When the PC at the crime isn't a cop

Criminal Proceedings
October 31, 1997

This is a wonderfully perverse book which should be of considerable interest to THES readers, since I suspect that a quite unusually high proportion of British academics, when not actually writing detective stories/crime novels, are at least reading them. Presumably aimed at the reading lists of those American colleges which teach courses on literature not solely created by dead-white-European-males, this book presents an eclectic group of essays, by divers hands, on specific authors and types of crime novel. They are generously introduced by the editor and include mini-thesis type chapters with titles like Paulina Palmer's "The Lesbian Thriller: Transgressive Investigations", which appears to break new ground for an essay in a symposium in having a dedication; in this case to Cambridge Lesbian Line.

It is in fact the very perverseness of the book which gives it its compelling flavour and the frequent jolts that do so much for the committed crime reader's digestive juices, not to mention blood pressure. In Peter Messent's introduction he quotes, approvingly, James Ellroy quoting, again approvingly, Evan Hunter: "I consciously abandoned the private-eye tradition that formally jazzed me. Evan Hunter wrote, 'the last time a private eye investigated a homicide was never'. The private eye is an ironic totem spawned by pure fiction, romantic moonshineI The American cop was the real goods from the gate."

Quite so. A hit. A palpable hit. Messent is convincing on the move away from the private eye thriller to the police procedural. Yet, while Evan Hunter, the conventional novelist, is quoted, the entire book has no mention whatsoever of his alter ego, Ed McBain, the creator of the 87th Precinct series, and hence probably doyen of the American police procedural, who surely deserves a chapter of his own.

While the book cannot be, nor does it claim to be, comprehensive, its omissions do strike one as quite bizarre. Apart from McBain there is no Patricia Highsmith, Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, John Franklin Bardin, Carl Hiassen, Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, Jonathan Kellermann, Donald E. Westlake, Laurence D. Sanders, and many more who, if listed here, would simply turn this review into an essay in negativity. Other writers deserving of full appraisal get a mention, a note or, if lucky, a paragraph or two, including Paul Auster, George V. Higgins, Chester Himes and Robert B. Parker. So, with all those lacunae, what have we got to represent the Criminal Proceedings?

In "Elmore Leonard: criminal suits", Barry Taylor does at least have a witty title for an essay which concentrates on Leonard's brilliant use of clothes to indicate character in general and bad character in particular. As Taylor says: "This artful manipulation of fashion codes is the obverse of the ability to decode and read the surfaces of social life which is required in Leonard's semiotically hot milieu." I like the "semiotically hot milieu". It seems marvellously inappropriate to the low-lifes, scam-artists, drop-outs and failures Leonard depicts with such skill and understanding. But Taylor clearly admires Leonard, a prolific and versatile veteran, unusual among the most successful practitioners of the genre in neither employing serial characters nor using formulaic plots. Each of his books is different from all the others and Taylor is, even if over-fond of academic jargon, genuinely illuminating about Leonard's style and skills. He does, however, concentrate too much on the later books and, merely mentioning them, devotes too little analysis to the earlier classics like 52 Pick-Up.

Liam Kennedy's best point about Walter Mosley - black writer, black detective - is his title, "Black Noir". He tries to tackle the critical (in all senses) question "Why is hard- boiled detective fiction a white genre?" His subtitle is "Race and urban space in Walter Mosley's detective fiction", and he makes some good observations. As Mosley's African-American detective says: "Nobody knew what I was up to and that made me sort of invisible; people thought that they saw me but what they really saw was an illusion of me, something that wasn't real." Kennedy makes the valid counter-point: "Easy's movements through Los Angeles are also constrained by white powers. While his role as a detective broadens possibilities for transgressing established racialised and spatial limits, race nonetheless moulds the boundaries of social identity and mobility." Yet, Easy Rawlins, the engaging detective-hero-narrator of the series, remembers from his second world war service that he had "killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was".

While it is definitely wrong virtually to skate over Chester Himes's black New York detectives, it is only fair to point out that Rawlins is a much more complex and, indeed, sympathetic character than Himes's broadly comic protagonists. It will be interesting to see how Mosley develops since, after this book was published, he announced that, while continuing with his Rawlins series, he was also embarking on a new series of science fiction books. I also think that Kennedy misses the point in not commenting on Mosley's choice of titles for his novels. All contain a colour, Devil in a Blue Dress, White Butterfly, etc. Whether consciously or unconsciously, he is echoing John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series which also all employ a different colour for each book.

Sabine Vanaker in "V. I. Warshawski, Kinsey Millhone and Kay Scarpetta: creating a feminist detective hero", plunges straight into the issues of feminist ideology: "On the one hand, the conventional gender assumptions of the crime genre, like individualism, 'masculine' action and aggression, are felt to be empowering and attractive. At the same time, however, they clearly signal awareness of anti-feminist aspects within the make-up of the traditional detective and seek to undermine these."

Not only is this passage typical of the prose style of much of the book, it is also equally typical of some of the having-it-both-ways attitudinising. Of course these tough women have, use and enjoy plenty of "empowering and attractive" masculine characteristics. They would be rotten detectives if they did not. And, since there is not that much new under the sun, these skilful and intrepid women in the three highly successful and - or is it because? - highly formulaic series are always demonstrating parallels with their male counterparts on both sides of the Atlantic. Sara Paretsky's detective hero V. I. Warshawski rarely escapes a severe mauling in her books, thus exhibiting precisely the same sado-masochism we invariably get when every Dick Francis hero is ingeniously tortured almost to death in his pursuit of the villain. As V. I.'s great friend Doctor Lotty Herschel says: "I would ask you not to be reckless, Victoria. I would ask it except that you seem to be in love with danger and death. You make life very hard for those who love you." Incidentally, Patricia D. Cornwell's hero Kay Scarpetta is not, as described here, a coroner; she is a chief medical examiner, a very different animal. And surely Vanacker is only teasing when she writes: "As a professional reader of the signs and traumas left on the victims' bodies, Scarpetta is the essential feminist detective in search of knowledge and information." What on earth, from Sherlock Holmes onwards, have male detectives been doing when examining corpses?

Still, the Vanacker chapter is much more to the point than that on "The lesbian thriller", which never quite lives up to its epigraph: "Something nice about a murder where all women are involved." I do like this wonderfully plonking sentence: "And, while Christie's Miss Marple furnishes the writer with an example of a female sleuth, her conservative approach to sex and class makes her an inappropriate model for the lesbian investigator." Paulina Palmer does, however, quote splendidly from Sarah Schulman's After Delores: "It was just then that I jammed my hand into my jacket pocket and smashed my knuckles on a cold piece of metal. Then I remembered I had a gun in my possession. I could use it any time I chose - I knew I didn't have to worry anymore, because the next time somebody went too far, I had the power to go further. I had a gun." I hope the sisterhood won't take out a contract on me if I cannot help observing that that is just like a male crime character. This, in turn, makes one wonder why the lesbian chapter is not counterbalanced by a male homosexual chapter. The male gay detective novel is a much larger genre in the United States and some of its practitioners such as Joseph Hansen, with his splendid Dave Brandstetter, have written first-class books.

There is an interesting chapter on Tony Hillerman's Navajo Indians which reveals, inter alia, that John Ford, in his film Cheyenne Autumn, used Navajos to play the Cheyenne and they resolutely spoke Navajo and not Cheyenne throughout. Altogether much more fun than a redundant piece about contemporary crime films, which treats dross like the Die Hard movies with the same seriousness as Blue Velvet or that wonderful film, Blade Runner. It is surely perverse to analyse Blade Runner without mentioning its great literary original, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And it is just plain ignorant to have Hannibal Lecter supping off human liver and lima beans. That sophisticated gourmet accompanied the meat with fava beans.

The most rewarding chapter is probably that devoted to the brilliant and underrated James Crumley, written by John Harvey who, significantly, is not an academic but a novelist who created the Nottingham-based serial detective, Charlie Resnick. Harvey makes good use of a long conversation with Crumley who ingeniously fuses some of the best features of the crime novel with the western. "The myth of the West must be about hope, the hope that one good man can save a town that neither desires nor deserves salvation I". Crumley has also focused on the destructiveness of the Vietnam experience: "the trinity of American power: drugs, cash and automatic weapons".

Nick Heffernan analyses the legal fictions of John Grisham and Scott Turow. We Brits look on amazed at the preposterous cases that find their way to court across the Atlantic, cases which any sane British judge would dismiss as without merit. Contingency fees rule OK. Apparently America had only a mere 541,000 lawyers in 1980. In 1995 the figure was close to a million. As Heffernan says: "It is perhaps no accident that this late 20th-century legal explosion has been accompanied by the rise of a hitherto little-noticed sub-genre of the crime thriller - the lawyer-procedural."

Grisham is a formulaic practitioner of the lowest common factor of public taste. Turow is a good upper-middle-brow performer but sadly Heffernan more or less dismisses George V. Higgins as an "outstanding fore-runner of Turow and Grisham" with a "relative lack of success". This, alas, is true in commercial terms but while Turow and Grisham are polished bestselling entertainers, Higgins is a serious writer who should find himself dealt with at length in any proper history of literature in America, whether criminal or straight.

Josh Cohen writes on "James Ellroy, Los Angeles and the spectacular crisis of masculinity" which is every inch part of a DPhil thesis, and admitted as such. It is, in fact, perceptive as far as it goes, which is not far enough. It seems inexplicable to publish on Ellroy this year without dealing with his magnum opus, American Tabloid, published in 1995. By any standards a major novel, it is probably a great one. It is the ultimate John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy novel. What Richard Condon handled so brilliantly as humour in Winter Kills, Ellroy handles as a hellish, multi-layered tragedy. The killing of J. F. K. is surely the great American crime which makes American Tabloid the great American crime novel; its omission from this essay and this book is at best sloppy and at worst, well, criminal.

The post-Chandler American crime novel is, at its best - Bardin, Ross MacDonald, Ellroy, Higgins, Mosley, Highsmith - at least a substantial subdivision of what we call literature in our century. It deserves better than this politically correct, distinctly skewed view of one of the most entertaining and diverting segments of our culture.

Tom Rosenthal is a critic and publisher,who was among the first to publish Elmore Leonard and the first to publish George V. Higgins.

Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel

Editor - Peter Messent
ISBN - 0 7453 1017 6 and 1016 8
Publisher - Pluto Press
Price - £40.00 and £13.99
Pages - 252

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