RARA-AVIS: Politics, schmolitics...

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 14 Jul 2003

miker wrote:

>Hector is a Mexico City private detective. Taibo works hard on evoking the
>city but I think his Proletariat-colored glasses hinders him. Instead of
>the city, you feel his politics. The characters are eccentric, funny,
>interesting, and believable.

Ah, but politics can be as much of a city's life (or a character's make-up) as its streets and cafes. Montreal, for example, is a place where people know and discuss and argue politics (and everything else) incessantly, not just Quebec, or Canadian politics, but international politics as well. Maybe Mexico City is like that as well.

You ask me, far too much crime fiction pretends politics doesn't exist at all, that it has no effect on any of us. So it becomes apolitical (or more precisely, politically bland), as though the mere thought that someone somewhere may take exception or actually disagree with an opinion is a bad thing. So much crime fiction sticks to the warm, comfy middle of the road, a safe distance from those nasty questions that lie in wait in the ditches.

Fortunately, there's a small but strong counter-current to this trend who do stick their necks out, desperadoes who head for the ditch and take chances, daring to speak out and raise hard questions to which there may be no easy answers. These are the crime writers who seem to go over well and be taken a little more seriously abroad. It's like an edgy secret signal that only some pick up, that slides across borders. And most of these writers tend to be from the hard-boiled side of the genre.

Perhaps it's because the genre tends to move so easily through all layers of society, but of all the sub-genres of mystery, I would say hard-boiled detective fiction is possibly (or at least has the greatest potential to be) the most political of them all. Cozies and amateur sleuth mysteries (particularly those labelled as
"traditional") tend to closed worlds, and spy fiction and thrillers too often reduce politics to the cartoon level. But hard-boiled detective fiction, with its dysfunctional dicks wandering and stumbling around in the real world annoying people, seems perfectly suited to asking those rude questions. From Hector's
"Proletariat-colored glasses" and Parestsky's prickly paranoia to Mike Hammer's bloodthirsty rants and Marlowe's moral quest through a ravaged landscape -- it's all politics.

Thinking back on some of my favourite hard-boiled authors, I can see a trend -- most of them do deal with politics in one way or another
-- sometimes overtly, and sometimes in far more subtle ways. I don't always agree with the politics, but they do offer the reader a little more food for thought than simply answering the burning question of who killed Thursby.

So, some of my favourite "political" crime authors, just off the top of my head:

Raymond Chandler Ross Macdonald Joseph Hansen Michael Collins Sara Paretsky Thomas B. Dewey James Ellroy Paco Taibo George Pelecanos John Shannon John D. MacDonald Gary Phillips Manuel Vasquez Montalban Walter Mosley Jerome Doolittle Gordon DeMarco Gar Haywood

(What am I going on about? I'm not quite sure, but I think I may be close to something... though maybe it's just a pile of manure...)


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