in LA, has been surrounded by brothels, massage parlours and sex shops. Lyons’ squalid, horrific landscape is peopled by prostitutes, addicts, paedophiles, religious cultists and, a convention of the contemporary genre, serial killers.
Harold Bloom’s theory that poets live anxiously in the shadow of a “strong” poet derives from an Oedipal model of rivalry between fathers and sons. The “son” achieves power and creativity by undermining the father. Ross Macdonald’s detective novels take place in just such a world of patriarchy, Oedipal patterns and intense psychological energy. Indeed, Terry Eagieton’s description in Literary Theory (1983) of Bloom’s poetic battles – “domestic rows, scenes of guilt, envy, anxiety and aggression” (p. 184) – suggest the atmosphere of a Macdonald narrative.
Renegotiating his literary relationship with Chandler the younger writer saw the “detective-as-redeemer” conception (Philip Marlowe) as retrograde, sentimental and melodramatic. His own protagonist was, in contrast, a conduit, a lens:
These other people [Archer’s clients] are for me the main thing: they are often more intimately related to me and my life than Lew Archer is … his actions are largely directed to putting together the stories of other people’s lives and discovering their significance. He is less a doer than a questioner. … 
With the achievements of The Doomsters (1958) and The Galton Case (1959) Macdonald perceived that he was able to break away from the Chandler tradition into a more ambitious psychological and symbolic mode while remaining inside the parameters of the genre. As the Archer series developed professional organized crime featured less and less (Black Money, 1966 is an exception) and Archer was established not as a brash, idealized hunter, but as a sombre mediator between parents and their children, a mixture of social worker and priest, seeking to protect the innocent.
Macdonald’s PI is named after Sam Spade’s murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon, and his early work Blue City (1947) is patterned upon Hammett’s Red Harvest. The Moving Target (1949) and its immediate successors however are set in a Chandleresque milieu of rich men, starlets, gamblers, gangsters and wisecracks. The Drowning Pool (1950) begins, as The Big Sleep does, with the detective calling on a wealthy invalid. Archer like Marlowe is poor and, after the departure of his wife, lonely; both men penetrate the corruption and greed which pervade Southern California and it is through their journeys and pursuits that the physical and moral landscapes of the region are explored and connected. Chandler’s plot structure – the investigative search that uncovers and generates murders – finds recurrent echoes in Macdonald.
When you slept “The Big Sleep“, Philip Marlowe said, oil and water were the same as wind and air; for Macdonald oil and water especially in the form of an oil slick off the California coast constituted a sombre image: the death of nature. A prominent member of the Sierra Club and an ardent conservationist, he expressed his ecological concerns in his novels, notably in The Underground Man (1971) and Sleeping Beauty (1973). Earlier, Macdonald’s preoccupations were clustered in one of his “breakthrough” works, The Galton Case: the sins of the past, the lust for power and money, the condition of poor and rich, fathers and sons (and the quest for the lost father) and the failure of the American family.
Already at that stage Macdonald’s pessimism was well developed. The poet Chad Boiling, standing with Archer and looking down on the city, alludes nostalgically to the nation’s origins in speaking of the creation of “a new city of man on the great hills.” However, Macdonald in his essay on The Galton Case takes a less nostalgic attitude with the reminder that a puritanical society had inflicted “the quiet punishments of despair” on the poor and fatherless. In this novel of dispossession, the historical referents are the Depression (and Prohibition) and the Civil War perpetuated, in Antony Galton’s theory, by class inequality. Galton the rich scion whose disappearance in 1936 is made the occasion for Archer’s search “thought of the poor people as white Negroes, and he wanted to do for them what John Brown did for the slaves. Lead them out of bondage…” (Fontana ed., 1972, p.28) The reward for his idealism is a violent death. Ironically commercial progress – the construction of a new shopping centre – uncovers his skull-less skeleton: radicalism is severed from the body politic in the USA. The Oedipal quest is enacted as Galton’s son emerges under the name John Brown Jr.
The presence of the past is shown to be inescapable. A missing person (or object) is pursued thus generating a multitude of discoveries. In a return of the repressed, history yields its secrets. Macdonald’s villains enact their fantasies and crimes at the expense of others. As in Chandler and Fitzgerald, characters who persistently live in the past are destroyed. In particular, the sequence of novels from The Wycherly Woman (1961) to Black Money (in which all the deaths result from past actions) show the suppression of the truth leading inexorably to crises. The danger of exposure is both motivation and narrative; people murder to protect the duplicity of appearance. Retreating from a rigid melodramatic morality Archer is not without sympathy for certain killers: when guilt is universal murderers are victims too. At the end of The Doomsters the killer goes not to the death cell but to hospital. “With Macdonald, the detective story form becomes a family saga of entitlement, generational conflict, and threats to self identity.” Thus the family is a dense metaphor, the site of misused power through time.
In Sleeping Beauty Elizabeth Somerville makes a connection between a World War II incident and contemporary pollution. “We do things on a grander scale in our family. We burn ships and spill oil. It’s the all-American way.” (Fontana ed., 1975, p.65) Mrs. Somerville’s comment is sardonic, but Macdonald while focusing more and more on the middle classes registers as national the lust for money, and the shame, frustration and ethical obtuseness brought about by its absence; a character in The Goodbye Look (1969) tries a criminal logic: “How can a man help breaking the law if he don’t have money to live on?” (Warner Books ed., 1992, p.99)
Through the 60s and 70s Macdonald’s vision darkens. An earlier decade was subject to deforestation and megapolitan growth, but the ocean, Archer claimed in The Drowning Pool, remained unpolluted. The more the land was despoiled so the greater importance assumed by the ocean (especially the Pacific) as the final instance of frontier wilderness. Sleeping Beauty however opens with Archer’s mid-air glimpse of a huge oil slick which has apocalyptic overtones. The world has been stabbed, made to “spill black blood”. The spectators on the beach are like the stoic, futile watchers in Robert Frost’s “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep”. “They looked as if they were waiting for the end of the world, or as if the end had come and they would never move again.” (p.6) While Macdonald’s melancholy deepens through time, corrupt oilmen recur throughout, showing up in The Moving Target, The Drowning Pool, and The Instant Enemy (1968) (as well as Sleeping Beau). Indeed his frequent use of oil pollution as a symbol of moral contamination eventually became a mannerism, a target for parody, “Out in the ocean a lone surfer was riding in on an oil slick that lay on the sea like a black stain of sin on a human soul: he was covered with oil too: oil surfing was the latest fad.”
The trajectory of Archer’s career as traced by Eric Mottram is deconstructive and self-effacing. The endings of the narratives often leave Archer bewildered and exhausted. Before the climax he often moves as though in a dream or simply tired of “one-night stands in desolate places.” He is bemused when the murderer citing the wickedness of others undertakes a relativistic defence of his or her crime. At the conclusion of The Chill (1964) the detective is almost overwhelmed by Letitia’s refusal to accept guilt or responsibility. She is “an elemental power”, “greedy for life”. A triple murderer she protects her fantasy of eternal youth by furtive cunning and a discourse of unflinching self-importance: ‘ I won’t permit you to use such language to me. I’m not a criminal.” (Fontana ed., 1966, p.231) This indifference is characteristic of the surrounding society and contributes to Archer’s alienation, which he records towards the end of Black Morney: “a middle-aged man lying alone in darkness while life fled by like traffic on the freeway” (Fontana ed., 1968, p.223) The PI can neither find a nourishing community nor match up law and moral judgment. Ultimately Macdonald is incapable of penetrating the social structure he has diagnosed so incisively.
The Underground Man in which Archer’s moral security is undermined marks a temporary exhaustion of the genre. But there remains The Blue Hammer with its context of the art market, mining companies, the disruptions of war and (predictably) the instability of families. The final pages refer to freeway space, empty rooms and empty people; at this stage in Eric Mottram’s phrase, “the private eye becomes pure form.” In this novel, however, a degree of optimism is injected by the love affair between Archer and the young journalist Betty Jo. The relationship is not resolved within the text, but it counters the absence of affection elsewhere in Macdonald’s work. Betty Jo is no blonde Californian goddess, encouraging dreams and fantasies. Significantly, the title alludes to the blue pulse in her temple, the evidence of life and of the separate selfhood each partner respects and loves.
The sociological and ideological critique begins in the pre-Archer period of the late 40s. Blue City, a tale of corruption and reform exposes American rhetoric. The future is the proletariat’s “freedom” to be work-slaves and to be controlled by the media. The recent war Is acknowledged as an occasion for training in violence but also as the domestic arena where the conflict between the power of business/ crime and democratic ideals takes place. In later novels World War II becomes the personal or familial past of forbidden secrets; successive wars, Korea and Vietnam, are ignored. The change in Macdonald’s novels, as Paul Skenazy persuasively demonstrates, is manifested through absences: civic or police corruption, the lives of the underclasses, detailed racial and class relations, issues of wages and labour. Even the radicalism of Anthony Galton who sees himself as a latter-day John Brown is faintly absurd. The result is that “social factors disappear as motives for crimes” and the repeated plot “deflects class concerns into issues of psychological trauma and youthful family frustration. … Poverty is seen less as a condition of life, or a position in the social order, than as a form of behaviour.”
Behaviour is determined by local as well as national culture. Macdonald’s descriptions of California have been criticized for adhering too closely to the sprawling suburbs of the white middle class. Archer’s weary aloofness spreads a grey pall over the landscape and its inhabitants, characterized in one way or another – crushed, drowned, stiff or frozen – as lifeless. California, in Macdonald’s words, is superficially a “delightful movie-like dream”, but in Black Money a key question is asked, “When you have money to live on, and a nice house, and good weather most of the time, and still your life goes wrong – well, who can you blame?” (p.77) Corpses turn up in cars and motels. Macdonald at least conveys the rootlessness of a mobile society, eager to blot out history and content to make up values along the way. Towns like Oasis in The Way Some People Die (1951), its lights “lost and little in the great nocturnal spaces” are made up in similar fashion. “It’s the opposite of a ghost town, a town waiting to be born”, announces Keith Dalling. (Fontana ed., 1973, p.4l) But Archer, reminded of a wartime army camp, refers ominously to “the skeleton town”. Dalling has invested in Oasis; an accomplice to murder, his dividend is his own death. In Black Monday, modelled on Macdonald’s favourite book The Great Gatsby, the racially mixed Pedro Domingo (Afro-Indian-white) emerges from Panama and, like Jay Gatz, assumes an invented aristocratic role; for a couple of weeks at the state college in Montevista he is taught by a professor with “Scott Fitzgerald good looks.” Domingo is one of that company of “dangerous dreamers” in Macdonald who act out their fantasies. The dream is also embedded in the Californian (and American) psyche so that the writer can imagine Hollywood precisely as “our national capital”.
Macdonald’s use of California beach culture in The Zebra-Striped Hearse provides another example of the ideological difficulties recounted earlier. The liberated surfers who cruise the coast in their psychedelic car are hostile towards adults. They beg food and clothes, and gather around bonfires “like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors.” (Fontana ed., 1985, p. 186) This apocalyptic image registers Archer’s alarm; although the hippies are loyal and peaceful, their challenge to bourgeois conventions is seen as threatening and reprehensible. Their presence is a reminder of enduring conservative elements in hard-boiled narrative. Intertextuality in Macdonald’s novels, while not original, is more developed and varied than in those of his predecessors. The Wycherly Woman contains a reference to Paolo and Francesca and to the second circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. The Chill alludes to Waiting For Godot and describes Zeno’s theory of space (Achilles and the tortoise). Ecology in The Underground Man is traced to a disciple of Louis Agassiz and a 19th century checklist of ornithological species in “Santa Teresa”. Ross Macdonald, a Ph.D. in English, writes in the Archer novels for a sophisticated, college-educated audience. The signs pointing the way towards Murder in the English Department, The James Joyce Murders and the hard-boiled narratives of Robert B. Parker can already be dimly observed.
If the investigator becomes pure form in the later works of Ross Macdonald, this knowledge has escaped a considerable number of post-Chandler detective novelists. The hero with a private code reappears, for example, in the books of Robert B. Parker, but Spenser jogs and has some of the characteristics of a New Man. Elsewhere the code becomes the shared experience that links lawmen and villains. Many elements remain – crime, violence, pain, evidence, revelations – but much becomes changed as writers endeavour to chronicle American culture in the last third of the twentieth century. Other characters fill the structural role of the private eye (cops both male and female, lawyers, professors, even drifters with a past), so the post-Chandler period demands to be examined less through the single author or code hero than through region, class, race or gender.
The multiplicity of signifiers which confronts the reader is not quarantined within mass culture. The explosion of American popular music within this period provides parallel sets of images and atmospheres: urban blues – Gar Heywood; cajun -James Lee Burke; old time Jazz and brass band -Julie Smith (New Orleans Mourning); and country – who else but James Crumley.
James Crumley is one of the educated rednecks of hard-boiled fiction. ”He writes books about troubled macho men … desperately,, romantic novels of the private eye as the last denizen of the old West. (Williams, p.133 ) In Dancing Bear (1983) and his finest work, The Last Good Kiss (1978) he sends his investigators to the dusty bars, truck-stop cafe’s and seedy motels of Montana, Colorado and Wyoming – even in the latter to “the most depressing place in the West”, the Salt Lake City bus terminal.Crumley creates strong, sophisticated female characters, but both novels employ the conventional first person narrative of the (male) private eye. The personal/fictional milieu of Crumley, ex-bartender, ex-soldier, resident of Missoula, Montana, is inhabited by good old boys, rowdy divorced hellraisers who hang out in bars to drink, flirt, smoke a few joints and have a party. They are 60s survivors, “the fortysomething Vietnam generation”, authentically and heroically represented by C.W. Sughrue, the part-time PI in The Last Good Kiss. Crumley likes to fill his books with ordinary labouring folk: truck drivers, barmaids, field workers. In The Last Good Kiss he reports the arrival of construction workers at a bar near Sonoma, men who “were probably terrible people who whistled at pretty girls, treated their wives like servants, and voted for Nixon every chance they got, but as far as I was concerned, they beat hell out of a Volvo-load of liberals for hard work and good times.” (Granada ed., 1979, p.33) Later, Crumley describes a male American fantasy of good times as “unencumbered by families or steady jobs or the knave responsibility”, underlining the point by quoting “Freedom’s just another word for nothing else to lose” from Kris Kristofferson’s melancholy country song, “Me and Bobby McGee”.
Indeed the atmosphere and sensibility of the Crumley canon is that of country music, more specifically that of the Texas honky tonk where the songs express the ambivalence of the working class in the South and Southwest: hedonism and puritanism, sin and guilt, violence and sentimentality. The key scene in which Betty Sue Howers recalls her childhood and her inability to touch “those veins like ugly worms” in the legs of her selfless Granny finds an echo in Holly Dunn’s 1980s hit, “Daddy’s Hands” (“Years of work and worry had left their mark behind”).
A paragraph in the first chapter of The Last Good Kiss alludes to Californian Okies, hot windy plains, orange groves, axe handles – and the Bible. The Steinbeck reference is quickly modified as Sughrue begins his pursuit of the Hemingwayesque alcoholic poet Abraham Trehearne who resembles the writer Roger Wade in The Long Goodbye. There are marked differences between the PIs Sughrue and Milo (in The Last Good Kiss and Dancing Bear respectively) and Lew Archer, but their fictional experiences are far from dissimilar. Like Archer, Crumley’s detective-protagonists are continually deceived, lied to and, in the case of Sughrue, betrayed by what his creator has called the ‘literary arrogance” of Trehearne. Sughrue succumbs to the temptations of violence offered by the job, but remains sensitive enough to describe finding lost people as “the saddest part of the chase” and to admit that he can no longer claim to possess “moral certitude.” Exploding the myth of the ratiocinative investigator who is both brilliant and virtuous, he sums up for all defeated private eyes:
“What a case. Private detectives are supposed to find missing persons and solve crimes, so far in this one I had committed all the crimes – everything from grand theft auto to criminal stupidity – and everybody but poor old Rosie and I had known where Betty Sue Flowers was from the beginning.”
Sughrue is asked by bar-owner Rosie Flowers to look for her daughter missing for ten years in the “Sodom and Gomorrah” of San Francisco. Rosie remembers joining the sad parade of parents searching for their children, “holding’ out their pictures to any dirty hippie that would look at it.” (p.280). As Lew Archer had discerned, parents had no idea why their daughters have run away; Galatea Lawrence in The Way Some People Die always came home for Christmas”, but Susan Crandell in The Underground Man had been “a pampered prisoner” in the affluent cell of her room. These are midnight girls in sunset towns and the search for Betty Sue will uncover drugs, theft and pornography.
The crimes in Dancing Bear are the actions of international arms cartels and the dumping of toxic materials. There arc also misdemeanours on a personal level, especially the exploitation of investigator Milo Milodragovitch by a group of manipulative and committed women: Somehow they would save America from toxic waste and corruption, and I would be their stooge, dance to their lies, dream of love in their arms. I didn’t have the heart to be angry.” (vintage ed., 1984, p.218)
Like Crumley’s first detective novel, The Wrong Case (1975), Dancing Bear concludes in forgiveness. Milo’s relationship with each of the women Is complex and he shares in their concern for the environment. The novel begins and ends with garbage; first, Milo’s own trash can “safe from hungry bears” and collected by automatic trucks, finally the landfills and floating incinerators which enable Tewels the chief criminal to grow rich on junk, sell drugs and pollute America. Milo’s environmentalism does not take an extreme form. He is a modern cowboy with the “hardy pioneer genes” of the old-time frontiersman, one who both approves of wilderness areas and wants chain saws and snowmobiles on his own property. He is aware his land was stolen from Native Americans (“a legal theft”) and the novel chooses for its prologue a Benniwah tale: the origins of the Bear Dance, a fable of ritual, community, sweetness – and forgiveness.
The small town setting, Meriwether, has seen better days. Lumber mills are closing, the pulp mill is on half shifts and the air smells “like cat piss and rotten eggs.” The town is as alienating as Hammett’s Poisonville with its yellow smoke and grimy sky, produced by smelting stacks. To these complaints Milo adds his private laments. His favorite bars are closed or “filled with children” and his stomach can now only tolerate peppermint schnapps. He observes his decline mirrored by the destruction of the land through strip mining and pastel tract houses. Battle-weary, he has learnt one grim post-Vietnam truth: modern life IS warfare without end. Eating the dead (as Chil-a-ma-cho ate Brother Bear) is sound ecology.
At the centre of Robert B. Parker’s hard-boiled narratives is another contradictory figure named Spenser. The signifiers of his toughness are evident – his .38 Smith and Wesson, boxing, weight lifting (Parker is the author of Sports Illustrated Weights Training), jogging (Parker advertises running shoes) and his gumshoe occupation. He resembles Lew Archer and Milo Milodragovitch in seeking to save the innocent from victimization. Caring and sensitive, he embraces Rachel Wallace, weeping with her, after rescuing her from kidnappers. A gourmet cook, he has a steady, semi-domestic relationship with a divorced schools counsellor Susan Silverman, one which makes him in the eyes of his friend Paul, “machismo’s captive. Honor, commitment, absolute fidelity, the whole myth.” “Love,” I said. “Love’s in there.” (The Widening Gyre Severn House ed., 1991, p.160)
These qualities modify and challenge the traditional hard-boiled image of a patriarchal masculinity. As David Glover shows, Parker explores the meaning and limits of masculine experience; “… the Spenser books are divided between a world of men and a world of women, moving relentlessly from one to the other. This makes them far less stable than they seem at first.” This instability can surface through the interrogation of Spenser’s profession and his exuberant violence by either Susan or, in Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980), by that novel’s eponymous lesbian activist. Feminist commentary on Parker has found this approach more progressive than the unexamined replication of (male) violence in the private eye texts of Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton.
As the series develops Susan becomes Spenser’s emotional anchor and it is when she goes to Washington D.C. as a pre-doctoral intern in clinical psychology that her absence highlights the true nature of his self-sufficiency. His surrogate son, Paul Giacomin, elucidates the situation in The Widening Gyre “You were complete, and now you’re not. It makes you doubt yourself. It makes you wonder if you were ever right. You’ve operated on instinct and the conviction that your instincts would be right . But if you were’ wrong, maybe your instincts were wrong.” (p.73) A discussion of the progress of Spenser’s current case, particularly if gender relations are involved, usually becomes an examination of their own relationship and their respective value systems. In The Widening Gyre Susan argues that given the alternatives of dropping out of the Senate race and permitting his wife’s participation in a sex orgy to be exposed, Meade Alexander will have to make the sell-serving decision. Here Susan takes the pragmatic position since ethical judgments are not crucial in her work which is orientated towards results. For his part Spenser, according to Parker, does what he can rather than what he should. While accustomed to the use of violence in solving problems, he also finds it necessary to speculate upon the determinants of behaviour and adopts a more generous attitude towards Alexander.
Susan is aware that she is in the process of creating a self. “I never had a center, a core full of self-certainty and conviction. I’ve merely picked up the colorations of [others].” Earlier she had protested in language which articulates the problem for gender representation of first person male narration. “Always me was perceived through you – you my father, you my husband, you my friend.” (pp. 110, 109). Now missing Spenser is the price she will gladly pay to find her identity. In these circumstances Spenser too pays – for loving Susan totally and without reservation, for living too long with a single dream like Jay Gatsby.
In his work as detective he is aware that some puzzles fail to produce wholly acceptable solutions; such wisdom can be applied to his personal life. His feelings for Susan emanate from his own core and conviction. They cannot be compromised and could, he now realizes, exist without her. At the end of The Widening Gyre Spenser looks down on her in bed as Lew Archer had looked tenderly on Betty Jo’s “blue hammer” and records that he “watched her with the growing certainty that some of her would always be remote, away from me, unknowable, unobtainable, never mine. Watched her and thought these things and knew, as I could know nothing else so surely, that it didn’t matter.” (p. 183)
Elmore Leonard’s Detroit novel City Primeval which negotiates intertextually with the movie High Noon includes a critique of the protagonist Raymond Cruz, accused by a woman journalist of trying to “look like young Wyatt Earp … the no-bullshit Old West lawman.” Leonard’s literary career began with Westerns and in his Boston University Ph.D. Parker presented the hard-boiled private eyes of his predecessors as modern versions of the Deerslayer archetype. The Judas Goat (1978) is crammed with western references, the most significant being Richard Slotkin’s study of the hunter as American mythic hero, Regeneration Through Violence. The attainment of spiritual renewal through self-testing and serving God and nature which Slotkin proposes is denied in the urban thrillers of Parker, Macdonald and others. Violence removed from the wilderness is non-regenerative. Slotkin also alludes to the hunter’s natural humility and self-restraint. That potentiality for Spenser is embodied in his lover Susan; the opposite quality of excess, violent excess is projected through the AfroAmerican enforcer Hawk who saves the PI’s life in Valediction (1984) and, possibly, in Promised Land (1986). He plays Chingachgook to Spenser’s Natty Bumppo.
Parker’s titles alone, The Widening Gyre (Yeats), A Savage Place (Coleridge), A Catskill Eagle (Melville) bear witness to the influence of the western literary tradition upon his writing. Promised Land and Ceremony (1982) allude to Thoreau; Gatsby and Prufrock are evoked in A Savage Place (1981). These references are a signal to the reader that he/she is in the presence of Serious Literature and provide the educated bourgeois audience with a manufacturer’s guarantee that a Spenser thriller does not insult the reader’s intelligence. In populist fashion however Spenser is cool even disapproving towards academics since they are part of a system of professionals which threatens the exercise of private moral judgment. Students are often portrayed negatively: the campus radicals in The Godwulf Manuscript (1974) are vicious while the college boys in The Widening Gyre who deal drugs and call their orgies with middle-aged women “granny parties” are puerile and corrupt. More recently Playmates focused on the seamy side of college sport.
“Respectable” hard-boiled fiction often recalls the literary past: Spenser and Marlowe from the English Renaissance, and the world of chivalric romance in The Big Sleep and The Godwulf Manuscript. Thus Parker and others are able through particular “high art” signifiers (Spenser like Marlowe enjoys the paintings of the Dutch realists such as Rembrandt) to make functional references to several areas of cultural practice. It is however Ross Macdonald’s books that Parker’s narratives bring to mind most readily especially those (God Save the Child, Early Autumn, and Promised Land which explore the breakdown of the modern family. The prising apart of affluent life is given a broader sociocultural context of dreams unfulfilled, most obviously in Promised Land, the title providing the name of Harvey Shepard’s “vacation-land” housing development temporarily sustained with embezzled money.
As the classic writers of hard-boiled fiction anatomized their special corners of California, so Parker sets his “romantic adventures” in Boston and New England whose historically resonant names (Bunker Hill, Plymouth Plantation) can be used to contrast the lost agrarian America of the Founding Fathers and the innocent young Republic with the garish commercial USA of the 1980s. Spenser’s sentimental reverence finds voice in The Widening Gyre. Upon returning from a trip to Washington D.C., the seat of government and its scheming politicians, he looks up
to the top of State Street where the old South Meeting House stood, soft red brick with, on the 2nd floor, the lion and unicorn carved and gleaming in gold leaf adorning the building as they had when the Declaration of Independence was read from its balcony and, before it, the street where Crispus Attucks had been shot. It was a little like cleansing the palate.
Gar Haywood is the Afro-American author of a prize-winning hard-boiled novel, Fear of the Dark (1988), set in the huge ghetto of South Central Los Angeles. Interviewed by John Williams, Haywood admitted that if he made his principal character a policeman, the visible contradictions would entirely disable him as a writer. For the literary Afro-American the whole concept of law and order is problematic, “You can’t expect the cop on the beat to change the system The changes that have to be made to make law and order mean something in this city have to come from a lot farther up.”
Chester Himes had his own reasons (a spell in Ohio State penitentiary, brushes with law officers) for sharing Haywood’s attitude, but he was persuaded in the 1950s to create as the protagonists of his hard-boiled “detective tales” two black “Harlem sheriffs”, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. Like their white counterparts, they are figures of social dominance and personal strength, but paradoxically as servants of an hierarchical system, their power is severely constrained. Their condition as Afro-Americans underlines this contradiction and motivates their anger and aggression, the kind of rage kept simmering in Harlem by squalor and oppression and articulated by Violet Mills in “Mad Mama’s Blues” (“Yes, I’m gonna wreck the city, gonna blow it up tonight”).
Quintessentially an American product, the hard-boiled novel, Himes has argued, is “plain and simple violence in narrative form.” Coffin Ed and Digger are hard, at times brutal, and their faces especially Coffin Ed’s, bear the marks and scars of life on the ghetto streets. They are intimidating, cruel and vengeful. Deliberate and detailed violence contributes to the naturalism of their portrayal but they are also, as successors to the Continental Op and Marlowe, fantasy figures. They function symbolically enjoying the cultural role of the bad nigger of folklore like Stagolee; as men of power they demonstrate that even the weak and impoverished can instil fear and terror.
Himes’s cops adopt a melodramatic perspective, dividing the local inhabitants into good and evil, innocent and criminal. This rigid morality produces self-righteous judgments which are acted upon vigorously and – in the manner of Hammett’s Op – excessively, impinging on both the blameless and guilty, men and women alike. The excess could be interpreted as a means of challenging aspects of the genre, such as hard-boiled philosophy and the mystification of the romanticized detective. Other explanations can be argued: for example, violence is a technique of communication and survival. It is also Himes’s method of bestowing humanity and dignity on certain characters both lawmen and lawbreakers. In My Life of Absurdity (1976) he explained that he was protesting against a racism that excused all the sins and faults of soul brother criminals who were as vicious and dangerous as any other criminals. Only by bending the law (non-violently or otherwise) can Harlem’s detectives achieve the cosy resolutions which feature in many of Himes’s crime novels. In All Shot Up (1960) the stolen money ($50,000) is seized by the two officers and sent to the New York Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund which arranges summer vacations for (New York) city kids of all races.
Coffin Ed and Digger are dispensing justice on behalf of a poverty-stricken community threatened by criminal activity and oppressed by extremes of weather. They identify strongly with the black underclass whose lives they attempt to ameliorate, though the area around Eighth Avenue and 112th Street is presented in Cotton Comes to Harlem as close to irredeemable: “the neighbourhood of the cheap addicts, whisky heads, stumblebums, the flotsam of Harlem; the end of the line for the whores, the hard squeeze for the poor honest labourers and a breeding ground for crime.” (Penguin ed., p.47) As Raymond Nelson argues, “it is one of the brilliant ironies of the Harlem Domestic stories that the detective-heroes can express their genuine love for their people, their altruistic hopes for communal peace and decency, only through the crude brutality that has become their bitter way of life.”
It is not violence alone which identifies these texts as part of the hard-boiled tradition. Coffin Ed and Digger are quick-thinking professionals, incorruptibly honest, loyal to each other and brave. Driven by a central quest, the plots tend to imitate Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon which was recommended to Himes by Marcel Duhamel who commissioned the novels for “La Serie Noire”. The resemblance is closest in the first novel For Love of Imabelle (1957) – Himes’s preferred title was The Five-Cornered Square – where the ore in the padlocked trunk turns out to be fool’s gold. As in Hammett’s novel the lure generates capers, intrigues and savage even spectacular violence on both personal and public levels.
Himes does not employ the characteristic first person narrative mode. Instead he offers a number of viewpoints which, along with the exercise of time inversion, produces a text conveying the disjointedness, the messy and turbulent atmosphere of the black community. The surreal dynamism of this teeming ghetto world with its flamboyant, ribald individuals is rendered in a realistic style which draws upon laconic speech forms and Afro-American vernacular. However Himes maintained that he never really knew what it was like to be an inhabitant of Harlem, claiming in My Life of Absurdity that he was as much of a tourist there as “a white man from downtown changing his luck.” His knowledge of the criminal underworld, its styles, its spoken language, and of the lives of ghetto dwellers in other American cities, especially Cleveland, Ohio, fully compensate for any lack of direct experience of New York. The fictional Harlem is a self-contained society: the reader encounters its restaurants, foods, music, entertainment, churches, clubs and tenements. While its people are deprived, sinful and resilient, black America’s capital is, like Chandler’s LA, mysterious, exotic, intricate and enigmatic. Himes captures the sights of shop windows and graffiti, the sounds of jazz from neighbourhood bars and, in The Heat’s On (1967), the smells “of sizzling barbecue, fried hair, exhaust fumes, rotting garbage, cheap perfumes, unwashed bodies … and all the dried-up odours of poverty.” (Panther ed., 1969, p.28)
The details of a crowded, colourful city provide the anchor for the exuberance of fantasy. In his essay “City of Harlem” Leroi Jones reported that the mythology of the ghetto supplied different images, “the pleasure-happy center of the universe” and “the gathering place for every crippling human vice.” Yet Harlem as Jones insists, eludes definitions, changing continually, questioning the stereotypes of glamour and desperation. In that “milling population of preachers and politicians, sober matriarchs and mock religious prophets, pimps and their chippies, drug pushers and wheel thieves, transvestites and con-men, and shysters of every kind and sex” anything might happen. Himes’s Harlem witnesses racketeering, drug-dealing and hustling in general, so tension, fear and violence – from acid-throwing to stabbings – suffuse the textual material.
New York’s black community has been called Southern in its memories and its culture; The Crazy Kill (1960) contains a complete soul food menu. In Cotton Comes to Harlem (1966) Himes juxtaposes two political projects one of which is the racist movement led by the neoConfederal Colonel Calhoun known as Back-to-the-Southland. This is symbolized by a bale of cotton carrying suggestions of slavery – which more or less describes the conditions awaiting those Harlemites who join up. On the other hand black militancy is represented by the Back-to-Africa movement of the slippery, despicable Deke O’Hara, an ironic reference to Marcus Garvey’s nationalist organization in the 20s which “doesn’t make any sense now.” The irony is reversed in the book’s conclusion: an old junk collector does travel to Ghana with the $87,000 he finds in the cotton bale – money stolen from the O’Hara group’s “Last Chance Rally” by the Colonel’s men. The Colonel who, with his nephew, is guilty of murder evades justice; a deal is struck so that the robbed Harlem families will receive $87,000 (from Back-to-the-Southland) while Calhoun and Ronald Compton return to Alabama which refuses to extradite them for the crime of killing a “Negro”.
The limits of justice, particularly as experienced by Afro-American police officers, become increasingly obvious to Himes, and this theme is developed in the ambitious hard-boiled narrative, Blind Man With a Pistol (1969), a de-centred anti-novel in which the failure of the genre is central to the meaning. Harlem which in Plan B (published in French, 1983) experiences a black revolution, becomes completely anarchic and meaningless. The cops’ investigations are blocked because they would uncover an interracial homosexual scandal embarrassing to the white establishment. So the extreme point of absurdity is reached: crime can no longer be solved for criminality is all-pervasive, generated by urban decay. Similarly the disease of institutional racism in the ghetto is too widespread for any remedy.
Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are here ineffective comic characters with greying hair and middle-aged spread. As riots and demonstrations proliferate, they are no longer able to impose order. Parades representing different ideologies converge and collide. The Black Muslim Michael X tells them, “You don’t really count in the overall pattern.” (Panther ed., 197 l, p. 174) The parable of the blind man with a gun provides the appropriate epilogue, an image – as Himes’ preface warns – of the unorganized violence that connects the Middle East, Vietnam and America’s ghettoes. Himes’ black detectives adjust to impotence and irrationality, taking pot-shots at rats in a building demolished by urban renewal.
Himes’ Black Power militants reappear two decades later in Fear of the Dark. The Brothers of Volition attempt to provoke a bloody civil war but are frustrated by Haywood’s PI, aging balding Aaron Gunner. The lesson for Gunner (and for Afro-America) is to keep alive the dream of a society without racial bigotry and oppression, to relinquish suicidal fantasies of vengeance. The author’s second novel Not long For This World (1990) describes the desperate world of LA’s street gangs: ‘We’re talking about kids that from day one have had no hope of anything, they have totally lost faith in their own future,” (Williams, p. 102) Haywood deplores black and white indifference and politicians with their bland advice, but Gunner’s increased awareness of the dimensions of the problem only constitutes a repetition of the bewildered liberal’s announcement that attention must be paid…..
Walter Mosley sets his crime novel Devil in a Blue Dress (1991) in the Los Angeles of the 1940s when racial conflict gave rise to the Zoot Suit notes, an occasion when, as Chester Himes wrote at the time, the US army, navy and marines “contacted and defeated a handful of youths with darker skins.” Mosley chooses the post-riot date of 1948, one which can evoke the Chandler milieu of the early 40s; the opening scene in Joppy’s Bar in Watts is an interracial inversion of the first scene of Farewell, My Lovely. Historical and geographical intersections authenticate the actions and thoughts of his private eye, Easy Rawlins. The author’s interest in Albert Camus (who earlier had influenced another black writer deeply interested in crime, Richard Wright) becomes evident as Rawlins endeavours to resolve moral dilemmas and to create his identity through his experiences and through the assumption of a professional role. “It was as if for the first time in my life I was doing something on my own terms. Nobody was telling me what to do. I was acting on my own.” (Serpent’s Tail ed., p.131 Becoming a detective vanquishes fear and boredom. The right technique, with a glance at Ralph Ellison, is to act “sort of invisible”. Rawlins is a black Marlowe, tough, hard up, relentless, but without the neuroses and isolation. The denouement however recalls Hammett when Easy with the backing of the rich and powerful Carter concocts a fiction to satisfy the police.
In 1948 the Afro-American and the “Mexican” were on good terms, just “another couple of unlucky stiffs left holding the short end of the stick.” (p. 182) Rawlins who was among the GIs who evacuated the Nazi concentration camps contemplates the historical fate of another marginalized figure – the European Jew. His knowledge helps him to ward off racial self-pity; he still needs to survive while attaining dignity, though in his circumstances he relies upon the assistance of the gun-happy, murderous Mouse, a friend/enemy from earlier days in Houston “where men would kill over a dime wager or a rash word.” (p.40) The racial theme is also developed through Daphne Monet, the mysterious woman of the title. Changeable like the chameleon, sexually generous, dangerous to know, she is the exotic femme fatale of film noir. In addition her fake French accent, her blue dress (as worn by French giris – and by Ilsa Lund in Casablanca – in wartime Paris) and her mixed racial origins suggest the tragic octoroon of Southern literary culture.
Mosley excels in language which describes the characters of LA’s postwar black areas, and the atmosphere of hustling: “There’s no time to walk down the street or make a bar-b-q when somebody’s going to pay you real money to haul refrigerators.” (p.56) A variety of locations borrowed from Chandler fills in the panorama. The canyon roads, Hollywood Hills, and the corporate offices recur. Mosley also transports his protagonist from Joppy’s evil-smelling bar in a butcher’s warehouse to John’s place (a grocery front for an illegal nightclub), Daphne’s one-story duplex on Dinker Street, and Ricardo’s Pool Room on Slauson, “a serious kind of place peopled with jaundice-eyed bad men who smoked and drank heavily while they waited for a crime they could commit.” (p.129)
Billy Wilder’s film Some Like It Hot associated Chicago with night, violence and swift death. Miami, by contrast, stood for sunshine, vitality and fun. Such a polarization was a fictional device as the film tacitly admitted when the plot moved the gangsters south in search of the two musicians who had witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Miami Beach already had a history of Mafia domination with Al Capone settling there for a time during Prohibition as an “antique dealer” and pronouncing Miami the “Garden of America”. In the 30s gunfights between G-men and smugglers were common. So Miami’s assumption of the title “Murder Capital USA” in the early 80s was actually an exercise in continuity.
The prevalence of criminality, intriguingly mixed with the Florida postcard attributes of surf, sun, beach and lush tropical plants, made Miami as dangerous and exciting as Chicago. Miami, like New Orleans, was exotic by virtue of its links with other races, languages and cultures, but it was literally colourful capitalizing on the exuberant surfaces of its South Beach Art Deco hotels. In TV’s Miami Vice the colours are pastel and incandescent, constitutive of a city that is post-industrial, vibrant and stylistically ambitious. The artificial settings are complemented by atmospheric, natural ones. “Teeming with images of nature – parrots, flamingos, water and speed, women’s bodies, flaunting sensuality – Miami is our heart of darkness.” Maurice Zola, the old hotelier in Elmore Leonard’s La Brava (1983) repeats the rumour that the east bank of the Apalachicola River between Bristol (where Noah may have built the Ark) and Chatahoochee is the site of the original Garden of Eden. Miami is both heart of darkness and fallen world, its paradisal luxury resting on credit and drug money, the profits from which have criminalized businessmen, politicians and police officers. Moral distinctions are obliterated in a democracy of desire and consumerism.
By the 80s Miami and Florida had taken over from Los Angeles and Southern California in the American consciousness as lotus land, the site of opportunity and easy living. Still evolving and changing, Miami promoted itself as the pioneer centre of a new international arena of leisure. Dreamlike and romantic, Miami had become a place where any possibility could be accommodated. These possibilities would increasingly partake of violence and vice. A clearing house for Immigrants and refugees, Miami was becoming an entrepot for weapons and drugs as well, a city of touts and pimps and middlemen bringing in or delivering whatever the world wished to purchase. Its internationalism would embrace not only cafe society Europeans like Regine but Colombian cocaine cowboys, French-speaking Haitians and the Marielitos tossed out by Castro in 1980 and reckoned to be the most ruthless criminals ever seen in the USA. Many of those involuntary immigrants were drug addicts, prostitutes and homosexuals; among the rest were large numbers of petty crooks, usually brutal, and about two thousand hard core villains. Together they would send Miami’s crime figures through the roof: “The boat-lifters and dopers come in, half the neighbourhood’s already down the toilet”, laments Maurice in LaBrava (Penguin ed., 1985, p.68).
Specific events carried their own meanings. The Liberty City riots were yet another example of the violence waiting to be triggered by Southern racism, while the Suniland shoot-out exposed the dark underside of Middle America. Matix and Platt were army veterans from the Midwest, patriotic, garden-loving, pious suburbanites who killed their wives for the insurance money before or after moving to Miami. When Platt received his money he at once took his kids to Disney World. The two men used the flamboyant cars of young Hispanic males they had murdered to commit armed robbery and were finally shot in a black and gold Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Chunky Gorman, a drugs dealer in Elmore Leonard’s Stick (1983) warns Moke, a young redneck working for a Cuban outfit, that he has seen “white boys … take on that greaseball strut, that curl to the lip and land in a federal correction facility for showing off’. (Penguin ed., 1984, p.21) Part of the fascination of the Miami crime novel is this clash of cultures and the way power depends on images and their manipulation.
Nestor, Chucky’s associate in crime, is Hispanic Cuban, but stories tag him as part Lengua Indian from Paraguay, “raised on the alkaline flats and fed spider eggs” (p.120) to make him evil. He is able to terrify Chucky through references to santeria and animal sacrifice, having known for a long time “gods can scare the shit out of anyone” (p.125). Nestor apart, Cubans usually fill the reductive roles of small time hoods in these texts and are the targets of racist sentiments (“that greaser goon Chavez”, “fucking Cuban hotshot”). Cundo Rey the glitzy go-go artist in LaBrava at least gets to say “I steal cars in darkness, I dance in lights” but needs little invitation to “act crazy”. Jesris Bernal, the incompetent letter bomber in Carl Hiassen’s Tourist Season (1986), is a similar figure ending up as the wild Cuban, a mixture of clown and loose cannon.
In a TV series Matix and Platt might have been cast as the exterminators, agents of law enforcement. They lived and died in Kendall, described by T.D. Allman in Miami: City of the Future (1988) as “a churchgoing, Little-League, nine-to-five kind of place.” It is in an expensive Kendall condo that Freddy ‘Junior” Frenger, the psychopathic protagonist of Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues (1984) holes up with his “platonic” wife Susan. The apartment complex in the novel exemplifies the contradictions and volatility of Miami life in the early 80s. Chic and tropical, it is for the most part unpainted or unfinished as construction prices and interest rates on loans have escalated. A Cuban rides round in a jeep to prevent vandalism. The ironies contained in the Kendall Pines Terrace are repeated elsewhere. Miami with its lush vegetation, its shimmering skyline and its aura of glamour may seem the antithesis of the mean streets of criminality and sudden death found in film noir and the classic hard-boiled thriller. David Buxton in ‘From “The Avengers” to ‘Miami Vice”: form and ideology in television series’ (1990) has brilliantly analyzed the discrepancy between extravagant materialism and incorruptibility in Miami Vice up to 1988. The ambiguous Reaganite package of harsh moralism and conspicuous consumption with its cops as “style heroes” eventually collapses; it is a safe bet that Miami’s flashy cops in three piece suits and Gucci shoes are moonlighting for drug barons. There remains however a degree of Thirties urban realism in Leonard and Willeford, while Stick includes a mansion sufficiently grand to rival earlier monuments belonging to the Grayles and the Sternwoods:
an assortment of low modules stuck together, open sides and walls of glass set at angles, the grounds dropping away from the house in gradual tiers, with wide steps that might front a museum leading down to the terraced patio and on to the swimming pool. A sweep of manicured lawn extended to a boat dock and a southwest view of Biscayne Bay… (pp.82-3)
What has changed is that the democracy of violence and crime has expanded. When Freddy Frenger breaks a Hare Krishna’s finger, observers break into applause and laugh. The wounded beggar who dies of shock turns out to be the brother of the young hooker Frenger shacks up with. Susan and Marty Waggoner were saving up for a Burger King franchise in Okeechobee: “He’ll be the day manager and I’ll manage nights. We’ll build a house on the lake, get us a speedboat and everything.” (Ballantine ed., 1985, p.31) Marty was cheating the Hare Krishnas. As a child he liked to bend back Susan’s fingers and when puberty struck the pair he made her pregnant. So much for the American Dream. But it has appeal for Frenger too. “What I want is a regular life. I want to go to work in the morning or maybe at night, and come home to a clean house, and a decent dinner, and a loving wife like you.” (pp. 143-4) In this quotation Frenger sounds like Matix and Platt. He’s the deadly suburban monster, dream and nightmare made inextricable.
Miami’s amorphousness offers space in which to hustle and rob, to maim others or yourself. “Nothing about Miami was exactly fixed or hard”, Joan Didion noted in her essay Miami (1988), an observation which touches the crux of the Miami novel. Criminality in these books is closely linked to lack of place and roots, lack of traditions except of lawbreaking itself. One consequence of Miami’s status as haven for thousands of travellers and transients is the decline of family life. Watching “Family Feud” on TV Frenger observes that there are no mothers and fathers on the show, only cousins, uncles and perhaps a kid borrowed from the neighbours. The cynical reflection of Police Officer Hoke Moseley on the Waggoners makes an epitaph for the 80s – and for Miami: “That’s some family isn’t it? Incest, prostitution, fanaticism, software.” (p.157) For reasons already acknowledged, the detective (male) of classic hard-boiled fiction is without family. His distance from “family” and the location of crime including murder within the family contribute to the construction of such fiction as literature of resistance.
Instead of family life the Miami novel produces representations of lifestyles linked somewhere by crime. Just as a palm tree, jacuzzi and red staircase seem suspended in the space in Arquitectonica’s Brickell Avenue condominium, so characters in books by Leonard, James Hall and Joseph Koenig float in their individual ways. Koenig’s Floater (1986) is a corpse; the book’s major criminal dumps one, but ends up the same way in the Tamiani canal. Miami’s topography functions as a watery cemetery. Although the Everglades bleed Miami from the rear-view mirror as motorists on the Tamiani Trail approach the Big Cypress Swamp and the Gulf Coast, the wilderness area shares in the ambivalence of the city. Alice in Floater calls her family hunting lodge, with its Spanish moss in the front yard and its freshwater lagoon in the back, “the honeymoon cottage”, but her partner Norodny drowns his first victim in an Everglades guest house. If the Everglades National Park supplies a mythic image of pre-lapsarian nature, it is also a source of Southern Gothic, a miasmal, haunted setting of swampland, mosquitoes, alligators and white trash.
A discourse of the gothic can function as the expressive medium of a nostalgic, even obsessive environmentalism. Skip Wiley’s self-imposed mission in Carl Hiassen’s Tourist Season (1986) is to wreak vengeance on the boosters, wheeler-dealers, bankers and developers who with dredgers and bulldozers have not only turned Miami into “Newark with palm trees” but have made it an environmental disaster area. Ecology is also fundamental to James Hall’s Under Cover of Daylight (1987), its action taking place in the environmentally fragile islands of the Florida Keys. Hall is interested in dealing with the issue of a human being pushed into a situation where his life and values are seriously threatened. So his central character an existentialist-loner called Thorn who lives in a remote Key Largo stilt house and ties flies for a living bears the traces, extended to parody, of a Hemingway figure. The epigraph however is from A Writer’s Journal and Thorn tries to live according to the rhythms of nature, like Thoreau on the shores of Walden Pond. At the book’s conclusion Thorn is purged of guilt and exorcizes the memory of killing his lover’s father. Finally floating he cleanses himself in Lake Surprise, becoming as Thoreau predicted “a still lake of purest crystal.”
Hiassen’s forte is black humour: “Sparky” Harper the President of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce is choked to death with a 79c. rubber alligator – still displaying its price tag. The crusaders responsible are eager to make a point. The body chopped off at the legs and dressed in a Jimmy Buffett shirt and Bermuda shorts is stuffed in a suitcase, the Royal Tourister naturally… Hiassen’s later and more coherent novel Double Whammy (1987), (the title is the name of a lure for bass) is an expose’ of fraud and murder among redneck fishermen In the South-Eastern states, especially Florida. In this case the environmentalist response to real estate development on the edge of the Everglades, where the state fish the largemouth bass is dangerously polluted, is divorced from the text’s imaginative gothicisms. Thomas Curl, a foul-mouthed killer, is savaged by a pit bull terrier with a “supernatural” grip. Unable to release from his arm the “demonic mandibles” of the dog (killed by the thrust of a screwdriver), Curl severs the head, still attached as though in symbiosis, and continues his murderous journey. The symbolism – Curl’s bestiality, the moral corruption made physical by infection – is crudely obvious, but is pursued with grim panache through the redneck’s explosive death and a feast for buzzards who reduce the dog’s head to a bare yellow skull.
Chucky in Stick once killed a dog and was moved out of Georgia because of his “mental” problem. His diet of Valium and ‘ludes causes him to float among the coloured lights in his head “swimming under water only without any water.” His own violence remains latent until the narrative reaches its climax, but he belongs nevertheless to that company of psychopaths (Frenger in Miami Blues, Louden in Sideswipe, Norodny in Floater, McMann in Under Cover of Daylight) which surfaces throughout the Miami/Florida intertext. The blankness of tone in Miami Vice (what Fredric Jameson defining postmodernism calls waning of affect) is, in these characters, translated into abnormal psychology so that moral vacancy replaces conscience. Committing one of his murders Norodny has “the disinterested gaze of a man preoccupied with other things as if he might be expecting an important phone call” (Penguin ed., 1989, p.70). For this unreachable type killing is work, a business: “What I did I did to eat, to eat well. It’s not my hobby.” His self-image of average citizen precludes guilt and remorse: “I like kids, a day at the ball park. I pay my taxes on time.” (p.273)
The alternative to floating Chucky-style is a form of existentialism, establishing your identity, your personal style, or just playing a role. The performance often relies on language. For example Latins in Stick dress up, pose and throw out TV lines like “What’s happening, man?” Chucky on the other hand uses hats to change his mood, to psych himself up with fantasies. In LaBrava, as the eponymous photographer derisively observes, Richie Nobles’ act is based upon a stereotype of masculinity, specifically the all-American boy: “Hometown boy – the hair, the toothpick, the hint of swagger in the set of silver-clad shoulders. What an asshole. How did they get so sure of themselves, these guys, without knowing anything? Like people who have read one book.” (p. 133) To Cundo Rey, the “boatlifter” from a Cuban prison and Nobles’ partner in crime, his own style is more authentic; it is Nobles the Florida redneck, the swamp creature who is the alien, Cundo the real American, the man of the city.
In Floater Norodny uses a stolen plane ticket to Hollywood (Florida). The complete narrative is Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt remade by Brian de Palma and ending with a car chase. It is in Leonard’s novels where characters often fail to distinguish between movies/TV and life (Split Images, Get Shorty) that role playing is most frequently associated with the cinema, and Hollywood is a major influence on style as well as material, especially cutting from one centre of consciousness to another. A fan of the movie star since the age of 12 Joe LaBrava is blocked in his attempts to “read” Jean Shaw by desire and memory and by the star’s ability to “act her way out of a safe deposit box” (p. 162). Since most of her lines are from Fifties movies (in which she played Women as Destroyer) LaBrava’s talent for photography, his ability to pierce the facade of contemporary street life is irrelevant and he can only act along in the part provided for him. Like the spider woman she used to portray Jean Shaw is “disillusioned but knows she has to play the game” (p.183)
The intertextuality here is book/movie and literary genre/film genre. LaBrava wrenches his imagination back to the present, persuading himself Jean Shaw is the victim in a “real” drama. He misplaces the knowledge he has that the star has always played the same part, in this instance a member of a trio involved in an elaborate swindle. Leonard refuses to submit to generic determinism. LaBrava ends not with the film noir elimination of the spider woman, but with her marriage to Maurice Zola whom she sought to dupe. In Miami, anything can happen.
Accounts of recent crime fiction identify a preoccupation with the darker irrational side of “human nature”, with the morbid, the malicious and the sadistic and, correspondingly, a movement away from realism. “Realism” in an old-fashioned sense continues to flourish, often in a complex manner, in the novels of George V. Higgins and Ed McBain. However in an era of post-structuralism and postmodernism, when “history”, “text”, “author” and “closure” have all been questioned, less confidence attends the use of such terminology and the implied transparency of its literary techniques.
The absence of certainty in society and the resultant moral confusion may be seen as part of a new kind of weary post-Vietnam, post-counterculture cynicism. “My books end in ellipses”, says the hardboiled novelist Jonathan Valin, though irresolution and unpunished criminals go back as far as Ross Macdonald and the Chandler of The Long Goodbye. The wit and wisecracking are retained in sharp and abrasive vernaculars, shaping obscenity into rhythmic patterns and often blackly comic. Speech forms are authenticated by being set against each other: in Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle, 1971) the language of the narrative argues its own limitations, its aspiration to authority checked by other language, other people’s stories. K.C. Constantine’s Always a Body to Trade sets different verbal styles side by side within the discourse of law and policing to establish levels of experience and ignorance. The police chief Balzic and the Deputy U.S. Attorney Feinstein, engaged in the trading of the novel’s title, operate pragmatically: “For God’s sake, man, what the hell do you think the law is all about? It’s trade, it’s bargain, it’s compromise; it’s negotiate, it’s deal, deal, deal.” In response the mayor Strohn can only offer the politician’s cliche’s of “law and order” and “a better place to live”. Ironically he knows less about the system of law and its workings than the dope dealer Leroy whose acceptance into the federal witness programme is being negotiated with Feinstein and Balzic. Leroy’s functional street language is admirably geared to the expression of his “pri-or-i-ties.”: “I don’t care how long it takes. I do care how soon we begin. And the sooner the better. Like now! We got the righteous shit, man, and we’re lookin’ to move it. What more you want?”
Heroes and villains, cops and criminals share knowledge – and specialist skills. Peter Letkemann in Crime as Work (1973) showed that criminal life shares the structure and goals (e.g. success through professionalism) of “straight” society. Leroy and Balzic start building a relationship through the discussion of restaurant food as befits men accustomed to making journeys, getting out on the street. Detectives, thieves and con artists are linked in a world where both crime and its detection are work. Thus the reassuring and defining separation of reader (normal) from criminal (abnormal) is elided. Elmore Leonard has his heroes and villains circling each other in mutual pursuit, a process often concluded merely through chance. Simplistic ethical distinctions are rejected in such novels as Hall’s Squall Line (1989) where all the characters are morally compromised, all looking for a place in the sun, or Higgins’ A Choice of Enemies (1983) in which Benny Morgan while thoroughly corrupt is more honourable than his detractors. Leonard avoids “sneering ugly” villains preferring to show their human side. Conversely he will give one of his heroes a prison record (Stick). His shifting use of the third person perspective is radical and disturbing: “In Elmore Leonard’s society, both evil and good have become equally respectable alternative points of view from which a story can be told.”
Use of the same urban (or suburban) setting reassures readers and marketing managers especially when, as in the case of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books, the characters fail to age or change. Historically hard-boiled authors have frequently sought to appropriate a particular fictional territory in which streets, districts and public buildings are authentic. Jonathan Valin’s novels are mappings of his home town Cincinnati where the external social landscape of civic achievement and parochial respectability merely conceals sexual predators and psychopaths. In other respects also Valin is formulaic: “I don’t have a whole lot of respect for the rich and the content. I have much greater sympathy for the people who have nothing or very little.” Influenced by Poe and Hawthorne, Valin individualizes his work by mixing horror and comedy, notably in Life’s Work (1986), a black comedy version of Farewell, My Lovely, and in Day of Wrath (1982) where the private eye Harry Stoner finds a severed hand in the refrigerator during a gun battle.
The latter novel features a 1960s style commune, and the recent Fire Lake (1987) examines Sixties types and values both as part of and from the vantage point of the 1980s. Stoner had been both a cop and a hippie; Day of Wrath is evidence of a baffled, ambiguous attitude towards the past. Annie, one of the groupies at Theo’s farm (the scene is music, drugs and sex) attempts to describe the atmosphere. “Instead of money and rules and all the crap you’re taught in school, we had love.” (Futura ed., 1986, p. 152) Earlier Harry suspects that the counterculture of the Sixties and the adolescent’s dream of freedom are the same thing. One of the bands in Day of Wrath is The Furies; the book’s structuring myth is Orpheus and Eurydice – so it ends in Hell with naked bodies, madness and bloody carnage presided over by the mutilated body of the guru/musician, Theo Clinger, tied to a chair with chicken wire and wearing a brown paper crown.
Altamont and Charles Manson displace Woodstock and Timothy Leary. Stoner however also wants to distance himself from the middle class respectability represented by Eastlawn Drive (where Valin grew up), a “never-never land of hollow prosperity.” His pessimism is wide-ranging because he finds a “red, lubricious thread of selfishness” wherever his enquiries take him. It is a selfishness abetted by “a world full of love’s failures”, the inexplicable human urge to destroy the grounds of happiness. With a sentimentality redolent of Marlowe, Stoner resolves to rescue the Eastlawn Drive runaway and thus honour the dead boy who loved her, “If she hadn’t meant a thing to anyone else, she meant the world to him. And that made her worth saving.” (p.201) In Stoner who equates justice with vengeance, the sentimentality is combined with puritanism. like Amos Walker, Loren Estleman’s Detroit shamus, he represents the detective as brutal vigilante, his options closed down by the decadence and amorality of Reagan’s America.
Police officers Leaphorn and Chee in the novels of Tony Hillerman also bend the law in order to bring about justice but without the bitterness of some of their Anglo counterparts. The conventional image of tension, violence and paranoia in an urban wasteland gives way in Hillerman’s fiction to scenes of matchless beauty in Arizona and New Mexico, on and near Navajo, Hopi and Zuni reservations. This unique environment can play an active role often by means of weather. Rain is so infrequent it is mistrusted and revered; in The Dark Wind (1983) lawman Jim Chee is saved by a rain so violent there are no words to describe it. Weather and terrain combine to create a dramatic sense of landscape, a grandeur and immensity congruent with Amerindian cultures and their deep roots in nature.
The southwest wind … made a thousand strange sounds in windows of the old Hopi villages at Shongopovi and Second Mesa. Two hundred vacant miles to the north and east, it sandblasted the stone sculptures of Monument Valley Tribal park and whistled eastward across the maze of canyons on the Utah-Arizona border.” (Listening Woman. Harper ed., 1978. p1)
In both structure and characterization Hillerman acknowledges the tradition of hard-boiled fiction. The elements of crime, clues, evidence, investigation, danger and resolution are contained in a narrative where the “detective” achieves feats of intelligence, endurance and courage, like his predecessors in the genre. Hillerman’s indictment of the failure of the American family and his portraits of lost adolescents recall similar themes and motifs in Ross Macdonald and Valin. People of Darkness (1980) echoes Chandler as well as Macdonald. It discovers evil in the figure of a wealthy man Benjamin Vines who uses his economic and political power to silence those with dangerous information about an oil well explosion years ago. The detective figure in the Hillerman tales however (Leaphorn or Chee) is a member of the Navajo Tribal Police Force and the gumshoe’s code of ethics is replaced by the tribal policeman’s Navajo code. So the term “metamorphosis of Leatherstocking” assumes an ironic meaning, one underlined by the circumstance that Hillerman’s cops professionally uphold laws unrelated to, or in conflict with, Navajo sensibility and culture. Both Leaphorn and Chee are expert trackers taught by their forbears, and in People of Darkness Chee rehearses parts of the Stalking Way (“As I, the Black God, go toward it./ As the male game of darkness comes toward me.”) before starting out on his quest. One of Leatherstocking’s names is Pathfinder, but after the recession of warfare against the Amerindians, the “Indian fighter” was replaced in story papers and dime novels by the detective so that criminal whites and Mexicans could be (fictionally) apprehended.
Joe Leaphorn is a cross-cultural figure, a participant in the contemporary crime fighting world of short wave radios and pickup trucks, and the contemporary Amerindian world of poverty, alcoholism and white racism. Although his grandfather was a singer of curing rituals, his interest in Navajo folklore is professional and academic, having been like his fellow officer Jim Chee a student of anthropology. “He may well be a religious man,” Hillerman says of Leaphorn, “but he’s going to see mythology in a more abstract, poetic sense.” Joe’s success can in part be attributed to his ability to understand and balance different cultures. He provides an interesting contrast to those rootless outcasts, in the work of Silko, Momaday and others, caught between the destructive modern values of whites and traditional Native American structures of belief that remain too distant. A Navajo librarian tells Hillerman: “We read Welch and Silko and we say, ‘That’s us, they really understand us, that’s us and it’s beautiful, but it’s so terribly sad.’ Then we read you and we say, ‘Yeah that’s us too, and we win.”‘ (Williams, p.80) Hillerman’s narratives too contain characters caught between cultures, sad bewildered individuals, often adolescents, seeking a personal identity, or dehumanized irredeemable figures such as Goldrims in Listening Woman. Disloyal and beyond culture, Goldrims scorns Anglo culture, desecrates Navajo land and exploits the militant Buffalo Society.
Crime in this world is a rupture of harmony, especially when the transgressions of criminals are parodies of authentic ceremonies. Metaphorically evildoers in Hillerman whether Navajo or Anglo are represented as Navajo Wolves: rejecting beauty and order these “witches”, cousins to the psychopaths of the Miami novel, embrace wickedness, spreading the sickness and darkness of which they are agents by means of sacrilege and murder. Leaphorn acts on his knowledge of Navajo culture and its healing ceremonies to establish clues and discern motives. As the individual Navajo aspires to a state of harmony, so the lawman searches for meaning and tries to restore order. The lesson of the Navajo Way is central, both for life and policing: “Interdependency of nature. Every cause has its effect. Every action its reaction. A reason for everything. In all things, a pattern, and in this pattern, the beauty of harmony. Thus one learned to live with evil, by understanding it, by reading its cause.” (Dance Hall of the Dead, Harper ed.,1973, p.55)
Leaphorn (and Chee, who is studying to be a ritual singer) accept the Navajo Origin Myth with its explanation of evil: that which is unnatural. The Navajo holds that evil can be turned against itself and thus be destroyed; Hillerman frequently dramatizes this concept, notably in the violent climax of People of Darkness. There can be only one punishment for the heinous crime of murder, heinous since death is just unrelieved horror. This eschatology differs from that of the Plains Amerindians, the Zuni or the Hopi. In Dance Hall of the Dead the murderer is beyond the reach of Anglo law but his sacrilege is punished by Zuni tribesmen during the Shalako ritual; he simply disappears.
The two Navajo lawmen need to understand the practices and beliefs of various cultures. Chee, seeking to penetrate Hopi culture in order to pursue his enquiries, secretly visits a Hopi village during an initiation ceremony (The Dark Wind); similarly in Dance Hall of the Dead Leaphorn has to deal with his feeling that Zunis consider themselves superior to Navajos. The honouring of a custom, for instance staying outside a hogan waiting for an invitation to enter, can be practical. Ghosts would lack the patience to wait so would not be around to follow the visitor into the hogan of the host.
Hillerman’s research is in part informal, the benefit of living close to Navajo country, but it also relies on anthropology and on the University of New Mexico’s extraordinary collection of Native American materials and Western Americana. His acknowledgments – from Navajo schoolchildren to members of the US Park Service and Smithsonian curators – are extensive, creating the impression of a collective text. Aware that there is more to Navajo culture than the shamanism and mysticism embraced by New Age people, Hillerman has a certain didactic propensity but one kept under control by the imperatives of storytelling.
Although the first feminist detective, Amelia Butterworth, appeared in the last years of the nineteenth century, the roles played by women in hard-boiled fiction have until recently been severely circumscribed. The demands of popular culture ideology have been responsible for the representation of women as both attractive and desirable on the one hand, amoral and predatory, the embodiment of male fantasies and fears, on the other. A conservative social order exhibits alarm and panic when female activities such as attempts to acquire wealth and influence are seen to be motivated by desires not in accordance with patriarchal definitions of the feminine. Such women must be controlled through assault, arrest or killing. Thus the violence of the private eye often has a misogynistic core: “the intense masculinity of the hard-boiled detective is in part a symbolic denial and protective coloration against complex sexual and status anxieties focusing on women.”
As a result of the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the increased visibility of women in public life and the proliferation of books for, by and about female experience, American women writers have absorbed and transformed the genre’s conventions. Through the creation of young, independent, resourceful female detectives – professional and amateur, hetero and homosexual – they have offered alternatives to the aggressive macho prototype who has traditionally patronized women. This has been achieved despite an abiding masculine belief that “woman’s proper sphere” lies in the domestic home and that detecting is, as the P.D.James novel ironically suggests, “an unsuitable job for a woman”.
The feminist thriller must function on a tightrope: continuing to observe characteristic devices, motifs and mannerisms while expressing a challenge to sexism and masculinist values. The best known detectives, V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone, are urban women who drink, talk abrasively and carry a gun. Like their male counterparts they endure acute physical suffering and danger; at the end of C is for Corpse (1986) for example Kinsey Millhone is “sick as a dog” in hospital, recovering from barbiturates injected by a murderous doctor, while in B is for Burglar (1985) she winds up with bruised cheeks, a swollen mouth and bullet wounds in the arm. Millhone’s creator Sue Grafton also acknowledges the male tradition by setting her novels in Ross Macdonald’s Santa Teresa. Maureen Reddy has shown that A is for Alibi (1982) reverses the plot of The Maltese Falcon with Kinsey Milihone shooting the killer, a man with whom she has had an affair. The new breed of female detectives express themselves sexually, but the threat sex poses is usually to their independence. Their life-styles are subject to invective by men since they challenge notions of male superiority and female subordination. It is to preserve such independence that the heroines in the Grafton and Paretsky books work alone; both are orphans, both divorced and have cut or lost most formal family ties.
The choice of profession implies the reversal of that passivity imposed on hard-boiled fictional women. Millhone jogs, as does Warshawski, taking her exercise with the dog Poppy which saves her life in Toxic Shock (1988). They avoid unnecessary violence, Paretsky having campaigned within MWA against the representation of sadism in crime fiction. Guns are used in self-defence or to save a friend, and female detectives are more willing to admit physical weakness and vulnerability as well as fear. Paretsky in particular, while refusing to document sexual attacks, conveys the fear experienced by women living and working in the savage American cities of the Eighties. Although there is no single pattern in the fictional behaviour of male and female characters, it is a feminist perspective (whatever their differences) which links V.I. Warshawski, Amanda Cross’s Kate Fansler and lesbian sleuths such as Mary Wings’ Emma Victor. In the Cross books the university stands in for the country home of classic English detective fiction and similarly exhibits the social and sexual attitudes of the surrounding civic landscape. Thus the investigation of a crime encompasses such issues as the significance of gender, women’s work and sexuality and – especially in The Question of Max (1976) – male elitism and sexism.
Some of the Amanda Cross mysteries have been received with caution by women readers who have found the detective’s feminism occasionally flawed and who have realized she has no strong relationships with other women. However, Death in a Tenured Position (1981) it could be argued, far from copping out by having its victimized female professor commit suicide, demonstrates that she is “murdered” by an unresponsive patriarchal society. In that respect it can be seen to share with the lesbian thriller the hypothesis that the ideological basis of crime is located in the very system that claims to enact justice and to protect women.
Like the professional PI, the amateur lesbian detective is cut off from “respectable” society (a situation ameliorated by the support of other women) and adopts a critical stance towards that society. One of the challenges posed by women, and lesbians in particular, is that “of radically altering radical power relations through a moral vision that does not assume the value of hierarchical order.” The literary expression of that challenge questions the assumptions of traditional hard-boiled fiction. Barbara Wilson’s Murder in the Collective (1984) is here relevant in several ways:
1) It rejects the fast-paced action plot of hard-boiled fiction in favour of the de-centring procedures of character analysis and the investigation of relationships.
2) It emphasizes a female independence that also allows for interdependence. Thus consciousness, it is held, can be developed by means of participation in a collective enterprise.
3) By exploring ideologies of gender, race and class it interrogates the role of the detective.
In Wilson’s novel, the murdered man Jeremy is exposed as a CIA informer, a blackmailer of Filipinos in exile who has threatened them with deportation and death at the hands of Marcos’ agents. His killer is Zenaida (Zee), his Filipino ex-wife, whose deed is contextuaiized with revelations about the sexual exploitation of Filipinos by US armed forces. Pam Nilson “surrenders” her role as detective, impressed by the behaviour of June (Jeremy’s wife) towards Zee: “she’d confronted her like a woman and stayed to comfort her like a friend” (Women’s Press, p. 179). Nilson’s decision is supported by other members of the collective (including June) and this defiance of the genre is strengthened by an additional text, an authentic list of books, periodicals and organizations giving further information on Filipinos in America and the position of women in the Third World.
The success and popularity of She Came Too Late (1986) derives from its combination of recognizable hard-boiled fiction motifs and the persuasive depiction of lesbian desire and consciousness. Emma Victor can play the tough detective, hard-drinking, laconic and witty (“Hugo had an expression like a cross between Timothy Leary and Bambi”, Women’s Press, pp. 117-8). She finds her investigations taking her to the Glassman mansion, home to the rich and famous where stained glass leaded panels adorn the back door and porch. The difference between this visit and similar scenes in Chandler is that Emma Victor in black dress, tights and high heels is performing “in drag”. Her lesbian perspective provides the ambivalence with which Stacy Weldemeer – a dubious, success-hungry feminist and an Eighties version of the femme fatale – is viewed. Weldemeer is boss of a women’s health clinic and it is through her that Wilson raises the question of restraints upon women in an economy controlled by men. Along with power the book explores work, sexuality, fertility and squeezing the unions, and has an agenda of political issues comparable to those in Paretsky’s novels, which were generated by a need to oppose the construction of gender in traditional hard-boiled texts. “I had always had trouble with the way women were treated as either tramps or helpless victims who stand around weeping. I wanted to read about a woman who could solve her own problems.”
Paretsky’s problem-solving detective with her empty fridge, whisky bottles and Bruno Magli shoes, fights in a series of novels both for justice and her identity. The various names by which she is addressed illustrate the latter struggle. V.I. stands for Victoria Iphigenia, the Greek reference implying the possibility of death (sacrifice) and rescue (divine intervention). To her friends such as Lotty Herschel, she is Vic; lieutenant Bobby Mallory, her dead father’s best friend patronizes her with the name Vicki; while her family who share Mallory’s disapproval of V.I.’s profession (“playing police”) irritate her with “Victoria
The family is a recurrent theme in the Warshawski novels, V.I.’s ancestry being working class Polish/Italian and her roots the blue collar community of Hegewisch in Chicago, to which she returns in Toxic Shock (Blood Shot, US). The older generations (parent and grandparents) are relatively untouched by modern mass culture and cling to the belief system brought over from Europe – and the accompanying prejudices. By local standards, V.I. and the girl she used to baby-sit Caroline Djiak, a social worker, should have settled down and had children. V.I. recoils from the demands and cajolery of the remaining members of her original family. Dead (Boom Boom her cousin in Deadlock) or alive (Aunt Elena in Burn Marks), they also draw her into life-threatening scenarios. She has, instead, her own surrogate family in which the principals are Mr Contreras, a sympathetic neighbour and Lotty Herschel, a doctor and, like V.I.’s mother, a refugee from fascism. The need for the warmth of human contact this group can provide is sometimes emphasized in the denouement of a novel. In Deadlock (1984) V.I.’s nightmares are assuaged by Bledsoe’s love-making, while in Toxic Shock V.I. and Caroline Djiak embrace as sisters after an estrangement. On Mallory’s sixtieth birthday, V.I. gives him her father’s old police badge (Burn Marks, 1990).
V.I.’s beat is Chicago with its grim, desperate south and west side ghettos and its history of political and institutional corruption. Paretsky recalls a newspaper contest on whether Chicago or New Jersey had more public officials under indictment. The city then is once more a moral landscape with each book devoted to a specific social injustice variously caused by greed, malice and injustice: hospital malpractice, securities scams, toxic waste poisoning, redevelopment fraud. In Bitter Medicine (1987) the personal becomes political when Lotty Herschel’s clinic is attacked by pro-life militants, and the plot brings together blacks, Jews and women to confront the white male medical establishment. The challenge offered to the corporate rich – to big medicine, big business, big shipping, etc. – sustains the populism found in much hard-boiled fiction and also its contradictions. The social criticisms of the Warshawski novels are constrained by the nature of the genre. As Paretsky concedes, V.I. is only capable of doing “some very small things” for individuals.
In the hard-boiled genre deconstructive procedures are especially relevant since the detective’s quest is by analogy the attempted establishment of meaning and the re-ordering of the “real” world. Deconstruction however, with its proposal that language is a play of signs, challenges conventional ideas of truth, certainty and reality. When all text is discursive, meaning and identity, it is claimed, dissolve. Hard-boiled texts, like popular culture itself, remain a site of struggle and negotiation. Edward Said has denied the possibility of a textual universe with no connection to actuality. Such a statement supports an argument that part of the struggle derives from the status of the crime novel as mimesis – that is, as registering a definite sense of the American urban scene, salient examples being Bitter Medicine, Day of Wrath and LaBrava.
Language functions variously in that registration, bonding heroes and villains and providing the verbal component of personal roles; Leonard refers to “street-corner styles” and “wise-guy overtones”. In Higgins the repetition of “fuckin”‘ can create meaning separate from the relation between signifier and signified, a Derridean “surplus” extending beyond the basic connection. In Ishmael Reed’s intertextual Mumbo Jumbo, the search for ‘Jes Grew’ and its Text encompasses (and criticizes) both black and white forms and conventions. “Both a book about texts and a book of texts, a composite narrative composed of sub-texts, pre-texts, post-texts and narratives-within-narratives”, it demonstrates its intentions in its very title, a vulgarized Anglo version of Swahili: “‘Mumbo jumbo’ is the received and ethnocentric Western designation for the rituals of black religions as well as for all black languages themselves.” The plot – in various senses – of Mumbo Jumbo is couched in the form of a detective novel. Its narrative materials include good and evil organizations, corpses, clues, the exploration of the past, arrests and, of course, a detective Papa LaBas who is also an African-American trickster. A series of mysteries create suspense in the plot, but the novel denies the conventional ending of resolution. Jes Grew’s Text (of blackness) disappears, never to be found.
Indeterminacy also characterizes Jerome Charyn’s extraordinary tetralogy The Isaac Quartet (1974-78). In the last novel Secret Isaac, Isaac Sidel now “Deputy Commish” of Police for New York, “both perceives the futile madness of the surrounding world, and defies it.” His vain attempt to solve a crime “becomes a profound and doomed search for coherence and meaning.” The search does have a conclusion, the killing of the corrupt ex-Chief Inspector Coote McNeill in Ireland. Isaac does not triumph; he is merely “the great survivor”. His vengeance stems from his guilt at failing to protect Annie Powell, though he is already consumed by the guilt which comes with allowing “his blue-eyed angel” Coen to be killed. Like his predecessors in the works of Chandler and Macdonald, Isaac combines remorse, suffering and failure. He has Marlowe’s belief in redemption, but this extensive narrative of questing fathers and runaway children inevitably recalls Ross Macdonald; in his introduction Charyn cites The Galton Case as the stimulus for Blue Eyes, the first of the series to be published.
Mike Wooff’s ground-breaking article on these books is entitled “Exploding the Genre”. Thus Isaac is not merely a conventional gumshoe but a succession of identities; “at times the grieving father searching for his lost daughter and his dead, surrogate son, [Coeni and, at times, a wounded prophet, a protector-defender of the dispossessed, and a dark angel bringing death.” Some of these descriptions have a mythic resonance and there is in the quartet an attention to ethnicity and the spiritual that makes a link with Tony Hillerman’s narratives. Charyn however is more radical in style; he writes a poetic prose that defamiliarizes his unstable world of law, policing, desire and violence into sketches of dreamlike, surreal disconnections. It is as though George V. Higgins had been rewritten by Stephen Crane, also in his time a recorder of New York life: “Please, Isaac, lemme pop this Jorge once behind the ear. We’ll see what flows out, water, piss or blood.”The Chief closed Brodsky’s face with a horrible scowl. He wasn’t looking for company. He sat at the back of the car. He could have taken off Brodsky’s lip with the heat spilling from both his eyes. “Esther”, he muttered. He was sick of a world of lollipops.”
The Isaac Quartet which contains references to Saul Bellow, Soldiers’ Pay and Joyce’s Dublin is enriched by its intertextuality. It is at the same time less abstract and cerebral than Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy which challenges traditional elements of crime fiction and parodies the genre of romance, with which hard-boiled novels share the single quest and the restoration of order.
Quinn in City of Glass (1985) is writer, detective and protagonist. In these roles – he is “private eye”, “I” and the observer’s seeing eye in a fiction about who sees what – he endeavours to impose sense and order on his “world”, but the language games and mirror images (Quinn’s pseudonym is William Wilson) frustrate the effort to arrive at truth. Quinn vanishes from the text into the city walls. In Ghosts (1986) where Blue is lured by White to follow Black, language is pared down even further. Blue will feel himself merging with Black and this instability of names extends to the names of places which exist only provisionally in language, specifically the language of travel narratives. The travel, mental and physical, of Auster’s searchers never “ends” since language is indeterminate, lacking a single meaning.
The temporary or partial nature of resolution is also to be found in conventional crime fiction where the “reality” is chaos, disruption and resolute criminality, the spectre that shadows the American Dream. Social dislocation, excesses of power and wealth and what Mandel calls the diffused violence of late capitalism provide the conditions for a radical mode of hard-boiled fiction, exploring tensions within bourgeois society. A writer such as Dashiell Hammett exhibits a conscious radicalism, albeit marked by pessimism and irony. Ideologically one of his successors has been ex-student activist, Gordon DeMarco, whose October Heat (1979) described the efforts of the Mob and big business to prevent the socialist author Upton Sinclair becoming governor of California. DeMarco is a rare case and one of the features of comment on radicalism in the crime novel has been the necessary attention given to European writers; the Italians Fruttero and Luchentini (Night of the Grand Boss, 1979), Leonard Sciascia, and Sjowall and Wahloo whose analysis of mechanized bureaucratized policing as a function of decadent capitalism reveals the political limitations of the Ed McBain novels.
Radicalism in American crime fiction is most visible currently in feminist and gay versions of the genre which have suggested new fictional models of behaviour and sexuality. The durability and flexibility of the genre will continue to be tested as parts of urban America, what Andrew Vaches describes as the cutting edge of Darwinism, become terminal landscapes of razor wire fences, junk-yards and toxic waste dumps. Vachss’ own novels, brutal nightmare visions of garbage and graffiti, violence and drugs in the desolate wastes of New York city have moved the genre towards the cyberpunk wing of science fiction. The indictment of American society is that the fiction of Vachss, Patricia Cornwell and others (novels of child abuse, pornography and serial killers) are based on authentic cases. Real life materials will continue to permit a discourse of contradictions and irony: Al Goldstein, America’s best-known pornographer is about to stand for election as a public official in Fort Lauderdale on a law and order ticket.
Despite its premature announcement of the demise of the hard-boiled dick, George Grella’s “Murder and the Mean Streets: the Hard-Boiled Detective Novel” remains essential if melancholy reading not least for the American Studies scholar. Its most accessible location may be Robin Winks’s excellent edition of general essays, Detective Fiction (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1980). Another starting point must be the relevant sections of John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 1976) which explores the psychological and cultural significance of the genre. Geoffrey O’Brien, Hard-Boiled America (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1981) is a book for fans as its subtitle, “The Lurid Years of Paperbacks”, suggests. More concerned with books than texts it does fill a gap.
Recent collections of essays are more specialized than Winks (1980). They include Brian Doherty ed., American Crime Fiction: Studies in the Genre (London: Macmillan, 1988) and Ian A. Bell and Graham Daldry eds., Watching the Detectives: Essays on Crime Fiction (London: Macmillan, 1990). My interest in the period after Chandler, Hammett and Macdonald was first aroused by the surveys in David Geherin, Sons of Sam Spade: The Private Eye Novel in the Seventies (New York: Ungar, 1980) and The American Private Eye: The Image in Fiction (New York: Ungar, 1985). That interest has recently been revived by John Williams’ interviews with contemporary American crime writers in his exhilarating Into the Badlands (London: Paladin, 1991) which offers as a bonus a roller coaster tour of the USA in the late Eighties. David A. Bowman, “The Cincinnati Kid: an interview with Jonathan Valin”, Armchair Detective, Summer 1987, 20/3, 228-238 is one of those rare interviews which deserve the title “in depth”. Stephen F. Mullken, Chester Himes: A Critical Appraisal (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976) provides an exploration of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger in their Harlem setting. Jim Coffins’ emphasis on diversity of language and intertextuality endeavours to appropriate the form for postmodernism in Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Postmodernism (New York, London: Routledge, 1989).
Chandler and Hammett
The fine essays on Hammett by James Naremore (“Dashiell Hammett and the Poetics of Hard-Boiled Detection” in Bernard Benstock, ed., Essays on Detective Fiction, London: Macmillan, 1983, 49-72) and by Steven Marcus (“Dashiell Hammett and the Continental Op”, Partisan Review XLI/3, 1974, 362-77) complement each other. Hammett criticism flourished in the Eighties, although Peter Wolfe, Beams Falling: The Art of Dashiell Hammett (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green U.P., 1980) is weak on The Maltese Falcon and is generally inferior to Sinda Gregory, Private Investigations: The Novels of Dashiell Hammett (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois U.P., 1985). The authorized biography, Diane Johnson, Dashiell Hammett: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 1984) is by turns sentimental and sensational. Frank McShane’s painstaking biography, The Life of Raymond Chandler (London: Cape, 1976) and essays by Russell Davies – in Miriam Gross ed., The World of Raymond Chandler (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977) – and Fredric Jameson (“On Raymond Chandler”, Southern Review 6, Summer 1970, 624-50) are intelligent and trenchant, but the definitive critical study of Chandler is still to be written. One candidate would be Stephen Knight: see his Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (London: Macmillan. 1980) and “‘A Hard Cheerfulness’: An Introduction, to Raymond Chandler” in Docherty ed., American Crime Fiction, 39-53 (cited under Contemporaries). The Simple Art of Murder (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950) by Chandler himself, and Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker eds., Raymond Chandler Speaking (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962) are essential reading. He remains a fertile source of parody as Liz Lochhead’s sketch, “Phyllis Marlowe: Only Diamonds Are Forever”, True Confessions and New Cliches (Edinburgh: Polygon Books, 1985) and the comic-book version of The Waste Land (Martin Rowson) in which T.S. Eliot finds himself in Marlowe’s mean streets, testify.
Jerry Spier’s Ross Macdonald (New York: Ungar, 1978) is highly readable. Peter Wolfe, Dreamers Who Dream Their Dreams: The World of Ross Macdonald’s Novels (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green U.P., 1976) has the scope of a reference book; it is diffuse but often perceptive. Most stimulating of all is Eric Mottram, “Ross Macdonald and the Past of a Formula” in Benstock, Essays on Detective Fiction, 97-118.
Collections of essays on feminism and literature frequently contain an entry on contemporary female sleuths: the most impressive and persuasive work can be found in Anne Cranny-Francis, Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990). An excellent monograph on the subject is Maureen T. Reddy, Sisters in Crime: Feminism and the Crime Novel (New York: Continuum,1988). One of the best introductions remains Marilyn Stasio’s “Lady Gumshoes: Boiled Less Hard”, New York Times Book Review, 28 Apr. 1985, l, 39-40.
Its Marxist orientation has not prevented Ernest Mandel’s Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story (London, Sydney: Pluto Press, 1984) from being described as the best introduction of its kind. It is certainly personal and refreshingly demystifying, and also, at times, mistaken. For a similar perspective, Denis Porter, The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (New Haven, London: Yale U.P., 1981) and Stephen Knight, Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (cited under Chandler) should be consulted. Porter employs a solid American culture context, while Knight is penetrating on McBain and on the concept of justice.
- George Grella, “Murder and the Mean Streets” (1970), in Robin W. Winks, ed., Detective Fiction (Englewood Cliffs NJ.: Prentice Hall, 1980). Cf. Geoffrey O’Brien, Hard-Boiled America (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981), “By the early Fifties, the private eye had pretty well run his course”, p. 119. Back
- Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), p.46. Back
- Scott R. Christianson, “Tough Talk and Wisecracks: Language as Power in American Detective Fiction”, Journal of Popular Culture, 23/2 (Fall 1989), pp.151-162. Back
- Jim Collins, Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Postmodernism (London, New York: Routledge, 1989), p.67. Back
- Sinda Gregory, Private Investigations: The Novels of Dashiell Hammell (Carbondale: Southern Illinois U.P., 1985), p.42. Back
- Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse in Dashiell Hammell: The Four Great Novels (London: Picador, 1982), p.257. Back
- Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon (New York: Modern Library, 1934), p.ii. Back
- James Naremore, “Dashiell Hammett and the Poetics of HardBoiled Detection” in Bernard Benstock, ed., Essays on Detective Fiction (London: Macmillan, 1983), pp.63-4. Back
- Anne Cranny-Francis, Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), p.154. Back
- Ernest Mandel, Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story (London, Sydney: Pluto Press, 1984), p.125. Back
- Russell Davies, “Omnes Me Impune Lacessunt” in Miriam Gross, ed., The World of Raymond Chandler (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977), pp.41-2. Back
- Liahna K. Babener, “Raymond Chandler’s City of Lies” in David Fine, ed., Los Angeles in Fiction: A Collection of Original Essays (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), p. 126. Back
- Peter J. Rabinowitz, “Rats Behind the Wainscoting: Politics, Convention and Chandler’s The Big Sleep“, Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 22/2 (Summer 1980), p.230. Back
- Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely, p.211. Back
- Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), pp.181. Back
- John S. Whilley, Detectives and Friends: Dashiell Hammell’s The Glass Key and Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (Exeter: American Arts Documentation Centre, University of Exeter, 1981), p. 23. Back
- James Ellroy in John Williams, Into the Badlands: a Journey through the American Dream (London: Paladin/Grafton, 1991), p.90. Vachss’ assessment is on p.229. Back
- Ross Macdonald, “The Writer as Detective Hero” in Winks, Detective Fiction, p. 185. Back
- Paul Skenazy, “Bringing It All Back Home: Ross Macdonald’s California”, South Dakota Review, 24/1 (Spring 1986), p.89. Back
- Richard Lingeman, “The Underground Bye-Bye” Dew York Times Book Review, 6 June 1971, p.6. Back
- Skenazy, pp.78-80. Back
- James Crumley, The Lost Good Kiss (London: Granada, 1981), p.171. Back
- David Glover, “Higgins, Leonard, Parker, Inc”, OVERhere, 8/1 (Spring 1988), p.88. Back
- Robert B. Parker, The Widening Gyre (Wallington: Severn House, 1983), p.153. Back
- Williams, p.100. Back
- Raymond Nelson, “Domestic Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes”, Virginia Quarterly Review, 48/2 (Spring 1972), p.270. Back
- A. Robert Lee, “Harlem on my Mind: Fictions of a Black Metropolis” in Graham Clarke, ed., The American City: Literal and Cultural Perspectives (London, New York: Vision Press/St Martins Press, 1988), p.80. Back
- Kathleen Karlyn Rowe, “Power in Prime Time: Miami Vice and LA Law”, Jump Cut 33, p.20. Back
- K.C. Constantine, Always A Body to Trade (London: Allison & Busby, 1986), pp.197, 188. Back
- Glen W. Most. “Elmore Leonard: Splitting Images” in Barbara A. Rader & Howard G. Zettler, eds., The Sleuth and the Scholar: Origins, Evolution and Current Trends in Detective Fiction (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988), p.106. Back
- David A. Bowman, “The Cincinatti Kid: An Interview with Jonathan Valin”, Armchair Detective, 20/3 (Summer 1987), p.236. Back
- Alex Ward, “Navajo Cops on the Case”, New York Times Magazine, 18 May 1989, p.56. Back
- John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mister and Romance: Formula Stories as Art & Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), p.154. Back
- Maureen T. Reddy, Sisters in Crime: Feminism and the Crime Novel (New York: Continuum, 1988), pp.130-131. Back
- Marilyn Stasio, “Lady Gumshoes: Boiled Less Hard”, New York Times Book Review, 28 April 1985, p.39. Back
- Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “The blackness of blackness: a critique of the sign and the Signifying Monkey” in Gates, ed., Black Literature and Literal Theory (London, New York: Methuen, 1984), p.299. Back
- Mike Woolf, “Exploding the Genre: The Crime Fiction of Jerome Charyn” in Brian Doherty, ed., American Crime Fiction: Studies in the Genre (London: Macmillan, 1988), pp.138, 137. Back
- Ibid., p. 136. Back
- Jerome Charyn, Mariyln the Wild (1976) in The Isaac Quartet (London: Zomba Books, 1984), pp.77-78. Back