This past Friday was May Day, May 1st, International Workers Day which has its origins in America and the fight for an eight hour work day (from the online entry in the Encyclopedia of Chicago — “In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions—predecessor of the American Federation of Labor—urged American workers to observe an eight-hour day beginning May 1, 1886.”) part of a larger struggle around workers’ rights in general. Now of course writers really don’t have an eight hour day per se — clocking in and clocking out, though certainly one can work as a publicist or journalist and be on the clock. Yet various writers have incorporated the proletarians in their novels from S.J. Rozan’s A Bitter Feast had the Restaurant Workers Union to The Porkchoppers by Ross Thomas, about unions and electoral politics.
In a recent article written on The Guardian’s book blog, a British left-of-center newspaper that published some of the secret NSA docs leaked by Edward Snowden, crime fiction writer Val McDermid argued that by nature, mysteries were leftwing and thrillers, rightwing. This is not a new perspective. On my bookshelf is the semi-classic book, Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story by Marxist theorist Ernest Mandel, Woody Haut’s Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood and Sean McCann’s Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism, have posited such in the past.
My first novel, Violent Spring, published in 1994 was expressly written to place my black private eye, a man who grew up with working class parents in South Central L.A. against the backdrop of the uneasy political and social landscape of an L.A. about a year and a half out from the ’92 riots in my fair city. That the case he has to solve stems from the body of a Korean merchant unearthed at a groundbreaking ceremony at what was the flashpoint for that civil unrest. A man who had disappeared two weeks prior to the flames erupting post the not guilty verdict of the LAPD officers who beat motorist Rodney King.
Val notes about current crime novels, “It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world – immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old. The disposed and the people who don’t vote.” In TV’s Elementary, a modern day take on Sherlock Holmes in New York, there’s a strong anti-capitalist undercurrent. This is often expressed in asides by Holmes. In fact in the episode “The Best Way Out is Always Through,” the villain was revealed as a corporate officer of a private prison company who murdered three people so as to win a lucrative contract to build another of their prisons. He’s confronted as he stands before a large silk screened of the American flag on his office wall. That as lefty pundits have observed, street crime has nothing on crime in the suits
Or as Woody Guthrie observed in his Depression-era song “”Pretty Boy Floyd” — “Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, And some with a fountain pen.”
But left or right, don’t we all root for the thief or the ordinary Jane or Joe who with their backs up against it, takes it to the wall Street fat cat who got rich off of ripping off the pension fund or selling short those inflated subprime home mortgages? Jonathan Freedland, executive editor of The Guardian’s Opinion section, and political thriller writer, responded to Val’s piece. He pointed out John le Carré as an example of someone who writes thrillers that decidedly are not easily categorized. “His cold war novels stood against the mindless jingoism of the period,” And certainly his recent work A Delicate Truth and The Constant Gardner are nuanced different than say a Brad Thor or the late Tom Clancy novel.
Ultimately, left, right or dead center, it gets down to the characters and do we want to spend time with them on the page. Our stories can stake out points-of-view but you still have to tell the story, still need to pull the reader in and not cram any one political view down their throats. Generally speaking you don’t have your characters stop and give some liturgy but in the doing is how what they believe manifest itself. All Politics is Personal by Ralph Wright, the former Speaker of the Vermont House of Representative, was the titled his memoir. That sentiment applies to why we embrace those mystery and crime stories that may even have central characters who we don’t agree with, but damned if the writer doesn’t present them in compelling and organic ways that they may be sonsabitches, but interesting sonsabitches.