Thursday, January 22, 2009

Write to Left

“On the whole, the detective story is a conservative literary genre: a law is broken, the truth is uncovered and the legal and moral order is restored …,” contends Philip Green in the extensive new resource book, The Nation Guide to the Nation (Vintage). “There are exceptions, though, most often in subgenres featuring a private eye, a defense lawyer or (less frequently) a minority or female character.”

I’m not so convinced that the detective story is inherently conservative; there are abundant examples of fictional sleuths--professional and not--who act outside of legal parameters (committing misdemeanors of their own in pursuit of the greater good) and fail to bring confirmed malefactors to justice, for one reason or another. Neither of those approaches to crime-solving accords with conservative ideals (which are not always adhered to in practice) that laws are never to be broken. However, Green has put together a fairly interesting baker’s-dozen list of mysteries that he says belong on the shelves of political progressives:

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett (1929), which he calls “the most politically conscious of American detective novels …”

• The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler (1939)

• The Doorbell Rang, by Rex Stout (1965): “No doubt about it--the best civil liberties mystery of all time.”

• Cotton Comes to Harlem, by Chester Himes (1965)

• Death in a Tenured Position, by Amanda Cross (1981)

• Briarpatch, by Ross Thomas (1984)

• Blood Shot (1988) and Burn Marks (1990), by Sara Paretsky: “Between them, the two novels take on the seamy side of American society in the Reagan era.”

• Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley (1990)

• The Rainmaker, by John Grisham (1995)

• The Raggedy Man, by Lillian O’Donnell (1995)

• Apparition Alley, by Katherine V. Forrest (1997)

• No Defense, by Kate Wilhelm (2000): “In this, one of her (so far) nine cases, ‘death qualified’ Oregon attorney Barbara Holloway fights the political establishment, the legal powers that be and a dangerous crime lord to save the life of an innocent defendant: a typical day’s work for her.”


Anonymous said...

And here I've always thought of detective stories as inherently liberal.

The institutions charged with maintaining order are routinely presented as incompetent, corrupt, or both. Even if the hero belongs to that institution - Harry Bosch comes to mind immediately. The hero has to work outside the system - whatever that system may be. The law may be wrong, so the source of moral authority is the integrity of the individual.

Bob Dylan wasn't writing about the genre, but he summed it up neatly with this line: "To live outside the law you must be honest." Phillip Marlowe and Spenser illustrate that, but so does Martin Luther King. Or the Sons of Liberty.

(This reminds me of a blog post on Matt Yglesias's site a few months back about Robocop. Some thought it was the quintessential fascist movie because of its depiction of corporate power. Me, I always thought it was about the triumph of the individual - consider the very last line of the movie- which I would argue is THE liberal ideal.)

Just goes to show you can look at things from a lot of angles.

Anonymous said...

There's also the work of Sjowall & Wahloo and Stieg Larsson - the former were Marxists, the latter a Communist.

Anonymous said...

I also have always thought of the genre as more liberal than conservative. I think more of military thrillers as being conservative tho-Clancy etc.

Barbara said...

I think of the golden age British writers as culturally conservative, often lamenting a golden age of wealth a privilege lost by the time they were writing mysteries. (There's a painfully cartoonish depiction of leftists in Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, for example; iirc, Harriet Vane herself was deflowered by a leftist rotter, but she had enough intelligence to be complicated about it.) Writers like PD James continue the conservative tradition.

When Hammett gave murder back to people who commit it for a reason, the genre took a critical turn, examining society from a leftist rather than right-wing perspective. Both still persist, but it's hard to quantify. In terms of copies sold, it probably is a conservative genre (Patterson doesn't criticize the power structure. He doesn't even set his books in a real world, which is itself conservative, as the golden age writers were, hearkening to a simple Manichean struggle between good and evil, which is not human but monstrous; don't want to recognize ourselves, after all.) But among really good crime fiction ... it's much more complicated and more human.

I can't believe George Pelecanos isn't on this list, or Richard Price. Or Paretsky. Or Michael Nava or hell, Travis McGee.

But that's the way with lists...

Anonymous said...

I'm sure the premise is wrong! If it were right, I wouldn't be reading 150+ of them a year. I am not a conservative, and don't read conservative lit. The fact to me is that it is difficult to even put a rope around the "genre", so it is impossible to define it collectively. I should read the article, but who has time? I have 140 ARCs to read, not to mention the 2000 on my TBR pile! Conservative? Feh!!!!

Is this flamebait?

John McFetridge said...

Oh, I don't know, that whole "committing misdemeanors of their own in pursuit of the greater good," sounds like what we usually see in right-wing politicians, isn't it? Maybe I just saw Frost/Nixon and the line, "When the President does it, it's not illegal," stuck out.

Maybe just the idea of knowing what the "greater good," is could be seen as extremist - far right or far left.

Anonymous said...

Let us not forget the immortal Rumpole of the Bailey, who championed the liberal causes that his creator, Sir John Mortimer, championed in real life.