An Idle Word: A column
by BILL CUNNINGHAM
To pick up where I left off last week, I was delighted to see last week’s issue of Newsweek with a major section devoted to America’s obsession with crime—both true and fictional.
As anyone who has read any of my meanderings or interviews in various periodicals, it is my belief that modern crime fiction can portray important social issues in a manner that enlightens the reader while still entertaining.
Actually, having just re-read Dash ell Hammett’s first novel,” Red Harvest” somewhat based on his real life experiences as an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency (often a euphemism in those days for quelling labor unrest and strikebreaking), this quality can be traced to the origins of modern American crime writing. But the image of “bottles, blondes and brass knucks” popularized a less socially conscious image of the genre.
Nowhere is the elevation of modern crime writing more evident than in the works of Walter Mosley, who wrote the introductory essay, “An American Obsession” for Newsweek
Mosley’s chronicles of Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins follow his character—an African-American from east Texas who was part of the post World War II immigration of blacks to the north and the West Coast.
The series starts in the late 1940’s, when the Texas bred aircraft plant worker and community leader is hired by a gangster to serve as an investigator in locating his missing girlfriend, a white woman who enjoys the pleasures of the Darktown nightspots.
But throughout the 10-book series spanning three decades, Mosley uses his lead character as a template to chart the African-American experience in modern urban America.
Even after his stint as a “P.I.”,” Rawlins’ status in the community—he invests his earnings wisely in real estate—often lead the police to his door to seek his help in resolving community crimes and issues and lead him through the Red-baiting 1950’s (often aimed at civil rights activists) and into the flower power and Watts Riots of the 1960’.
Rawlins’ world of change in Los Angeles is similar to that depicted by George Pelecanos in his novels of Washington D.C.—not the Washington of the Smithsonian or any tourist spots—but the mean streets of its majority of African American (and given the author’s surname, descendents of Greek immigrants).
Some of Pelecanos’ works involve traditional law enforcement protagonist such as former cop turned P.I. Derek Strange or the retired police investigator of his masterpiece, “The Night Gardener,” trying to solve a long cold case.
But my favorites are the books in the series, I’m reading now of his earlier works involving Marcus Clay, a D.C. native struggling through operating a record store and expanding it to several outlets in the 1970’s and 1980’s (when crack came to town). Throughout, Clay is determined to make his hometown livable as much of the city decays about him, rehabilitating friends such as Dmitri Karras, cocaine dealer turned manager for the record store entrepreneur, and a host of characters that are saved from unsavory associations.
Pelecanos’ works are reminiscent of the late, great series “The Wire,” not surprising since he was one of the contributing writers for that epic of urban decay.
A revelation for me came in 1970 when I was midst of reading Spenser novels and a host of other traditional private eyes. I had picked up a new novel entitled “Fadeout” by Joseph Hansen, about the ace investigator for a large California insurance firm.
Investigating a death claim in which a local country singing celebrity had died when his car was washed into an arroyo, Dave Brandstetter had one major problem — no body.
Beginning his investigation with the beneficiary widow and local law enforcement, Dave Brandstetter seemed typical of the modern detective of that era.
It was just when he went back to his motel, mixed a drink and began mourning the recent death of his live-in lover, Rod, that I realized this was a detective with a difference.
There had been earlier books written with gay detectives but they were more in the line of spoofs with the usual stereotypes. Dave Brandstetter was something completely different—a fully realized character and a dogged detective, who just happened to be gay. And his lifestyle and love life (while not explicit) were part of his character just as with his heterosexual brethren.
He had plenty of job security though as the CEO of the insurance agency was his own, oft married father who seemed comfortable with his son’s sexuality (not to mention his success as an investigator for the firm).
Over the course of a dozen books, Brandstetter handled cases related to gay issues such as repressed homosexuality, gay bashing and, and, ultimately, AIDS, as well as traditional cases.
While never a homophobe, I was still a child of postwar Texas and learned more from Dave Brandstetter about the realities of being gay in America than any “sensitivity course” could possibly do and he became one of my favorite literary characters.
Unfortunately, Hansen, himself a gay man, decided to move out of the mystery genre and into mainstream novels. He did so, by doing something Conan Doyle couldn’t accomplish—killing off his meal ticket.
At the conclusion of the aptly titled “A Country of Old Men: The Last Dave Brandstetter Novel,” the nearly-70-year old detective solved the crime and promptly dropped dead from a heart attack. Several serious crime novels now feature gay men and women protagonists, the literary children of Dave Brandstetter.
Sarah Paretsky’s novels of female private detective V.I. Warshawski often lead to the corporate boardrooms of Chicago and white-collar crime and did so even before it became the stuff of front-page news. And her best novel, 2003’s “Blacklisted” traced the murder of an investigative reporter back to the excesses of the McCarthy era and forward into the darker aspects of the so-called “Patriot Act.”
Through his fictional alter-ego, the singularly named “private avenger” Burke, child advocacy lawyer Andrew Vachss has explored the dark world of child predators and helped lead the battle against the governments which promote it.
And of course, the great James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels of Cajun Louisiana frequently center on long-buried racial injustices of the past. No book—including non-fiction—better illuminates the national shame that was Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath than Burke’s “The Tin Roof Blow Down.”
Yes, there are still plenty of crime/mystery novels that are good for cheap thrills but as Walter Mosley points out in Newsweek, the best can provoke more insight about current affairs and modern issues than many studious tomes.
As to myself, tonight I’ll be re-reading Raymond Chandler’s final and best novel, “The Long Goodbye” with it theme that will unfortunately always be with us—the betrayal of friendship.