Capitalism and the Hard-boiled Crime Novel
By William E. Wallace
It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollar
-- Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939).
The protagonists in hardboiled crime stories seem to have a love-hate relationship with capitalism.
Whether it’s Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op turning the mining metropolis of Personville upside down against the wishes of the corrupt millionaire who built it, or Steig Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander using her hacking talents to destroy a crooked multinational corporate executive (after first siphoning much of his ill-gained loot into her own unnumbered bank account), the relationship between private eyes and the one percent is often troubled. This is particularly true when the former is employed by the latter, which is almost always the case.
Sometimes the anti-capitalist slant of hardboiled tales is clear. Walter Mosley’s private eye Leonid McGill is the son of a self-styled revolutionist he describes as a “crackpot Communist.” His first-person narration often lingers on the relationship between the rich and the poor.
In The High Window (1942), Philip Marlowe has an encounter with a security guard who briefly prevents him from entering the grounds of an exclusive enclave. In the ensuing conversation, Marlowe assesses the security man as a proletarian and wins his support by pointedly suggesting his own sympathy with the communist party.
I looked at the gun strapped to his hip, the special badge pinned to his shirt. “And they call this a democracy,” I said.
He looked behind him and then spat on the ground and put a hand on the sill of the car door. “Maybe you got company,” he said. “I knew a fellow belonged to the John Reed Club. Over in Boyle Heights, it was.”
“Tovarich,” I said.
“The trouble with revolutions,” he said, “is that they get in the hands of the wrong people.”
“Check,” I said.
“On the other hand,” he said, “could they be any wronger than the bunch of rich phonies that live around here?”
But even when the author doesn’t make his attitude as obvious as it is in these two examples, there is often a distinctively left-wing slant to the hardboiled crime story. For example, in Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target (1949), private eye Lew Archer is told by the daughter of the missing millionaire he is looking for that the man is a classic heartless exploiter of the powerless:
He started out with nothing, you know. His father was a tenant farmer who never had land of his own. I can understand why Ralph spent his life acquiring land. But you’d think he’d be more sympathetic to poor people, because he was poor himself. The strikers on [his] ranch, for instance. Their living conditions are awful and their wages aren’t decent, but Ralph won’t admit it. He’s been doing everything he can to starve them out and break the strike. He can’t seem to see that the Mexican field-workers are people.
As it turns out, the millionaire father is not just exploiting the migrant workers on his own property – he is in business with Los Angeles organized crime figures, illegally smuggling cheap labor across the border from Mexico as a profitable sideline.
Walter Mosley spends more time thinking about the relationships between men and women and African-Americans and whites in his novels about Easy Rawlins, a black gumshoe who works the ghetto of South Central Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s. But even Rawlins, who is more black than red, occasionally comments on the fixed game capitalism runs for the ninety-nine percent.
After a terse showdown with a racist guard in Blonde Faith (2007), Rawlins’s apparent swan song as a Mosley protagonist, Rawlins finds himself temporarily alone with him.
“I wanted to say to the little white man, ‘Listen, brother, we’re not enemies.’ ” Rawlins thinks. “ ‘I just want to go up in an elevator like anybody else. You don’t need to worry about me. It’s the men that own this building that are making you poor and uneducated and angry.’ ”
And so it goes. Other examples are legion:
* The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett (1931) features as one of its main villains Paul Madvig, a construction tycoon who uses his money to corrupt and dominate Baltimore, Maryland political circles. The other key nogoodnik: Sen. Henry, a crooked Maryland pol who is a central figure in the murder that drives the action.
* This Gun for Hire by Graham Green (the 1942 film set in San Francisco and Los Angeles and directed by Frank Tuttle, not Greene’s original novel, A Gun for Sale (1936), which unfolds in Europe and Great Britain. Raven, a professional assassin, is hired by an industrialist to kill a man in San Francisco and steal the man’s formula for a deadly gas. When he is double-crossed by being paid in counterfeit bills, he travels to Los Angeles to confront and eventually kill his employer, the head of a chemical company who intends to sell the formula to the Axis.
* The so-called Millennium trilogy by Steig Larsson (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), in which virtually all the villains are either crooked capitalist schemers or government officials engaged in acts of corruption.
In part, the clash of gumshoes with the super-wealthy can’t be helped. In the typical hard-boiled thriller, the detective is an independent contractor who depends on his client to pay his fees and expenses, even when the money appears to be tainted.
In the Maltese Falcon (1931), for example, Sam Spade and Miles Archer take a $200 retainer from “Miss Wonderly” at the beginning of the novel, an amount so large they know she is lying about what she expects them to do for it.
In a novel set in 1967, Easy Rawlins charges a set rate of $300 a week. Lew Archer gets $100 a day and expenses for his services in several of Ross MacDonald’s excellent Southern California-based crime novels set in the period 1949-1973. Leonid McGill, a 21st Century Mosley character who operates in New York, charges $100 an hour in When the Thrill is Gone (2011).
Although some of these sleuths charge bargain basement rates, few take blue collar cases. In Farewell, My Lovely (1940), for example, Marlowe is getting $25 a day to trace a Los Angeles barber who left his wife when he meets ex-convict Moose Malloy, setting the novel’s real plot in action. It is one of the few times a reader runs into a detective who is working for one of the 99 percent.
Not surprisingly, Marlowe walks away from this pedestrian missing person’s case as soon as serious money becomes available, first working for a genteel blackmailer who is trying to recover a valuable stolen necklace and then, after the blackmailer is murdered, for the wife of a millionaire who is trying to conceal her shady past. He doesn't walk out on his working class client because of the money though: he hasn't been paid yet; instead, he leaves because the other cases offer the challenge of real evildoers, not a domestic runaway.
It’s not that hardboiled authors believe the rich have problems more worthy of their detectives’ cynical attention; it’s just that their problems are more complicated and usually a good deal more interesting. Plus, the rich have the money to hire them.
Because when you depend on others for your pay, you tend to hire out to the highest bidder. In most hardboiled crime stories, private detectives are fated to work for the super rich. The reason is simple: to paraphrase the answer bank robber Willie Sutton supposedly gave when asked why he robbed banks, “They’re where the money is.”
Money seems to meander through much of the hardboiled genre, twisting and turning like a polluted river. It provides the motivation for many of the crimes, an instrument for concealing them and bait for those who try to take monetary advantage of knowing about them. In scene after scene, we are exposed to hyperbolic descriptions of the lifestyles of the rich and shameless.
Here’s Ross MacDonald again in The Moving Target:
The scrub oak gave place to ordered palms and Monterey cypress hedges. I caught glimpses of lawns effervescent with sprinklers, deep white porches, roofs of red tile and green copper. A Rolls with a doll at the wheel went by us like a gust of wind and I felt unreal.
The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money. Even the sea looked precious through it, a solid wedge held in the canyon’s mouth, bright blue and polished like a stone. Private property: color guaranteed fast; will not shrink egos. I had never seen the Pacific look so small.
Raymond Chandler works a comparable vein in Farewell, My Lovely when he describes the home of Lewin Grayle, “worth about twenty million [who] used to own a radio station in Beverly Hills.”
He describes grounds that consist of a sunken garden “with a fountain at each of four corners,” various pieces of outdoor statuary, a reflecting pool, rose colonnade and a wild area “built to look like a ruin. And there were flowers. There were a million flowers.”
“The house itself was not so much,” he continues with mocking deprecation. “It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building.”
Similarly, in The High Window (1942), a novel adapted in part from Chandler’s short story, “The Brasher Doubloon,” Marlowe deftly describes the upper crust Pasadena home of Elizabeth Bright Murdock, the woman that hires him to recover a coin stolen from her millionaire husband’s collection: “From the front wall and its attendant flowering bushes a half acre or so of fine green lawn drifted in a gentle slope down to the street, passing on the way an enormous deodar around which it flowed like a cool green tide around a rock.”
In contrast, further on Marlowe describes a run-down area near central L.A. where he plans to meet an informant: “Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town . Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city . . . [The former Victorian mansions] are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish, and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt.”
In and around the old houses there are flyblown restaurants and Italian fruit stands and cheap apartment houses and little candy stores where you can buy even nastier things than candy. And there are ratty hotels were nobody except people named Smith and Jones sign the register and were the night clerk is half watchdog and half pander.
Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that conceals the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while, even men that actually go to work. But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them.
If the haunts of the super rich exude the scent, feel and color of money in the hardboiled crime novel, “the love of possession,” in the words of Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, “is a disease in them.” It colors the characters’ actions and poisons their minds.
Owen Fitzstephan, the villain in Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse (1929) is so consumed by his desire for the money controlled by Gabrielle Leggett, the heiress to the Dain fortune, that it drives him homicidally insane. The High Window’s Elizabeth Murdock not only kills to seize her husband’s sizeable fortune, but then virtually enslaves his impressionable young secretary by brainwashing her into believing she was responsible for the death. And greed leads Albert Graves, an otherwise honorable former prosecutor, to kill Ralph Sampson, his millionaire client in MacDonald’s The Moving Target (1949).
“He [Graves] did it for money,” Private Detective Archer tells Sampson’s daughter toward the end of the book.
“But he’s never cared for money. It’s one of the things I admired in him.”
“There may have been a time when Graves didn’t care about money. There may be places where he could have stayed that way. Santa Teresa isn’t one of them. Money is lifeblood in this town. If you don’t have it, you’re only half alive. . . He realized that he wanted money more than anything else on earth.”
Indeed, money is the root of most evil in the hardboiled thriller. It twists the innocent and makes the guilty even more so.
“Money flowed through the state capital like an alluvial river and the Hacienda Inn was one of the places where the golden silt was deposited,” Archer says of a Sacramento watering hole in The Wycherly Woman (1961). In the hotel’s cocktail lounge a bit later, Archer spots “two men who looked like a legislator and a lobbyist sitting on either side of a redhead who looked like a bribe.”
Corruption is described as a tool of capitalism in many other hardboiled thrillers. In MacDonald’s The Barbarous Coast (1956), a friend who is a former district attorney angrily admits to Archer that Carl Stern, a gangster involved in narcotics, murder and illegal bookmaking, is essentially untouchable because he bribed cops and politicians to leave him alone.
“Our operation is essentially a prosecuting agency,” Peter Colton, the ex-DA, tells Archer. “We work with what the cops bring in to us. Carl Stern was using cops for bodyguards. The politicians that hire and fire the cops went on fishing trips with him to Acapulco.”
Colton informs the private eye that Stern is opening a casino in Nevada, using a Hollywood film producer as a straw man because his own criminal connections make getting a gaming license impossible. In other words, the super-capitalist gangster has enlisted a garden variety capitalist to be his beard.
“They’ve got no decency,” Colton says. “They’ve got no sense of public responsibility, these goddam lousy Hollywood names that go to Vegas and decoy for thieves and pander for mobsters and front for murderers.”
In Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929), the protagonist, an unnamed detective from an agency based loosely on Pinkerton’s, views the obvious signs of corruption in Personville, a mining town whose millionaire founder, Elihu Willsson has turned it over to the gangsters who are his minions:
The first policeman I saw needed a shave. The second had a couple of buttons off his shabby uniform. The third stood in the center of the city’s main intersection – Broadway and Union Street – directing traffic with a cigar in one corner of his mouth. After that, I stopped checking them up.
To understand the hardboiled thriller’s antipathy toward capitalism, one needn’t study Marx or Engels. Just survey the historical background of noir fiction and the fact that much of the best of the genre originated on the West Coast in the heartland of hardboiled, Los Angeles, California.
According to John Buntin’s excellent history, L.A. Noir (Three Rivers Press, 2009), the force that drove lawlessness in the city of Angels was capitalism, pure and simple: real estate hucksters were busily marketing the region to those from other parts of the U.S., making sizeable fortunes in the process. The main draw for Easterners was California’s ridiculously good weather and the notion that the Southland was bereft of the immigrant masses who flooded cities in the Midwest and East Coast during the 19th century industrial build up.
L.A. and its surroundings were pitched as the “White Spot” on the West Coast. Buntin quotes the Los Angeles Times as saying in 1923, “We should have more than the ordinary proportion of patriotism because our citizens are mainly the descendants of American pioneers. As a city we have no vast foreign districts in which strange tongues are ever heard. The community is American clear to its back-bone.”
This, of course, ignored the fact that large portions of the native population of the Los Angeles basin were Hispanic and that just as many L.A. neighborhoods had absorbed European and Asian immigrants as their counterparts east of the Mississippi.
It also ignored the fact that Los Angeles was a virtual cesspool, rife with illegal gambling, prostitution, drugs and all the crimes that accompany them. According to Buntin, criminals ran every conceivable racket in Los Angeles, and to a great extent they did so with the connivance of the real estate tycoons who profited from Eastern migration.
Organized crime flourished under the protection of elected officials who were bribed to look the other way and not cause trouble. L.A.’s underpaid, undereducated and poorly supervised police and sheriff’s departments, which operated as little more than gangs themselves, shook down racketeers for their own piece of the corruption pie.
As Buntin recounts it, homegrown racketeering was so well-established throughout the region that East Coast mobsters were unable to get a foothold until the late 1940s and 1950s, when Bugsy Siegel and his lieutenant Mickey Cohen took over.
This, then, is the community in which many early hardboiled thrillers found their settings. Not surprisingly, those noir classics are populated with millionaire oil men like George Sternwood, who hires Phillip Marlowe to investigate a blackmail plot against his younger daughter in The Big Sleep, or Eddie Mars, the crooked nightclub and gambling emporium operator who is one of the villains of the same novel. It is the community that spawned such fictional creations as millionaire immigrant smuggler and labor racketeer Ralph Sampson, crooked nightclub owner Dwight Troy, fake psychic Fay Estabrook and dozens of others like them, each one looking for a way to turn a dishonest dollar.
Which brings us back to the money. Everybody wants it in hardboiled crime fiction. The only people who seem to have little use for it are the private eyes who, by the final page, dig out the secrets and clean up the mess.
These gumshoes live by a code untouched by capitalism. They defend the downtrodden because nobody else will and they fight the power – not to mention the evil – that the capitalist can purchase with his questionable wealth.
Hardboiled sleuths offers no system to replace the one they fight; they are in it for the battle alone and have no vision of the just and equitable society that might be erected when it ends. Indeed, most are too cynical to believe such a society is possible. In this, they more closely resemble classic anarchists than socialist revolutionaries.
Nevertheless, they are driven by the essential concept behind Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s 1840 treatise “What is Property?”
“If I were asked to answer the following question, what is slavery, and I should answer in one word, murder, my meaning would be understood at once,” Proudhon writes. “No extended argument would be required.”
“Why, then, to this other question, what is property,may I not likewise answer, robbery, without the certainty of being misunderstood? The second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?”
In other words, the hardboiled sleuth is opposed to capitalism on general principles because property is theft. He, and sometimes, she, are crime fighters; and theft, as we all know, is illegal.
(July 7, 2012)
Why I Love Noir:
By William E. Wallace
I generally find little common ground politically with New York Times columnist David Brooks, So imagine my surprise last Sunday to find that I not only agreed with the idea behind one of his columns almost completely, but found it inspiring enough to try to explore a bit further.
The column in question was “Sam Spade At Starbucks,” and ran opposite the editorial and letters on page A23 of Friday the Thirteenth’s Times. In it, Brooks suggests that those who think the world can be changed for the positive simply by attacking specific social problems are doomed to failure unless they simultaneously “are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on.”
“There’s little social progress without political progress,” Brooks writes. “Many of the [progressive] activists talk as if the world can be healed if we could only insert more care, compassion and resources into it. . . .[But] A stable social order is an artificial accomplishment, the result of an accumulation of habits, hectoring, moral stricture and physical coercion.”
Brooks recommends that these would-be world changers inoculate themselves with a moral code that will assist them in their efforts by reading the novels of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler “or at least [seeing] the movies based on them.”
“A noir hero is a moral realist,” Brooks writes. “He assumes that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself. . . He (or she -- the women in these stories adopt the same code) adopts a layered personality. He hardens himself on the outside in order to protect whatever is left of the finer self within.”
In the noir thriller, good deeds seldom are rewarded, but neither are the bad ones. A crook is a crook, and crooks meet sordid fates in the hard-boiled world of noir, even when they are small-timers like insurance man Walter Neff in Cain’s Double Indemnity, or short con artist Roy Dillon in Jim Thompson’s The Grifters, or high-rollers like Hans-Erik Wennerstrom or Martin Vanger in Steig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
In many noir novels, the hardboiled detective -- or, in Larsson's case, hardboiled investigator/hacker -- is the only instrument through which the criminal may be subjected to justice. And the noir hero or heroine -- regardless of how little he or she may resemble a the traditional counterpart -- follows a form of existential code that forces him or her to do the right thing, even when it results in official harassment, societal disapproval and injury, death or personal hardship.
To me, Brooks’ point is well taken. In Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade, the hard-boiled mold from which most noir detectives have been cast to a greater or lesser extent, articulates the code in his final confrontation with Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the villainess who killed his partner, Miles Archer. Spade tells O’Shaughnessy he is turning her over to the cops for the murder, even though he may be in love with her and didn’t like Archer:
“This isn’t a damned bit of good,” Spade tells her just before the police arrive. “You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.”
Spade goes on to admit he may be in love with her, but explains that he won’t let her get away with it because “all of me wants to -- wants to say the hell with the consequences and do it -- and because -- God damn you -- you’ve counted on that with me the same as you counted on that with the others . . . I won’t play the sap for you.”
It’s as succinct an explanation of the noir gumshoe’s philosophy as appears in any book, nicely sewn into the structure of The Maltese Falcon’s denouement, but no less deep because it is tossed off in a few hundred words of terse dialog at the end of the book.
The code stands Hammett’s characters in good stead in books like Red Harvest, set against the corruption and venality of a company town run by a mining corporation, and The Glass Key, in which politicians and gangsters have an uneasy alliance that leads to murder.
It also serves Raymond Chandler’s private eye Phillip Marlowe when he shows up in his powder-blue suit, dark blue shirt, tie and display handerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with the dark blue clocks on them to call on $4 million in the person of General Guy Sternwood, kicking off the action in The Big Sleep; Though it is never made quite clear how Sternwood made those four million dollars, Chandler hints it was something unseemly.
Whether he is a high-rent crook or not, Sternwood is the likeable millionaire and putative victim of the story; not so Eddie Mars, a wealthy and powerful racketeer who started out running booze during prohibition and worked his way up to illicit gambling, porn, blackmail and murder.
It’s a code that almost isn’t a code – which is the main reason Spade seems out-of-control to Tom Polhaus and his senior, Lieutenant Dundee, when they visit him right after Archer’s death. Nevertheless, it remains a philosophy of life that should mesh seamlessly with those trying to promote social justice: do the right thing, even when every fiber of your being tells you to do the expedient thing.
In stories like these, the police, prosecutors and courts are either too incompetent or too corrupt to counter the injustices unearthed by the hard-boiled sleuth. It is up to the detective to seek vengeance for the victims -- in some cases, for example, Mickey Spillane’s novels featuring private detective Mike Hammer -- through the direct prophylactic use of violence.The sleuth does exactly that -- because of the code.
As Brooks puts it: “The world often rewards the wrong things, but each job comes with obligations and even if everything is decaying you should still take pride in your work. Under the cynical mask, there is still a basic sense of good order, that crime should be punished and bad behavior shouldn’t go uncorrected.”
It’s a perfect philosophy for would-be progressives trying to achieve social justice in 21st Century America, and it goes a long way toward explaining why noir -- which was spawned by the social disintegration that followed World Wars One and Two -- retains its popularity now, at a time in which the wicked once again seem free to reap the rewards of their evil without interference while the institutions that are supposed to protect the rest of us do nothing.
(April 17, 2011)
The Black Angel:
Sometimes a Guy is His Own Worst Nightmare
By William E. Wallace
Released: 1946. Director: Roy William Neill
Starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre and John Phillips. With Constance Dowling as Mavis Marlowe.
This noir programmer had me from the very opening sequence when Duryea, as composer/pianist Martin Blair, the film's flawed hero, is shown smoking a cigarette across from the apartment of soon-to-be murder victim Mavis Marlowe (Dowling).
The camera takes a tracking shot of the apartment building as if from Duryea's point of view, with the Wilshire Boulevard sign in the foreground, then pans up the building and into the window where Dowling is getting ready for an evening of blackmail.
The camera angle and photography make it clear from jump street that this is going to be as stylized a tale of good-luck-gone-sour as you could ever hope for.
Duryea, who spent much of his career playing villains, shines as Martin, Mavis' ex-husband and now the target of her sneering disdain. The only way he can deaden the pain of his desire for her is by getting black-out drunk, and his alcoholic escapes become a critical plot point as the film proceeds.
Unlike the typical hard-boiled protagonist, Martin is sensitive and vulnerable. His vulnerability leads him to fall for Catherine Bennett (Vincent), whose husband, Kirk (Phillips), has been wrongfully accused of murdering the predatory Mavis. Bennett believes her man is innocent and manages to convince Martin but not Captain Flood (a very young Broderick Crawford) the homicide dick who arrested her husband for the crime.
Together, Martin and Bennett launch their own investigation, focusing on the sinister Mr. Marko (Lorre), who Martin saw enter his ex-wife's apartment on the evening of her murder Their attempt to find the real killer takes a wicked wrong turn, leading to a climax with a twist worthy of O. Henry himself.
Based on a 1943 short story called "Murder in Wax" by noir master Cornell Woolrich ("Rear Window," "The Bride Wore Black"), The Black Angel" is a terrific example of post-war noir. The cast is exceptional and the cinematography has a charming over-the-top edge that at times is reminiscent of Frank Miller's "Sin City," though nowhere near as bleak or brutal. For lovers of noir, it is well worth a look.
(April 14, 2012)