Friday, 15 December 2023 09:07

Putting the ‘Who Dun It?’ back at the centre of hard-boiled crime fiction

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Putting the ‘Who Dun It?’ back at the centre of hard-boiled crime fiction

In the Anglo world, things generally get lumped together, but in the Francophone world the two kinds of crime fiction are worlds apart. One branch of French crime fiction is called le policier, one branch of which is the ‘police procedural’, another is the ‘police detective’.

This line has links to what in Britain is sometimes called ‘the cozy’ since the detective, eg Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, doesn’t get overly involved in the criminal world and seems to operate safely from their armchair.

The other line though is what the French calls the roman noir, or ‘dark crime’ novel. This is what we call ‘hard-boiled’ fiction which is also taken up by film noir in the 40s – those stories that feature a compromised protagonist trying to somehow survive in a compromised world.

The policier is clearly descended from the Sherlock Holmes line and concentrates on the exposing of the criminal, in most cases a murderer, by the detective, who, quirky as they may be, eventually falls into line and becomes the deductive scientific mind able to see behind the supposedly chaotic clues to determine who really committed the crime.

The problem here is that the emphasis is almost entirely on the process of exposing the evildoer to the point that when they are exposed, and often there is little concentration on the social implications of their crime. It’s a puzzle, not a cultural canvas.  

The roman noir or hard-boiled novel, from Chandler, Hammett, Ross McDonald, Woolrich and others, involves the immersion of the lead figure in the social world that surrounds them, rather than them standing aloof from it and simply evaluating behavior. The lead figure often is not a detective or if he or she is, may be highly compromised and even display criminal traits themselves. 

The French place a premium on this type of tale, concentrating on the atmospherics of the telling. French analysts of crime fiction also downplay the mystery element, arguing that in the roman noir the entire world is guilty, seedy, and corrupt and the solving of the enigma – if there really is one – does little to change it.

The House That Buff Built

I have just finished my fourth novel in the Harry Palmer LA series, titled The House That Buff Built. Each of these novels is a repudiation of this aspect of the French hard-boiled tradition. In my mind and in my books, it does matter who is guilty and yes, the world, especially the world of late ’40s and early ’50s Los Angeles is, as Orson Welles once described it “a bright, guilty place.”

But it’s not a total morass. There are winners and losers in the novels and there is a power structure in each that Harry and his partner Crystal eventually expose, and that governs the sector of the economy each book describes. That may be Hollywood at the time of the blacklist in the first book Left of Eden; the postwar weapons industry in A Hello to Arms; the pharmaceutical industry – sometimes in league with the police – in The Precinct With The Golden Arm; and the real estate industry and the media in the remaking and disenfranchising of major portions of the population in The House That Buff Built.

Harry and Crystal’s dogged pursuit of the truth in each case leads to an exposing of the corruption that underlies and sets the table for the effusion of corruption which engulfs LA society in one of the darkest periods of its history.

Indeed, the second book of the trilogy, following The House That Buff Built, is titled “The Dark Ages.” Besides the real estate industry whose pillaging led the city to its current housing crisis, it examines the full enactment of the blacklist in what Dalton Trumbo called, referring to the overall cowardice of the industry to resist this onslaught, “The Time of the Toad”. And the final entry in the trilogy examines the porn industry at the moment when it was being taken out of the grubby and dirty hands of the mob and placed under corporate protection, on its way to becoming a big moneymaker.  

The overall point though is that in the roman noir it does matter “who dun it.” Sometimes in crime novels, series and films, instead of carrying the crime to its logical conclusion, what we get is a last-minute sleight of hand that shifts responsibility from the actual guilty party to a more random suspect for the point of surprise and shock, with the social import then displaced or thwarted.

That happens in Anglo hard-boiled fiction, but in Continental hard-boiled fiction, where plot is less crucial, at times the morass is everything. The lead figure is simply lucky to survive and there is no one power figure behind an amorphous and scattered corrupt enterprise.

That, of course, is often the way people feel these days where it seems that leadership in the West is so obviously separated from its constituents and where the world seems to be nothing but a massive sea of corruption as inequality continues to rise faster and faster.

Nevertheless, there are agents behind these changes, and I feel it is important to identify who these agents are and what is the nature of their (often corporate) villainy. As in the best noirs –including films such as Chinatown – the personal life of the culprit also bears the marks of their public malfeasance, and it is in my mind important to point out not only the similarities between pubic and personal crime but also the gap between who they say they are and how their actions describe who they are in reality.

Another film example of this combination of public and personal evil is the ending of Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon where the character finally betrays his last ounce of integrity and reveals himself incapable of redemption on both the social (or economic) and personal planes.

I would argue then against the French interpretation, and the way that perhaps the standard crime novel and film engages with the genre, that although the world is a place of seedy and generalized corruption,  corruption has an origin, a central spoke from which evil radiates. It is important to identify that origin and not give in to the idea that it is so vast and so widespread that it can, far from being contained or halted, hardly even be recognized.

The House That Buff Built, is the latest Harry Palmer/Crystal Eckart Mystery and Part 1 of “The Dark Ages,” an LA Trilogy.

Read 1251 times Last modified on Friday, 15 December 2023 13:40
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is the author of The House That Buff Built, the upcoming fourth volume in the Harry Palmer mystery trilogy whose subject is homelessness and the real estate industry, racial prejudice against the Chinese in Los Angeles, and the power of major media to set the development agenda.