David
Housewright

 

Crime and the Crime Writer

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When Alvin "Creepy" Karpis and the Barker boys kidnapped brewery heir William Hamm in 1933 in St. Paul, Minnesota (my home town), $25,000 of the $100,000 ransom went to "Big Tom" Brown, the city's chief of police. No one knows how much he took off the top of the $200,000 the Karpis-Barker gang received for snatching banker Edward Bremer a short time later. We do know that Brown was never prosecuted for any of the innumerable crimes he committed during his years in "law enforcement."

Which is precisely why the hard-boiled detective novel was created.

Whenever we run low on heroes in real life, we look for them in fiction and during those violent years between the two world wars, man, were we running low on heroes. This was the era of Al Capone, bathtub gin and the Thompson submachine gun; when police and politicians were as corrupt as the gangsters they protected. Even in squeaky-clean St. Paul - I wrote a book about it called Jelly's Gold, in case you're looking for something to read.

I bring it up because of an older gentleman I recently encountered while doing a presentation at The Historic Inn in Hastings, MN. He was not only a fan of the private eye novel, he was a historian and he believed that detective fiction not only reflects society as it exists when it is written, it actually strives to right its wrongs.

He pointed out, for example, that the twenties and thirties in our country were marked by cynicism, bitterness, disillusionment and anger - lots and lots of anger - as citizens fought to survive the evils of Prohibition and the economic disaster that was the Great Depression. The hard-boiled PI, starting with Carroll John Daly's Terry Mack in Three Gun Terry in 1923 (so named because he carried twin .45s and an over-and-under Derringer in case of emergencies), helped us deal with it.

These were not the calm, calculating sleuths of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins and Philo Vance or the eccentric amateurs of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayer and Ellery Queen. No, no, no - these guys were tough, street-smart, wisecracking, gun-toting urban vigilantes who gave readers what they seldom saw in their day-to-day lives - justice - more often than not from the muzzle of a firearm.

Three Gun Terry had a simple philosophy: "I have a regular charge. Fifty dollars a day and five hundred when I deliver the goods; also I am willing to take all sorts of chances, but if I get pinched, it's up to you to hire the best lawyer that money can buy - also, I get thirty dollars a day for every day I spend in jail. And for every man I croak - mind you, I ain't a killler, but sometimes a chap's got to turn a gun - I get two hundred dollars flat. It ain't that I don't count this as part of my services, but there's a certain nervous shock to it - and besides, they're your enemies and should be cheap at that price. Also, your game must be strictly honest - I ain't no crook." Readers loved him and his contemporaries like the Continental-Op (Dashiell Hammett) and the Phantom Crook (Erle Stanley Gardner).

The hard-boiled boys also gave readers something else that was sorely lacking in those days - as well as these - personal honor. Daly's Race Williams "never bumped off a guy who didn't need it;" Hammett's Sam Spade claimed that a detective had to "do something" when his partner was murdered; Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe was downright chivalrous.

Meanwhile, across the pond, writers of detective fiction were giving their readers what they longed for - the comfort of a class system that was smashed all to hell in the trenches of France. The majority of the characters that appeared in their novels were upper class - there was no Depression in these books - and they took place where the riff-raff of humanity was unlikely to intrude. The most telling example might be Christie's seminal Murder on the Orient Express.

Who were the "heroes?" A Russian princess, an East-European count and countess, an English colonel and valet, a Swedish missionary, a German maid, an English governess, an Italian car salesman, and a Belgian detective. Who was the bad guy? An American. I don't think that was an accident.

Christie and the other "golden age" detective writers were all resurrecting the simpler, more gentile; more comfortable days before World War I; before America came into its own. Because that's what their readers wanted.

(If you examine the evolution of the mystery novel more closely, you'll notice that the police procedural didn't begin to flourish until readers began to trust their institutions after WWII and the spy novel didn't break out until the Cold War, when readers needed a new kind of hero to protect their interests.)

The point is that I whole-heartily agree with my gentleman fan. We're not only writing detective fiction that entertains, that examines with the issues of the days, that sometimes even contains recipes, we're reflecting the world in which we live as well as the demands of our readers.

We're writing history.


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