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Guilty Pleasures of Political Crime Fiction


When I first arrived at Princeton University almost fifty years ago, I felt pretty green – far from home and familiar landmarks, physical and intellectual. One of my fellow grad students, simultaneously friendly and intimidating, was Phil Green, a lefty who would go on to be a member of The Nation magazine’s board and also to write a number of weighty tomes (including Deadly Logic: The Theory of Nuclear Deterrence, a classic on the irrationalities of the nuclear balance of terror).

We had lunch on one of my first days in New Jersey, and I was all ears. You must read, he said, Joel Townsley Rogers’ The Red Right Hand and John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court. Odd-sounding titles for political tracts, I thought, but I tracked them down – and what did I find? Thrillers. Good ones, too – although not particularly political – and certainly not “progressive.” What was going on here?

Read and find out, I told myself. So I began a life-long parallel pursuit to my Marxist political science and political practice: reading thrillers, which, alongside listening to jazz and playing basketball, became my principal not-so-guilty pleasures in life. Truth to tell, my reading of the philosophies of life of Lew Archer, Martin Beck, Harry Bosch, Kathy Mallory, Guido Brunetti and John Rebus ranks right up there on my personal hit parade with my exploration, then and now, of Sheldon Wolin, Bob Engler, Roderick Seidenburg, Brough Macpherson, Frantz Fanon, Baran and Sweezy, and Marx himself.

Now, flash forward from the early sixties to the present, and along comes my friend Cy Gonick to spoil my fun. Write us an article, he tells me, on “the political thriller.” Well, since you put it that way, Cy, let me think….

What is a Political Thriller?

First off, what is a “political thriller”? Wikipedia opines that thrillers “are characterized by fast pacing, frequent action and resourceful heroes who must thwart the plans of more powerful and better equipped villains.” I treat the category expansively in order to cover the books I like best to read when I’m not working: mystery stories, from private eyes to police procedurals to the entanglement of “mere” private citizens in mayhem, malevolence and derring-do. A few spy novels, too, as well as various riffs on international intrigue and the murky misdeeds of corporations and governments.

Here we must add “political” into the mix. Again, Wikipedia has a suggestion: The “political thriller” is one “in which the hero must ensure the stability of the government that employs him.”

Surely not! As often as not, the government “that employs him” is as suspect as any other government or power centre. In fact, my kind of political thrillers retain a healthy skepticism about power and motivation, even when they don’t name the system that structures many such sordid realities as “capitalism.”

True, many thrillers are very skeptical about prevailing social conventions and structures. But even these can only go so far. After all, in the North Atlantic world, it’s one thing to expose the abuses of power, but quite another to create a vibrant, if contested, counter-hegemonic alternative around which plots and intrigues might swirl. The fact is that there aren’t too many alternatives out there upon which to peg and examine a full-blown (socialist?) solution – and spin a mystery, too.

No, even if we scrupulously avoid thrillers of the Right – the William F. Buckleys and the William Haggards – our enjoyment must often be compromised by political qualms. Within limits and when “the game’s afoot,” I don’t let it bother me.

Nonetheless, the quantum of left political thrillerdom that actually exists, though it remains more effective at exploring the compromised nature of power than at exemplifying the alternatives, may still be well worth contemplating.

The Left Political Thriller

Thriller writers have taken less for granted as the years have passed: the psychology tends to deepen and fewer social “certainties” can be assumed. Even as he wrote, the great pre-World War II innovator in the field, Francis Iles, saw the crime story developing into a novel with a detective or a crime interest: “The puzzle element will no doubt remain, but it will become a puzzle of character, rather than a puzzle of time, place, motive and opportunity.”

In the works of thoughtful authors, the claims made on behalf of “law and order” also became more doubtful than than before; already, Hammett (The Glass Key) and Chandler, while spinning yarns with lots of entertaining by-play, indicated that the broader social order itself didn’t smell quite right.

Indeed, the celebrated Marxist economist Ernest Mandel was probably correct to note, in his Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story, that “the history of the crime story is intertwined with the history of bourgeois society itself.” For the latter history is inevitably about property and its negation (in other words, crime), and about a society that “breeds crime, originates in crime and leads to crime” – in short, “a criminal society.”

To illustrate: One often hears the holy trinity of hard-boiled detection evoked: Spade, Marlow and Archer. And, truth to tell, Ross Macdonald, author of the Archer mysteries, is one of my favourites. “Best Canadian,” for starters (though born in the U.S.), he grew up and came to university here before returning via Michigan and the U.S. Navy to California, there to write more than his fair share of “keepers”: The Galton Case, The Chill, The Goodbye Look… I could go on. So, make that “Best Canadian” with an asterisk; perhaps the accolade itself should go to his wife, Margaret Millar – actually born, bred and educated here, although she, too, settled in sunny Cal – and a fellow thriller writer of great quality: Stranger in My Grave, Beast in View, Beyond this Point Are Monsters.

But in today’s world of globalized thriller writing, such national chauvinism may not matter. After all, they’re coming at us from all sides: Scandanavia, Italy, Japan, Latin America, Spain, South Africa – and many of them very good, indeed. More important here, as regards Macdonald, is perhaps a different question; for, aside from sheer enjoyment, what are we lefties to make of his brilliant oeuvre?

In A Long Way from Solving That One, his study examining Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer tales, Jeffrey Mahan concludes that “an important element in the conservatism of the hard-boiled detective story is its affirmation of individualism…. The moral and psychological focus of the tale is on the implications of the choices that the individual makes in living in a less than ideal world. The individualistic ethic makes difficult if not impossible the compromises that might lead to coalitions for significant social change.” A certain amount of our enjoyment even of Ross Macdonald has to be tempered by the curse of our radical consciousness. Macdonald doesn’t dig quite deeply enough into the full range of knotted contradictions that hold the U.S. together, but he is even less able to suggest what might be necessary in order to confront them.

But damn it all, I do like his books!

Perhaps it’s Swedes Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö who come closest to what we’d like to see: excellent police procedurals in which even the policemen begin to become disillusioned with the Western social order. Their ten books do not allow Sweden’s less-than-savoury realities to pass by unscathed. By the end of the series, in fact, one of the most sympathetic of the cops can’t hack it any more: Kollberg resigns the force – this in the tenth and last of the books, The Terrorists, which features a manhunt in the wake of the sobering assassination of an Olaf Palme-style politician.

Flash forward to the final scene of The Terrorists: Martin Beck, the series’ protagonist and a senior officer anchored more firmly in both his job and society than Kollberg, is spending an evening socializing with his old friend. As the book ends, Kollberg tells Beck: “The trouble with you, Martin, is just that you’ve got the wrong job. At the wrong time. In the wrong part of the world. In the wrong system.” Then it’s back to their board game, and the apparently idle chatter about the letter “X” that accompanies it. “X, as in ex-policeman,” Kollberg had “breezily” suggested earlier – “as if they all didn’t know how impossible it was it was to squeeze in one more example out of that hopeless letter.”

Now, Kollberg offers, as he settles in to play: “My turn to start? Then I say X – X as in Marx”!

Globalizing the Thriller

Nothing in the present dramatic efflorescence of Scandinavian crime fiction goes quite as far. Yet, they have refreshingly irreverent views on the people and politics shaped by the Nordic societies they know well; that, for me, is a an attractive plus.

For something more overly political than the current bounty of Nordic talents, you may wish to move south – to Spain, let’s say, and the late Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Not that Montalbán’s own politics were so confident as he turned to thriller writing – following his own jail time for anti-Franco activities and the denouement that followed the Falangist nightmare.

But the numerous books in the series (including, recall, Murder in the Central Committee) are nonetheless refreshing – and his wry P.I., Pepe Carvalho, is clearly a leftie as revealed in his asides, references, jokes and sensibility. Maybe not a particularly hopeful one – bracing, but bruised – we might conclude of Carvalho … and of Montalbán himself.

Elsewhere, an even more jaundiced sensibility of underworld, big business and suspect government provenance, together with lively writing and plotting – it’s about the most one can hope for politically. But so many books are excellent reads, I’m loathe to quibble.

Perhaps predictably, I’d rate Ian Rankin’s John Rebus adventures quite high – not least his later novels: The Naming of the Dead and Exit Lines, for example. Here, high politics begin to intrude into the world of low crime. The lineaments of a sociology of Scotland as a criminal society are firmly in place, if not the politics of how that condition might be transcended.

But there’s also Graham Hurley (and his Joe Faraday) in Portsmouth and Jake Arnott, as well as those Canadian-based expatriates Peter Robinson (think: Yorkshire’s Inspector Ian Banks) and John Brady, of Matt Minogue fame. Add the old reliable Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Val McDermid and a host of others in both Ireland and the U.K. – along with other expatriate authors, like the Italian Donna Leon and her intriguing policeman, Inspector Guido Brunetti (and his redoubtable wife, Paola), hanging out in Venice together with the late Michael Dibdin and – no doubt – a raft of Italian literary accomplices about whom I don’t know nearly enough.

Then there’s Fred Vargas in France – and Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Walter Mosley (a definite pinko – see his A Red Death), Carol O’Connell, Sara Paretsky, Lee Child, S.P. Rozen and the deeply sour James Ellroy, in the US. And in Canada: Eric Wright, William Deverell, Varda Burstyn, Gilles Blunt, Pat Capponi, Rosemary Aubert. How, I ask you, am I ever to get any real work – or real politics – done?

One could advance around the globe: Qui Xiaolong take us to China, and Akimitsu Takagi and Seicho Matsumoto to Japan, Colin Cotterill to Laos, Gary Disher to Australia, Cheryl Benard to India, and Stan Jones’ Native sleuth to the Chukchi world in Alaska (as Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee once carried us to the American southwest). Plus a host of Latin Americans: from Cuban-born José Carlos Samoza to the Uraguayan Daniel Chavarria, who in crime fiction navigates the callous milieu of that continent’s military dictatorships. And, in Germany, there’s the world of the “new” migrant worker explored in Jakob Arjouni’s Happy Birthday Turk.

Global Intrigue

The spy story offers us more scope – at least in political terms. In war, cold or hot – or in the contemplation of the fate of regimes, rather than the fall-out of particular crimes – one can more easily envisage political change and the complexities and mysteries that surround it. In fact, this seemed easier in the run-up to the Second World War – who, after all, would want to write in favour of Hitler and company? – than in the Cold War, when it was less easy to distinguish clearly the merits of either the Soviets or equally imperial West. Some, like le Carré, of course, managed to ride the ambiguities of that confrontation most entertainingly. Yet, politically one feels more at home in his most recent novels, in which he tellingly exposes the connivance between governments and multinational corporations in stories that also genuinely entertain: The Constant Gardener and The Mission Song – as well as his celebrated 2003 article, “The United States of America Has Gone Mad”!

Small wonder that in the 1930s, amidst all the revealing polarizations of that period, strong writers like Eric Ambler – and perhaps Graham Greene, “slumming” – could entertain mightily, probing the horrors that loomed while also exploring possibilities (especially in Ambler’s pre-war books) that cried out in a world going mad. Small wonder, too, that one of the best of our contemporary thriller writers can still find in the sad world of the 1930s reasons for fictional protagonists to take personal risk and manifest righteousness: Alan Furst, in a glittering series that runs from Night Soldiers to The Foreign Correspondent.

That world, too, gives us Phillip Kerr’s reluctant SS man Bernie Gunther (Berlin Noir and The One from the Other), who in the post-war period unveils the scramble among both the Americans and the Russians to recruit Nazi and Gestapo operatives for their own nefarious Cold War games.

Perhaps espionage is one of the last refuges of a critical thriller of political weight. But not exclusively – and perhaps not forever. For there are other settings where deep-seated political contestation and contradiction can lend edge to crime fiction: South Africa, for example. The apartheid regime spawned the revelatory “thrillers” of James McClure and Wessel Ebersohn. But its subsequent transition from white minority rule to democracy brought startling real-life dramas to the fore, while also promising many gripping future fictions of betrayal and intrigue. The first fruits are interesting enough: Jann Turner’s Southern Cross and Gillian Slovo’s The Betrayal and Red Dust. And can we not expect the grimly anti-climactic nature, full of contradictions, of post-apartheid South Africa to produce ever-more tantalizing political thriller material?

And there are also the grim and intersecting worlds of right-wing Islam and paleolithic Bushian Christian fundamentalism (linked to corporate connivance), a world that is ripe for a “fiction” of bracing cynicism – and, just possibly, a intimation of something better. I’ve mentioned le Carré. Closer to the belly of the beast, I’ve found Daniel Fesperman’s recent novels evolving. Moving beyond the pervading grayness of the Balkans foregrounded in his early thrillers, he has more recently (in The Warlord’s Son) married the blight of feckless local Afghani internecine war-mongering to the fishing in such troubled waters by selfish corporations – and, in The Prisoner of Guantánamo, a convincing and cruel picture of both life behind the barbed wire of Gitmo and the most secret levels of government. No answers to our troubles are presented, but such troubles are revealed to us from new angles – and are revealed as having more than one singularly inhuman face.

I’m here to tell you – no surprise – that we’d better not rely on thriller writers to do our forward-thinking political work for us. But they can help us to envisage more clearly the problems that confront us with some of the realities of our world than we might otherwise do for ourselves. Besides, if you manage to take time off from thinking about and/or making the revolution, many of them are pretty neat. Enjoy!

This article appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Canadian Dimension (Food and Hunger).


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