Last issue, I wrote of the relationship of the fictional sleuth and the state. As opposed to the orderly Confucianist world of Judge Dee, or at least the Confucianist order as ideally conceived and aspired to, we live in extraordinarily disheveled times. One can bury one's head in the sand (mind what is waggling above it when you do) or, ineluctably, comment, critique, inform, and seduce the reader into some realization of what is, was, or has been going on in the world around them.
It serves the reader to know, in some small way, what has led up to this mess—to the crime and perhaps to the elements of crime we take for granted and that we nonchalantly imbibe in the drinking water. However, we in the West, at least, over-psychologize. While the examination of the psyches of the criminal and the invariably oddball sleuth is not without merit, I, for one, wonder if the excess psychologizing in some way serves to deflect complicity—s/he had a horrible childhood; s/he was always an oddball… Psychologically, is a bad conscience or a conscientious one (both of which may isolate the individual)— more or less interesting? The chameleon certainly captures our attention; and in terms of survival, without a conscience that creature seems to fare far better.
In this final essay, I would also like to cast off any notions of the contemporary crime novel as a lesson in morality. Not to be too cynical, but it is patently obvious in our time that crime does pay—quite well, thank you very much. The profit motive is at best a-moral and widely accepted, justified with banal nostrums—"a man's gotta make a profit" "that's business," and most recently heard describing the networks of "lines" used by drug dealers to sell their "products"—"they have a good business plan." Egad—the august BBC, no less, uttered those words! But recall the master of hard-boiled sleuthiness, Raymond Chandler, who famously said of his style of crime novel, that it focused on a "world where gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities." In that liminal space between the genre of crime fiction and writing about the criminal elements that seem alive and well around us—certain politicians spring to mind—what, then, is crime?
Mind, Ray, the mainstream endorses casual violence and amoral accumulation; but not all crime novels need be hardboiled to show the crooks disporting themselves behind the arras.
Frankly, writing about white collar crime and the trespasses of the capitalist world makes rather dull reading. Furthermore, to have the upper class detective go slumming in the murkier crime world is no automatic corrective. One of the things that eventually makes Adam Dalgleish and such blue-blood flatfoots less interesting is that there is only so much superficial flagellation the British class system can take: either go in for the kill, P.D. James, or find something else to talk about. In the case of other authors, "something else," as I have indicated in Issue #5, is often the quirky, psychologically interesting detector. The creepy crook is less effective, primarily because, clichéd though it may be, we expect the crook to be unpleasant. Good vs. evil. Less and less, Robin Hood gets over, though the dulled exception to that in US writing is an ordinary guy getting over what right wing nutters consider 'the elite'—i.e., pretty much anyone with intelligence, education, and/or compassionate views. In other words, such empty victories are the fuel of bad American TV sitcoms.
What I am struggling to say, here, is that a number of modern crime novels reflect the disheveled condition, not merely of the state itself, but of its culture. Authors may actively critique a culture, even when set in another historical period; or they may unwittingly reveal its cracks and flaws through characters who are what Saul Maloff, quite a while ago, wrote in the New York Times of Singh, the main protagonist in The Mimic Men, a novel by the late V.S. Naipaul:
…act is no longer continuous with motive, and motive lies forever hidden—[one] must assume identities
and fill the void with the mere appearance of coherence…because he has been violated by his immersion
in life and history, he has withdrawn from them. (October 15, 1967)
Hence the crappy novel, neither alive nor aware of the legacy of time and events.
Mind, the late Naipaul has erred at least as much as he has been precise; however, the above does apply to many of the crime novels' stock characters, especially the many renderings of the hard-boiled detective. Among others, I am thinking of how some readers miss the point of the '50s Chester Himes' detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. They are the ham in the USA's racist sandwich, squeezed, on the one hand, by a legal system which is anything but color blind and, on the other, by a world reacting to, and excusing, that unequal system. When Coffin Ed and Grave Digger rough up a suspect, they are presented as even rougher than their white counterparts might be; when they wish to follow a lead they are either told to bugger off and let the (white) pros take care of it or to go ahead because the (white) cops are too scared (and too bumbling) to enter the black demi-monde. To some degree, and though a more skilled writer in the genre, Walter Mosely's Easy Rawlins follows this script too. However, in the case of Himes' work, what we have is the stark necessity of having to mimic certain behaviors to get along: the pervasive violence of a racist society dictates that the black detective be better at whatever his white equivalent does, smarter, more expedient, more violent, including when he—and it is invariably he—roughs up suspects.
This issue of The Wall has published what this writer regards as a germinal essay on the psyche of those who obey authority. We also note the review essay on the very humane resistance of Behrouz Boochani, Kurdo-Iranian journalist, writer and refugee unjustly imprisoned on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, by the machinations of the present Australian government. On the fictional side, in our Pocket Anthology, Criminal Elements II, pieces range from that based on the notorious 30s and 40s Detroit mob, the Purple Gang, to the tale of a border-crossing spook—that border being between South and North Korea in all their stark differences. And we have the true story of an apparent Zapatista "resistance" members' holdup of two journalists in Mexico —or were their tormentors just flat-out crooks? Indeed, what authority is being resisted?
In the abstract, "crime" is essentially wrongdoing as defined by the laws of the state with the presumption that at least some of those prohibitions are achieved by social consensus. However, there's an odd correlation: the more ambivalent we are about the absolute purity and correctness of the state, the messier is our understanding of what crime itself is; and as the state of the state, if you will, becomes more and more disheveled we increase the intensity with which we seek out a definitive morality: that is definitely bad; this is definitively good, etc. Or we give in to chaos, offering meaningless nostrums like the excuse of "human nature," "that's just the way it is," or that godawful tautological cliché, "it is what it is."
Things Fall Apart
I have mentioned that among my favorite series are the very well written ones featuring Detective Inspector Ian Rutledge and, second unto that, the Bess Crawford series, both penned by the mother and son team mentioned in prior essays who go under the collective pseudonym of Charles Todd. Both series are set at the time of the ending of WWI. Commemorations of the 100 years since World War I have reminded many that that historical time is of particular interest, esp. as it seems to mark the beginning of the end of our own Confucianesque belief that if not the Emperor, Lord of 10,000 Years, at least God was in his heaven and all was more or less right with the world.
The Bess Crawford series features a British nurse in WWI, when nurses were referred to as "Sisters"—not to be confused with nuns. They held rank in the army and were often located close to not very far from the front lines. They even treated enemy soldiers. Nor were they shielded from the realities of the war—the blood, the loss of limb and life. The series begins with the historical fact of the sinking of the Britannica, a boat transporting the wounded back to England for follow-up treatment; and the fictional nurse is one of the survivors of that wreck. Crawford's father is a high muckety-muck in the British military, a last resort to get Bess out of hot water when she strays into it. Her father's aide, Simon Brandon, "our" Regimental Sergeant-Major, as Bess tells it, more often appears just in the nick of time to save Bess from the consequences of her investigation:
…we had been friends as far back as my memories went. He’d seen me through scrapes, taught me to
ride and to shoot, and comforted me when my first pony had had to be put down. He’d talked me out of
foolishness when I was feeling headstrong, and even commiserated with me over my first heartbreak, a
schoolgirl’s infatuation with one of the new Lieutenants just out from England.
What we have in this series, though, is more historical background to the period, including the inklings of independence for women, than an uneasy depiction of a changing world. Bess shares a London apartment with another Sister, but the on-site landlady guards their virtue like a pit bull—no men allowed! As the series winds down, we see a bit more of Bess sleuthing on her own, but Simon somehow always manages to reappear to keep her from disaster. Bess' family is solidly military, and far from the shell-shocked, the confused, and cynical amongst the soldiers at the front line; thus this structure provides her with a safety net, fretted with the good old days of tradition, to which her emerging independence is only the beginnings of an antidote.
The Ian Rutledge series is more revealing. When we read that Rutledge may have been—"away from a Britain [that] still wear[s] the scars of death and pain and the poverty of peace"—we know we are not in the hands of some facile crime novel hipster. Having served in brutal circumstance, ending in the Battle of the Somme, Rutledge has gotten his old job back with Scotland Yard. Feeling it necessary to hide the fact that he had a stay in hospital, as a victim of shell shock, he has managed to pull himself together, more or less, but at great psychic cost. The prevailing belief at that time was that returned soldiers who had what we now call PTSD, then called "shell shock," were simply cowards. Pacifists were, if possible, even worse, or at least lumped into the same category. Brave men served. The heroic died, many were physically wounded, but psychological wounds went untended and most often despised. At the war's end, gone were the optimistic, collective songs of men marching off together to battle the Hun, and replacing them was the mockery of the cynical "dulce et decorum est…" by Wilfred Owen, British officer killed November 4, 1918, a week before WWI's Armistice was signed. It was quite different spin on the classical Horace's "How sweet and right it is to die for your country," naively quoted at war's beginning.*
So much for the warrior code, the masculinist—dare I say patriarchal?— nonsense about the glories of battle. At best, one acknowledged having served, though few were eager to talk about the experience.
An officer in the war, Rutledge is another survivor who cannot talk about it, especially since he carries the voice of Hamish McLeod in his head, a sergeant he put before a firing squad when, German gunners blasting away, McLeod refused to send out his men to what he felt was certain death. Hamish does not quite die when the squad fires and Rutledge must take out his service pistol and put him out of his misery. As Rutledge sees it, he, Ian, has thus become a murderer. The clear boundary between good and evil had been breached—just following orders, Sir; it's an order, Sergeant—and the military thrives on obedience to authority, either or, black and white. Rutledge's punishment is that Hamish talks to him, as both a sidekick and tormentor. Clearly this situation is Owen's "dulce et decorum est," not the glory promoted by the original. And it is sometimes all Rutledge can do not to answer Hamish out loud and thus raise suspicion of his own sanity in the eyes of his colleagues.
So our 'hero' has clay feet, and a considerable load to bear. In the post war world, there is no clear good guy vs. the bad guys; though some cling to shallow standards based on older disappearing rules of decorum. His fiancée expects a war hero (the old dulce et decorum) and, instead, gets a damaged soul; but, unlike the noble and long-suffering woman who would stand by her man, she abandons him. Modern-ness (I am not sure I want to use the full-fledged word "modernity") is set against tradition. Rutledge has come back to a sometimes ruder, certainly different, world. Less than two weeks after World War I's armistice was signed (November 11, 1918,) on November 21, 1918, women are given the right to sit in Parliament, neither prohibited by sex or state of matrimony. The old graciousness is becoming threadbare; it is a world where bitterness does not hide itself, where class boundaries are occasionally tattered (his best friend marries his own butler's daughter) women are not only in Parliament, but—good god!—starting to drive and, unlike his fiancée, have their own ideas. So do crooks, of course; and even the defenders of the law deviate, seemingly unconcerned about doing so: to wit., Rutledge's boss, Bowles, who in the very first of the series, secures the damaging evidence of the detective's hospital stay and,
if he had begged whatever gods he believed in to give him the kind of weapon he craved, they couldn’t
have managed anything sweeter than this.
.…Now the question was how best to make use of this bit of knowledge without burning himself in the
fire he wanted to raise.
Along comes a request for assistance with solving a nasty murder:
Willy-nilly, they were saddled with a case where discretion, background, and experience were essential.
At the same time, it was going to be a nasty one either way you looked at it, and someone’s head was
bound to roll.
Use Rutledge, Bowles thought. Someone who is expendable. (And, we might add here, someone who embodies our struggle for that will -'o-the wisp, a conscience.)
Can a whole society experience an adrenaline rush in times of crisis? When the world turns into something it was not before? The second Rutledge novel of the series opens with the newspapers in a feeding frenzy over what looks like a rerun of Jack the Ripper knifings:
[p]eople had tired of the Peace, which had brought more misery to the country than any sense of
enormous Victory. They were tired of grimness and stoicism, of poor food, no jobs, strikes, and unrest,
and there was even a boredom with the struggle to revive the England they remembered before the
Kaiser played for power in Europe.
In the US, the "Roaring Twenties" were revving up, women's skirts rose, morals plummeted; Prohibition ushered in bathtub gin and mobsters willing to supply it. Modernity kept up its relentless pace. In a way, war was a piece of cake: good (us) versus bad (them, the enemy.) Voila! collective clarity. In peacetime, even murder might, if not seem justified, be understandable—today we might think of an ongoingly abusive spouse—and poverty? well that could drive a woman or a man to do things they might otherwise never consider. Where was the villain in that, that faceless cause of which many petty crimes were only the symptom? When the old structures begin to crumble, what then? what now?
We are still asking ourselves that question, collectively—or as collectively as we can in this age of a shattered sense of civitas (long ago defined by Cicero as the civil body of citizens united by law,) in this age of exaggerated individualism. So far there are no pat answers, perhaps no satisfactory answers at all. That may explain our vicarious identification with Rutledge, who persists in spite of a damaged soul, who thus makes us even more committed to following him from one adventure to another. We all might want to be reassured—catch that crook!—and we may also relish the narrowness of our escape from the chaos of the crime. But unease lurks in the wings: a crime is an offense against an individual, yes; but in its time and as it stands now, is it not still an insult to our community, a community which we suspect is continually fraying at the edges?
* DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March, 1918
Please also note that we have linked the books mentioned with various websites. We also encourage a visit to your local library or, failing that, the Open Library a free online library, which lends ebooks, lists your nearest lending library source and/or offers a link to where the books can be bought.