Reading The Detectives: Escapism or Social Criticism?
What have detective novels got to do with class struggle and revolution? Isn’t reading and writing a distraction from the “real” issues? Does it matter what we read when we sit down and relax after a hard day on the barricades? Aren’t all detective novels just another form of bourgeois escapism, with macho heroes defending the political status quo and capitalist property relations?
Of course reading novels can be just another form of escapism and we all need to escape from the pervasiveness of capitalism as it seeps into every aspect of our live, but there can be more to the detective novel than the blood and guts of commercial sensationalism.
In spite of the commercial success of the detective novel in the twentieth century its origins lie in social criticism. The first detective novel, Caleb Williams, published in 1794, was written by the anarchist writer William Godwin. Godwin used the account of a murder and its detection by Caleb Williams, a clerk who is the book’s hero, to present a radical critique of a despotic society in which the law functioned as just another weapon in the arsenal of the ruling class.
Caleb, is a clerk in the service of Falkland, an aristocrat, when he accidentally discovers that Falkland has committed a murder for which an innocent man was executed. Although Caleb does not intend to reveal his master’s crime Falkland has him imprisoned on false charges. Caleb escapes but Falkland relentlessly tracks him down. Eventually, as an act of self-preservation, Caleb tells the truth and Falkland is forced to confess. Even after Falkland’s death Caleb Williams is filled with self-reproach and remorse for his own actions, arguing that Falkland had been the product of a corrupt social system, and regretting his own role in the death of the aristocrat.
Caleb Williams contains all the classic elements of the modern detective novel but it is underpinned by a serious indictment of social injustice and a corrupt legal system. The murder and the criminal are both products of the system.
Through the means of commodity production, capitalism absorbs and controls what the state cannot ban and repress. Drawing on the new for its novelty value and on the radical for its popularity, capitalism drains ideas of their revolutionary content by transforming them into commodities. As commodities they become subordinated to the rules of capital produced by those with money and control over the means of production.
It was in just this way that the new, socially critical novel was subverted by capitalism and drained of its radical content. The detective novel became a vehicle for maintaining the status quo with the central characters solving the mystery in order to preserve the social order. While Caleb Williams exposed the social system by unmasking the criminal, after Edgar Allen Poe, the solution to the mystery ensured that the survival of that system.
The Sherlock Holmes short stories are classic examples. Whereas Godwin used the detective novel to explain how society functioned and economic, political and legal systems operate under the surface (Caleb Williams was originally called "Things as They Are"), Conan Doyle provides readers with a mystery as an intellectual puzzle.
Doyle established the modern characteristics of the detective story in keeping with the mood of scientific enquiry of his time, but Sherlock Holmes, the detective enigma, was a man alone and outside normal society, a Nietzschean superman whose abilities enabled him to solve the mystery when the forces of law and order had failed. Holmes was the “expert” par excellence, a harbinger of the experts who control our lives now - since Holmes existed to safeguard the ruling class, not to destroy it.
Agatha Christie’s whodunits provide a further subtle twist towards defending the social order. Whereas Holmes protected individual members of the ruling class, Christie’s novels and detectives defend a whole way of life - that of upper class Britain. The threat comes from outsiders, especially the “lower orders”, and the murderer is frequently someone who does not know their place, or resents it. Christie’s real innovation was to make an ordinary “little old lady”, Miss Marple, the person who solves the crime, not the experts.
During this period when the reactionary form of the detective novel held sway, there was one revolutionary attempt to transform the detective story into a vehicle for social criticism. This was Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial (which is not normally recognised as belonging to the detective genre at all).
Kafka’s main character ‘K’ is accused by a mysterious legal authority of an unnamed crime of which he knows nothing. The novel deals with K’s fruitless attempts to obtain justice from an arbitrary and absolute authority with which he cannot even communicate effectively, and culminates in his utter frustration, his complete loss of human dignity and his death like a dog.
Kafka fuses detective and accused into a single character - and demonstrates that power, bureaucracy and authority exist for their own sake. K has not committed any crime - indeed the crime of which he was accused is never specified. Kafka’s central concern is with the arbitrary nature of authority and its irrationality. The Trial is a devastating indictment of power - unsurprising given Kafka’s involvement with the Czech anarchist movement during his short adult life. Kafka’s attempt to radicalise the detective story was isolated in a Europe divided by war and revolution and by his early death from TB.
The next major attempt to bring the detective novel back to its function of social criticism was made by a group of writers based around the American crime magazine Black Mask.
The most prolific of these was Erle Stanley Gardner, who became one of the most successful writers of crime detection in the history of U.S. literature, creating the unforgettable lawyer, Perry Mason. Gardner pared down the detective story to a few essential elements - dialogue, action and plot - so successfully that some aspects of his plots were subsequently copied by Raymond Chandler for Farewell My Lovely, which was loosely based on Gardner’s Case of the Dangerous Dowager.
The early Perry Mason novels have a radical edge, with Mason defending the underdog against injustice and a frequently corrupt police force, just as Gardner had as a young lawyer.
One of Gardner’s contemporaries on Black Mask was Dashiell Hammett. Hammett was at one time an employee of the Pinkerton detective agency which created the prototype for the private detective in the 1850s. Pinkerton’s agency was notorious for its earlier strike-breaking activities which included shooting workers. Hammett’s experience at Pinkerton’s gave him an insight into the true nature of society and transformed him into a communist. Drawing on his background in the Agency, Hammett wrote a series of detective novels culminating in the famous Red Harvest, which is a thinly veiled allegory of capitalist corruption and the ultimate social revolution. This novel is less well known than his later books , The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, in which Hammett created a whole new sub-genre of the “hard-boiled” detective.
Hammett assembled the elements that marked a fundamental shift in the modern detective novel, which were perfected by Raymond Chandler. chandler refined the use of language that Hammett had developed (and which both borrowed from Scott Fitzgerald). Dislocating words and images from their normal context provided them with a razor sharpness, they created a style and language admired by both Sartre and Camus - and which (as Ken Worpole has demonstrated in an underrated but important book Dockers and Detectives) influenced a whole generation of working class writers in Britain, including James Hanley and the less well-known anarchist writer Jim Phelan.
The background to Hammett and Chandler’s writing was prohibition. Prohibition had transformed crime in the U.S. blurring the distinctions between different types of crime, and altering its scale and transforming the petty corruption within the police and the judiciary into an institutionalised corruption.
It was the shallow ineffectiveness fo the traditional detective novel in the face of criminal capitalism that Chandler attacked in his celebrated essay “The Simple Art of Murder” . Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlow, is a catalyst for exposing this institutionalised corruption. His patrons are the rich and the powerful, but they are as corrupt as the criminals they frequently employ or socialise with.
Chandler’s methods were taken further by Canadian born Ross MacDonald, who succeeded in writing detective novels that are a powerful indictment of modern capitalism. There are conscious echoes of Hammett, Chandler and Fitzgerald’s use of language (acknowledged in Macdonald’s autobiography Ceaselessly Into the Past, which takes its title in a line from Fitzgerald), but what makes them effective as social criticism is the way an individual character’s behaviour is linked to social causes and shaped by them.
MacDonald frequently links the social and psychological damage done by war to criminal events which take place much later on, illustrating the effects of militarism through succeeding generations. Young people are frequently portrayed as on a knife-edge between honesty and crime, hope and despair, illuminating the young generation on which MacDonald placed hope for social change. MacDonald often links this social alienation to environmental destruction so that his novels work on several levels at once. The Underground Man does this effectively - throughout the book a forest fire threatens Los Angeles’ suburbs, and MacDonald’s hero, Lew Archer, investigates a murder and disappearance against its background. Ecological disaster threatens from without while the emptiness and alienation of the rich corrode society within. MacDonald connects the two with the revelation that the fire had been started by the murder which triggered his investigation. The central message of Macdonald’s work is that the way we treat people and the environment has consequences.
Since MacDonald the “hard-boiled” style has become almost a cult, although this often owes more to the firm noir portrayal of Chandler’s work and its imitations. It has in turn become a vehicle for writings that reflect the emergence of new social movements. Women novelists like Sarah Paretsky have translated the “hard-boiled” style to create strong independent female detectives like P.I. Warszawski. Paretsky’s characterisation is ultimately unsatisfying in that her heroine owes just as much to the Cosmopolitan school of liberation, and her work bears little comparison to the more incisive political background of Gillian Slovo’s novels with their sax-playing female detective.
One of the most overtly political crime novels of recent years has come from France - Murder in Memoriam by the libertarian socialist Didier Daeninckx. Like MacDonald Daeninckx links individual crimes to social crimes. A murder which is committed during a Paris demonstration in 1961 during which hundreds of Algerians are killed by police is followed twenty years later by the murder of the victim’s son. The solution to the murder links the police massacre of Algerians to the wartime deportation of jews to German death camps and the murders inended to ensure the cover-up of the connections.
Detective novels are not just escapism, but a mirror of society. Just as the detective reveals social, political and economic causes of crimes, so the radical seeks to reveal the social, economic and criminal nature of the political system. Reading won’t change the world, but it can strengthen us in the struggle for a better future.
This essay first appeared in issue 28 of Organise! and was reprinted in the first issue of the Alternative Press Review, Fall 1993. It is reprinted here with some minor changes.