Crime ain’t what it used to be

Full Text:

Crime fiction was once accused of amounting to ‘snobbery with violence.’

Nowadays, it’s more like ‘slobbery with violence.’ As the elegant hero has given way to the diclasse anti-hero,

the genre has moved unsteadily left.

IF CRIME WRITING is your business,” young authors used to be told, “keep politics as a hobby. If politics is your business, keep crime writing as a hobby.” And this injunction was, on the whole, obeyed. Even those vociferous and prolific socialists, G. D. H. and Margaret Cole, wrote conventional English detective stories-dull, but almost entirely free from politics. Rex Stout’s liberalism played no part in the early Nero Wolfe novels. If we knew nothing of Dashiell Hammett except his books, we could scarcely deduce his political views.


Sometimes, of course, an author’s inclination peeped through. At the beginning of Three Inquisitive People-the first written, though not first published novel by Dennis Wheatley, a very popular British author of adventurethrillers-the Duke de Richleau invites his American guest to dine at a club where “the word socialism has never penetrated and women do not come”: and in The Forbidden Territory, the first of Wheatley’s novels to appear (in 1933), the Soviet Union is undoubtedly an Evil Empire. Wheatley was always a Right-minded man, as befitted the grandson of a successful Mayfair grocer known as “Ready-Money” Wheatley.

John Dickson Carr, on the other hand, although by every instinct a romantic Tory, originally and implausibly made his detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, “a fanatical socialist,” presumably because in the early Thirties-and to a young American, who didn’t really understand-this seemed an amusing eccentricity. But in the postwar period H.M. loathed the Labour Government as ferociously as his creator did.

Today everything is politicized or at least considered fair game for politicization; even authors who don’t believe themselves to be conveying any message are liable to be accused of doing so subconsciously. Since television has occupied much of the ground once filled by written tales, those who look for political bias on the screen might be well advised to glance away, occasionally, from the current-affairs programs (which tend to be quite strictly monitored) and from the notoriously Left-inclined single plays that the British Broadcasting Corporation’s drama department loves to produce, and scrutinize instead the unmonitored and ostensibly non-political field of light fiction. They could count, for example (the fingers of one hand would suffice), the number of times when sympathy goes to employers rather than to strikers, to the authorities more than to rebels, and they would notice how, in recent years, the intelligence services of Britain and America have been shifted from the heroic to the villainous categoryexcept when, in the interests of positive discrimination, the departmental chief is black.

THRILLERS-SPY STORIES obviously, but other kinds too -have a special relationship with contemporary affairs, with the stuff of newspaper headlines, which makes them peculiarly interesting in this respect. It also renders them intensely nostalgic. Nothing conjures up the Twenties and Thirties more vividly than the mystery fiction of the time.

Philo Vance was an aristocrat, a dilettante scholar with a slight Oxonian accent, a member of the Stuyvesant Club, and so fastidious that “since the influx of the postwar, nouveau-riche Americans along the French and Italian Rivieras, he had forgone his custom of spending his summers on the Mediterranean.” Lamont Cranston, the Shadow, was a “wealthy New York clubman and world adventurer and traveler”; he belonged to “the exclusive Cobalt Club.”

And here is his rival, Richard Wentworth, whose “crimeattuned nostrils had scented murder” in what seemed to be a natural death. “Wentworth’s keen blue-grey eyes peered thoughtfully from their deep sockets. His flat-planed, vitally handsome face was stern and grim-lipped, as his gaze strayed abstractedly out of the window of his Sutton Place living room and settled unseeingly over the dusk-shrouded surface of the East River flowing silently three floors below. A poker face-but behind it his alert faculties were at work, probing, searching, tearing away all blinding pretense.

“In that moment he was inwardly transformed ftom the immaculately clad, seemingly indolent clubman that he appeared, into that denizen of the darkness men knew as the Spider.”

Nick Carter lived in a brownstone on “fashionable lower Fifth Avenue.” Ellery Queen had his elegant tweeds made in London. Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion was vaguely related to the royal family. Because so many of these heroes were gentlemen-and, worse still, clubmen -and the heroines were equally well-born or well-heeled (there was even Lady Molly of Scotland Yard), modern politically minded critics often regard the whole genre as having been poisoned with middle-class values. “Snobbery with violence,” they say. The cheap edition of Berkeley Gray’s first Norman Conquest novel, Mr. Mortimer Gets the Jitters, would confirm their suspicions; the jacket shows Norman, automatic in hand, clad in full evening dress-for no reason except that it makes him look dashing. The jacket of Frank L. Packard’s Jimmie Dale and the Phantom Clue also has the hero in white tie and tails, with perhaps rather more justification, since we know from the text that Jimmie Dale always dressed for dinner in his Riverside Drive mansion and belonged to a club that bestowed a quite exceptional amount of social prestige.

Twenty years later James Bond, having sprung from Ian Fleming’s imagination into an era of aggressive egalitarianism, was accused of representing everything snobbish. But Bond was a most inaccurately chosen target. Unlike his predecessors, he neither owned a tail-coat nor belonged to a London club. He ate and drank well simply because it relieved the boredom of solitary missions. And he used consumer goods with brand names because Fleming, having discovered that any item of clothing or equipment mentioned in the Bond novels received valuable publicity, liked to help craftsmen of whom he approved, in a world where craftsmanship was becoming rare.

Fleming differed in sophistication rather than intent ftom John Creasey, who allegedly (I’ve never actually been able to find the passage) made his hero, the Hon. Richard Rollison, alias the Toff, go into the Savoy Hotel and say to the barman: “Jules, bring me a bottle of the special Moussec you keep for me alone.” Fleming and Creasey and most of their colleagues, whether writing for hard covers or for pulp magazines, felt that luxurious settings are more agreeable to read about than squalor and that educated characters are more stimulating than inarticulate ones.

Today’s fashion is for the slob as hero; slobbery with violence. Moonlighting was hailed as the modern equivalent of The Thin Man: but anyone who couldn’t see the difference between the new series’s charmless hero and the polished performance of William Powell must need his eyes, ears, or head examined. Similarly, Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone are not the first thriller-heroes to execute lawbreakers personally, but ruthlessness used to have more style. (” ‘If it isn’t money, what do you want? Damn you, what is your racket?’ ‘Death,’ said the Saint in a voice of terrible softness. ‘Death is my racket.’ “)

THE VILLAINS TOO have traditionally been gentlemen; the butler hardly ever did do it. For the hero to duel with persons of inferior status would have seemed unsporting. Nowadays, the hero may be proletarian but most villains are still ostentatiously rich or upper-class. The reason, though, is different. A political message is often intended or at least implied.

Even Dr. Fu Manchu, although an Oriental, was a very superior person indeed. World conquest, at which he aimed, has always been a favorite motive, because, although political in one sense, it is non-political-and therefore safe -in another. Less extravagant tales of international intrigue constitute an archaeological inspection-pit of changing popular concern or, perhaps more accurately, convention. British novels, because of a greater proximity to the seething politics of Europe, have been, until recently, more susceptible to such influences than their American equivalents. Anarchist villains gave way to German spies, then to Bolsheviks, then to arms dealers, who were a convenient scapegoat; and then, as the shadow of the Second World War crept nearer, a few books, overlapping the phobia about arms dealers, pointed the finger at selfinterested, purblind, or treacherous politicians who were obstructing the re-armament of Britain.

Mussolini, lightly disguised as “Caffarelli” in Francis Beeding’s excellent spy stories, had originally been treated as a great statesman, to bedefended against conspirators. But gradually he and Hitler (called “Hagen” by Beeding), their agents, and their secret police became the enemyeventually under their real names. The Spanish Civil War helped to sanctify left-wing idealists, although Dennis Wheatley, in The Golden Spaniard, took a less roseate view of the Republican cause. One of the greatest of all thrillers, Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, begins with an attempt by the aristocratic English hero to assassinate an unnamed Hitler. Anti-fascist themes became overt in Britain and in Hollywood.

The war made everything simple. Heroes and villains wore, at least metaphorically, the uniform of their country. Politics hardly entered into it. The Russians changed sides and the gallant Chetniks in Yugoslavia were replaced, in stories about Occupied Europe, by Tito’s Communist partisans without provoking so much as a blink of surprise from the thriller-writers. There was no discussion about the ideology, or about the moral ambiguities, involved. Current propaganda was taken at face value: thriller-writing formed part of it.

After the war, for a brief period, Russian agents continued to cooperate with British and American heroes, and the United Nations, rather than one’s own country, became the symbol of Good. Escaped war criminals and revengeseeking neo-Nazis were the easiest, and politically safest, villains to use. Forty years later they still are. Reviewing The House on Carroll Street recently, a British magazine said that “for a change this film breaks the rules of the current U.S. movie genre by having a go at the Nazis rather than the Communists”; demonstrating once again Sherlock Holmes’s dictum that some people see but do not observe-or rather they see only what they expect to see.

Much earlier, Somerset Maugham, in Ashenden, had taken a wry look at the spy business: but regular thrillerwriters between the wars, even those, like John Buchan and Francis Beeding, with experience in the ways of government, preferred to make their spies, whether professional or accidental, behave as gentlemen-amateurs. Verisimilitude was not the point. Such authors, like their colleagues in the field of domestic detection, were playing a game with its own rules; realism would have spoiled the mood.

THE MOST NOTABLE exception was Eric Ambler. In an American omnibus of pre-war Ambler novels, the introduction, by (or at least attributed to) Alfred Hitchcock, asserts: “The villains are not only real people, they are actually the kind of people who have generated violence and evil in the Europe of our time. And the wise men-the clever ones who solve or help to solve the riddles in these stories-they are not the traditional old-school-tie officers of British Military Intelligence. In two of these novels they are Soviet agents operating in Italy and Austria just before the outbreak of the war; in the other two they are Turkish military police. Again, people you can believe in-above all, the kind of people who really were clever in the corrupt and stupid years of the past decade.”

Ambler’s villains were capitalists; his political philosophy was that of the Popular Front. After 1945, disillusioned by what was happening in Eastern Europe (as he showed in Judgment on Deltchev) but uninspired by the cold war, he sought more personal themes elsewhere. The leftish tinge of those early books and their seediness (highbrows love seediness) has helped to ensure continued critical success: but what Hitchcock wrote in that introduction was hardly fair. The old-school-tie officers of British Military Intelligence had not done at all badly. They scooped up every single German spy in Britain during the war.

Ian Fleming, himself entitled to an Old Etonian tie, knew the reality of secret intelligence, but James Bond, as he said, was an updated version of Bulldog Drummond. Bond’s opponents, in the earlier novels, were agents of SMERSH, an all-too-real organization for killing enemies of the Soviet Union: but later, on the rather odd grounds that “one can’t go on teasing the Russians,” Fleming changed his villains to SPECTRE, a fantastic body of worldwide criminals. This suited the filmmakers, who eschew political villains unless defunct, like the Nazis, or manically right-wing.

Fleming, despite his superficial modernity, was a throwback to the pre-war style. The new mood, the Ambler mood, was picked up by Len Deighton and fully developed by John Le Carre, both of whom appealed to those who disliked Fleming’s gloss. After a pretentiously idiosyncratic start, Deighton moved back toward the mainstream, while Le Carre has built ever more complicated labyrinths; complicated morally no less than structurally. Meanwhile, in the real world, the Burgess-Maclean-Philby affair both restored the clubland background of espionage and reinforced the idea of Establishment villainy. It highlighted the theme of betrayal, just the thing for useful twists, and especially of upper-class betrayal.


Simultaneously, in America the fashion in heroes and villains had changed too. Partly because of the Vietnam War, which turned liberals and the conscriptable young and therefore a high proportion of media folk against the government, agencies such as the CIA and the FBI (which was admired when hunting Nazis, not so fine when hunting Communists) became bad, and whistle-blowing rebels good. William F. Buckley Jr.’s Blackford Oakes novels are, as one would expect, an exception to this mood. But, perhaps significantly, they tend to be set in the more immediately postwar decades. The new type of thriller was epitomized in Three Days of the Condor, where the hero, a CIA agent fleeing ftom his own bosses, finally tells all to the New York Times. Rex Stout’s anti-FBI novel, The Doorbell Rang, outraged John Wayne so much that he sent an immediate telegram to Stout: “Have always enjoyed your Nero and Archie, but I read your story in the April issue of Argosy. Good-bye.”

These tendencies converged, so that, even when the direct political roots had withered, there was a flowering of cynicism, an assumption of moral-or immoral-equivalence between the agents of East and West, with, on the Western side, some extra villainy from the upper classes and from multinational companies, which have assumed the scapegoat role once occupied by armaments manufacturers. In contrast with the liberal line, advanced shortly before and during the Second World War, that anti-Nazis should learn to be as ruthless as their opponents, little or no serious consideration is given to the moral justification for ruthlessness by Free World agencies now.

Political thrillers today, far removed ftom Buchan and the Great Game, have a distinctly leftish tilt. Detective stories, on the other hand, especially American police procedurals, have tipped back a little in the other direction. Some fictional detectives, a stream derived perhaps from Maigret, are notably more compassionate than their predecessors, but others-in literature as in life-are apt to think, as Bulldog Drummond once thought, that criminals are allowed by the law and the courts to get away with too much. On the other hand, TV series such as Cagney and Lacey, which was justly admired on both sides of the Atlantic, introduce a liberal message whenever possible.

The qualities that were once common but are now most conspicuously missing from thrillers of every kind are high spirits and moral simplicity. It would be nice to meet again an occasional Faceless Fiend unencumbered by any social or political baggage at all; and there was surely much to be said for a detective who, unlike today’s fashionably sordid and cynical protagonists, could greet a client in the grand style once used by Sexton Blake, Britain’s equivalent of Nick Carter: “I would rather work for nothing for a naval man like yourself, one of the best protectors of our precious flag, than take banknotes from those who are careless of the honor of old Britain.”

>>> View more: Look Back in Love: Martin Amis’s memoirs reveal a deep, abiding affection between him and his father, Kingsley

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