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Mean Street USA

George O’Brien

The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction, by Catherine Ross Nickerson (ed), Cambridge University Press, 208 pp, £17.99, ISBN: 978-0521136068

A few bald generalisations first. If we were asked to say what was the hallmark of English fiction, the chances are the answer would be that it’s very concerned with manners – good manners, that is; with the types of behaviour permissible under an agreed code which combines prescriptions and expectations and which reinforces, often through the implementation of social rituals, a realm (for the reader, perhaps, a fantasy) in which consensus rules and which does not allow for very much room outside the consensual.

Even Dickens, no stranger to crime or related doings in the dark of night, remains convinced that his characters can be retrieved from permanent outsider status by showing up in the drawing room’s morning light, models of comportment and saying the right thing. This type of outcome is familiarly read as sentimental, and Dickens makes no apology for being a three-handkerchief writer. But it’s not too difficult to see that emotionally affecting as those retrievals are, there is also a compulsory element to them, a kind of enforced social logic whereby doing right and thinking right have to be embraced. All else is wilful selfishness and leads to a bad end.

American fiction is very different. Certainly, there are American novelists of manners, first and foremost Henry James who, bless his cotton socks, depicted the course and consequences of many a deadly sin within interiors not far removed from Dickens’s bleak houses. These very settings, and the accompanying sense of uprooted American characters enduring their dislocated destinies in other than their places of national origin, rarefy and circumscribe James’s cast of characters and their sphere of action. They are at one remove from the demos, as James showed himself to be in The American Scene, his somewhat appalled report on the unmannerly state of the Union. But then American civic life has had, from the word go, a built-in “we the people” element, leading to much general aggro as the people tried and tried again (and are trying still) to find out who exactly they are. This type of public environment is not conducive to good manners or to manners in the consensual sense being much on people’s minds. Needless to say, American culture tends to reflect the various ways in which striving thrives. It’s not really so surprising, then, that rather than the novel of manners, à la James, American literature has produced the novel of bad manners. And the crime novel, in its modern form an American invention, is the last word in bad manners.

American crime fiction is not merely a matter of mean streets and jaded gumshoes. From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Flannery O’Connor, crime is a central preoccupation among the great American novelists, violent crime for the most part. Literary movements such as American naturalism would be nothing without sensational homicides, as Frank Norris’s McTeague and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy show; even The Great Gatsby needs a gun; and as is pointed out in passing in this Cambridge Companion, Norman Mailer, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon have murder very often on their minds, while Joyce Carol Oates (strangely overlooked by Companion contributors) goes a gothic step further. Crimes against the person are given a typically unexpected configuration by Toni Morrison, though funnily enough, American fiction retaining ethnic traces can take crime or leave it alone. Bellow, Roth and Malamud do very well without the benefit of thuggery and its melodramatic baggage. Ditto novelists of Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian origin. Irish-America’s own James T Farrell has more than his share of punk-infested mean streets, but his work gives the overall impression that it’s America itself that’s criminally violent, its national image not that of Lady Liberty but of a cold and distant father whose upraised hand keeps home in constant shadow.

All this fictional blood makes one wonder if we are not seeing in such a degree of imaginative interest in violent crime a return of the repressed. Living in America, it’s always strange to see how poorly events so fundamental to the securing of the nation and the maintenance of the union – the Indian wars, slavery, the struggles of labour, the civil rights struggle – are publicly discussed and represented. America, to repeat a banality, prefers to look to the future. Looking back is a downer – unless a sanitised version of what’s back there is available (for Civil War read Gone with the Wind). As though unconsciously aware of these omissions, the parts that are not adequately addressed in forms of public speech such as, let us say, schoolbooks, seek out a language and form of their own, well and truly breaking the consensual silence not only by means of gunfire, sirens, screams and fleeing footsteps but by a barbed, aggressive lingo whose iconoclastic idiom treats interlocutors as though they are anything but partners in consensus. This language is free speech with a vengeance. As such it suits very well the contrarian identity assumed by the dick, the shamus, the gumshoe, and is consistent with his (and for quite a few years now, her) other characteristics – unorthodox righteousness, alertness to and indifference to social class, male sexism, often allied to prudishness and self-denial, and the notion of citizenship as a kind of crusading. Such traits come across as a rebuke to various prevailing notions of collective behaviour and experience, a self-consciously oddball set of variations on American exceptionalism, a critique both of the inert presence of mass life and its tawdry accoutrements as well as of an individualism which can only validate its worth in terms of power and exploitation.

As the Companion makes clear, in comparison to other kinds of crime novel – such staple sub-genres as the country house mystery, the spy story and the Sherlockian puzzle, in particular – the roman noir is America’s most striking and most resonantly modern contribution to crime-writing. On the other hand, as we learn here, true crime narratives make up a distinctly, if not uniquely, American genre whose popularity has increased, though with all due respect to In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song, it’s hard to see why it’s a genre that belongs in a companion to crime fiction. Speaking of Holmes, he was a great hit in the States, though it’s interesting that no home-grown smartass was produced to compete with him, especially given that he has his origins in Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin, the first crime-buster to claim that the dark side could be kept at bay through the operation of reason alone. But perhaps American crime is something more than a puzzle, an event which brings into play much more than reason. The setting, tone and the nature of the criminal activity with which noir – which is the definitive American crime scenario – deals (the typically unthinkable consequences for family, fame and fortune threatened by a missing family member, for instance), all bring to the fore feelings of insecurity, helplessness, lack of confidence and fear for the future. Such feelings are hardly unusual, but crime novels in general highlight them by indicating that they typically supply the preconditions for murder. In American noir, outraged fortune takes on a dystopian colouration, as though there’s something especially un-American about threats to the given order of things, an order often thought of by those in command of it as a realisation of the access to power and plenty that makes America God’s own country.

Thomas Jefferson’s well-known nostrum that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance is given two mutually incompatible interpretations by the private eye and his client, with the former, in effect, airing the small man’s democratic doubts about the structures of privilege even as he chooses – often against his better judgment – to be employed in their defence. That is if employed does not understate the nature of the ensuing social contract: the aggravation, exhaustion and incidental injuries the work entails smack of a more medieval type of servitude. And obviously the fact that the work in question takes place on the fringes of the law not only dramatises a conflict between justice and self-interest, embodied by employee and employer respectively, but tacitly explores the limits and orientations of the much-vaunted freedom of the individual, which of course is one of America’s more myth-inducing promises to its citizens.

Dashiell Hammett is probably the American crime writer who, thanks to his firsthand knowledge (as a former employee of the Pinkerton detective agency) but also to his ideological outlook, has the best sense of the dark and what it can disclose. More sceptical, or if you like, less romantic than Chandler, he was closer in spirit to the version of the foul rag and bone shop on show in the pulp magazines from which noir evolved (the Companion has some useful potted history about this evolution, about the celebrated Black Mask magazine and its mainstay contributor, Carroll John Daly). His left-leaning politics gave Hammett a sensitivity not only to the dystopian milieux in which his characters were trapped but also to the self-deceiving utopian pursuits which are synonymous with wrongdoing. Remember the Maltese falcon, and all the blood and tears it caused? The most memorable thing about it is that in the end it proved to be a fake. Given his politics, and the fact that he was writing in the wake of the 1929 crash, Hammett’s work risks being classified as a knee jerk reaction to a time when the raw deal, rather than the new deal, was the norm. But this is too facile and overlooks his contribution to the writing of urban America, to the establishment of California as a distinctive fictional realm where the dystopian is in a uniquely tense relation to the utopian, and to modern rearrangements of the artistic balance between thought and action, all of which have had a lasting influence that reaches well beyond crime writing and which was also decisive in fashioning from the low cultural life of pulp fiction a new literary idiom and method.

At the same time, though he brought a new conscious awareness to the dystopian dimension of the American dream, neither Hammett nor any other crime writer actually invented that dimension. It was always there, even if in its pre-twentieth century reality it was marked by repression or conversion rather than by the forms of authentication modern crime writing accorded it. In their commitment to establishing “a city on a hill”, a utopian vision of a community easily defensible from outside attack but also in need of defending from internal corruption, Puritan Americans elaborately codified and confidently abjured the evil that men do, never mind the kinds of thing non-men – women and slaves – could get up to.

One useful and popular instrument of propaganda in maintaining the desired degree of order was the execution sermon. These are not the exercises in self-criticism carried out on the scaffold by those about to die, but texts composed by the clergy which turned the criminal case into a teachable moment, not only drawing the sting of execution but subsuming the reality of crime into an alternative framework of order. The Companion does have something to say about these sermons as early forms of crime writing, without fully entering into their ideological dynamics, by means of which the puzzle and threat of crime is solved by Christian understanding, dark deeds can only be publicly discussed as preludes to seeing the light, and the frailties which inevitably challenge the totalitarian ambitions of utopia are pretexts for disciplining both the malefactor and the order his misdeeds impinged upon. The sermon’s inevitable rhetorical magnification of a given crime makes sin seem like a surprise, or perhaps something in the nature of a sense of a sneak attack, such as those to which the community believes itself to be prey from those “others” outside the walls – the natives. For its ideal character to be consistent, the city on a hill should be spotless, its standing as a beacon undimmed. Hill street blues are bound to follow such willed acts of communal sublimation – though the reality of those blues is likely to be denied too.

I don’t suppose anyone much remembers Hill Street Blues, but it is mentioned in passing in the Companion’s chapter on television crime shows (though the inclusion of that form of crime fiction and not film is one indication of how disappointing the book is, with most of the contributions amounting to not much more than annotated bibliographies). Those discussed, however, are all cop shows. And true enough, it’s the cop who is the mainstay of crime fiction these days – another large generalisation, admittedly, made with all due respect to E Leonard, S Paretsky and many more. Numerous as private eyes still are, they are currently heavily outnumbered by cops, and nowhere more so than on television. Even in the supposedly depressed book business, there’s not a state in the union that doesn’t have a sleuthing cop to call its own, which perhaps goes to show that the city is everywhere now, its manners, opportunism and anxieties the stuff of the everyday from Vermont to the Navajo nation. No doubt noir crime fictions had an element of the procedural in them. Thus was conveyed its sense of work. But the pace and style of the work was quite different from police procedurals (a fairly late arrival on the American crime-writing scene, incidentally; Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct sets up shop around the time that the 1950s Organisation Man – who turned out to be principal consumer of cop attention – arrived on the scene).

The always strong class component of crime writing changed. Murder turned suburban and white flight and other body blows to the inner city took their toll. Police procedurals have a different tempo from private eye novels. Verisimilitude has something to do with that. The cop’s working conditions are almost directly the opposite of a gumshoe’s, the former working in a bureaucracy with all that entails – colleagues, superiors, lousy coffee. Such a workplace also of course reflects the increasing corporatism of the postwar world with which most readers of policiers will be only too familiar. But the tempo is also stodgy (and the books fatter) because of the cop protagonists themselves, who typically find it difficult to get on with the job, burdened by the personal cost of long hours and little recognition, the labyrinthine ways of the legal system in which they are entangled and a good deal of free-floating doubt as to the meaning of their mission and the value of their commitment, a state of mind which is not theirs alone but which receives an added emphasis when embodied by somebody in the front line of public service.

In certain respects, cops like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch say, are rogue cops, but in ways that reverse the conventional meaning of the term. Ordinarily a rogue cop is the one who takes bribes, resells the drugs from the bust, has a record of brutality and in general uses the badge to conceal his own lawless nature. These days, though, rogue cops are more likely to question authority, give back chat to their superiors, and do their best work while suspended from the job or under investigation by the department. Such figures are not new – see William P McGivern’s The Big Heat (1953); but there does seem to be an increasing number of them. Fans of James Ellroy, especially his early stuff, will recognise the type. Their wayward conduct expresses a lack of faith in their profession’s claims to righteousness, impartiality, honesty. Sooner or later they discover that they cannot go by the book, ownership and interpretation of which is in the hands of uptight and self-serving administrators (the Puritans, as it were). They have an interesting, unstated kinship with that real-life antagonist of the corporate superego, the whistleblower. In their doggedness, isolation, outspokenness and strong taste for crap-cutting and improvisation, they recapitulate what makes the private eye stand out, even if what they’re up against tends to suffer from noir deficiency, except in Ellroy’s case, where it’s laid on thicker than a stripper’s mascara. As both part of the problem, thanks to their badge, and part of the solution, thanks to their resistant behaviour, these cops are very like the rest of us in the current condition of civil society, and in that way maintain the intriguing status of crime fiction as cultural barometer. Their manners would not please Henry James, but that’s probably a good thing.


George O’Brien is Professor of English at Georgetown University, Washington. His publications include the noted memoir The Village of Longing.

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