Hanging out with Higgins

Michael Wood

  • Silent Partner by Jonathan Kellerman
    Macdonald, 506 pp, £11.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 356 17598 7
  • ‘Murder will out’: The Detective in Fiction by T.J. Binyon
    Oxford, 166 pp, £12.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 19 219223 X
  • Devices and Desires by P.D. James
    Faber, 408 pp, £11.99, October 1989, ISBN 0 571 14178 1
  • Killshot by Elmore Leonard
    Viking, 287 pp, £12.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 670 82258 2
  • Trust by George V. Higgins
    Deutsch, 213 pp, £11.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 233 98513 1
  • Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith
    Collins Harvill, 373 pp, £12.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 00 271269 5

There is food for comparative thought – well, not real food, more of a light snack – in the fact that the French call roman policier what we would call a crime novel. A sign of our respective allegiances, perhaps, where our hearts are. Of course there don’t have to be police in a roman policier, just the sorts of activity the Police might or ought to be interested in. And there are more and more policemen in our crime novels (and films and television series). Crime, like almost everything else, has become specialised, a full-time job on both sides of the law. The gentleman amateur has faded away almost entirely. There are still one or two private eyes about, but they look like bruised anachronisms – like maiden aunts or men of letters.

Elegant variations are possible, certainly, and include the professional from another area – journalism, medicine – who stumbles into an investigation. Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware, who appears in Silent Partner and in Kellerman’s earlier novels, like Blood Test, or When the bough breaks, is a Californian child psychologist who meets violence and misdemeanour all over the place, and not just with children. The new novel involves several nasty deaths, a heartless tycoon, big business, journalism, pornographic movies, triplets, apparent schizophrenia, flashbacks over forty years, strange doings between psychiatrists and patients. It is as if Ross Macdonald or Raymond Chandler had gone Gothic, while the principal movement of the fiction remained the same: California tilted into American allegory, skeletons in every designer closet, the glossy present built over a dark and denied past, a handsome house cantilevered over a ravine (the image is Macdonald’s, who also has a character memorably say that he is not interested in money, because ‘money costs too much’). Kellerman tries a little too hard for the tough and snappy effect in his writing, and is very unconvincing about personal relations – unless he has them just right, and all the good guys in California do talk as if they were apprentice marriage guidance counsellors. But he can also write very well: ‘Her face collapsed, as if suddenly filleted,’ ‘A few blocks farther it was all by-the-hour motels and jumpy-looking streetwalkers banking on loneliness and clean blood.’ And he handles his intricate and winding plot with remarkable ease. He also has a nice line in understated social comment: ‘I drove to Beverly Hills and turned left at Crescent. The streets were empty; people who tear down $2 million houses in order to build $5 million houses tend to stay inside to play with their toys.’ Above all, Kellerman is good on everything that is or comes close to professional detail: the way lawyers talk, the world of clinics and hospitals and medical schools.

T.J. Binyon thinks the moonlighting professional may be the detective of the future – ‘We might hope to see, for example, more characters like Dr Alex Delaware’ – but Delaware seems really to be a neat updating of the past, an amiable new cousin for Lew Archer and Philip Marlowe. Binyon is impressed by Chandler, although he thinks Marlowe is a ‘romanticised and to a certain extent sentimentalised’ version of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade; a little impatient with Macdonald, too cerebral and meaningful for his taste (‘Macdonald led the tradition away on an ultimately abortive mission towards social psychology’). Kellerman, it seems, evokes the world of psychology, but Macdonald merely psychologises. There is something in this, and Macdonald certainly lacks Chandler’s power and Kellerman’s expertise. But his stories are beautifully paced, he doesn’t over-write the way both Chandler and Kellerman do at times, and some of his images are truly haunting. Los Angeles, for example, is pictured as a vast electrical circuit, allowing the lonely private eye a vivid pleasure in the connections he makes, the whole thing lighting up all at once. Like the Bride of Frankenstein, Archer adds. The thought and afterthought catch the lure and the horror of detection, of getting everything to come together, as if detection were an inverse paranoia, a cool delight in a perfect excess of plot.

Binyon’s book offers us a brief ‘history not of a type of fiction, but of a type of fictional character’, the ‘fictional detective in all his guises’. All his guises? Well, the review seems fairly complete, although ‘history’ is perhaps a rather ambitious word for this pleasant trot through an arrangement of names and dates. Binyon looks at ‘professional amateurs’ from Dupin and Holmes to a whole assortment of private eyes – I’m not quite sure how they get amateur status, by being underpaid maybe; ‘amateur amateurs’ from various academics to Lovejoy; and a whole run of policemen: plodders, aristocrats, Maigret, the guys at the 87th Precinct. There is a quick mention of Hill Street Blues too, but television is not part of Binyon’s patrol. He is rather unquestioningly keen on plausibility – since when did that really matter in crime fiction? – and sternly says that P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh, for example, ‘lacks verisimilitude as a policeman, if not as a person’. He also says rather oddly that ‘stories about a criminal, no matter how excellent they are in their own right, can never be as attractive as stories about a detective.’ Attractive as detective stories he may mean, but wouldn’t that be pretty much tautological? Certainly readers of George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard would be surprised by the claim as it stands.

Binyon also accepts without questioning the distinction between detective fiction and thrillers, or what he sometimes calls adventure stories. This is a familiar distinction, and in certain ways a real one: but the boundaries have got more and more blurred of late, and perhaps need a little inspection. Auden (in his essay ‘The Guilty Vicarage’) made the same sort of distinction, but regarded thrillers as serious in a way that detective stories are not: Chandler, he said, was ‘interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely depressing books should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.’ Auden was an addict of detective stories, but the view he expressed here seems uncomfortably close to that of Edmund Wilson, who hated the whole business.

‘I find it very difficult,’ Auden said, to read a detective story ‘that is not set in rural England’. Some of us find it difficult to read one that is set in rural England. The difference of taste is not trivial, or merely personal, since fairly large interests and assumptions are involved. Rural England, for Auden and for a whole generation of crime-writers and crime-readers, was an emblem of innocence. The corpse on the carpet stains and complicates innocence, the detective clears up the mess, and everything is all right: ‘innocence is restored,’ in Auden’s words, ‘and the law retires for ever.’ It is because there are no such innocent worlds, no realms from which the law can permanently retire, that Auden regards detective fiction as an escape, a mild dabbling in magic. In Kafka or Dostoevsky, say, we anxiously or hysterically explore our untidy guilt; in detective stories, we neatly produce our guilt and then expel it. We gather in the library, and are content to identify the criminal – as if there were only one kind of guilt, and none of it were ours.

Other writers and addicts have argued that detective stories are a game for the higher intellect, and would no doubt have little truck with Auden’s theology, but they may well be talking about the same thing. The game offers an absolute victory for the mind over crime and disorder, and that surely is the fantasy Auden describes, only translated into intellectual terms. In both cases the world is cleaned up, redeemed from randomness or litter. And what is missing in both cases is any sense of the monstrous in the solution as well as the crime. What are we to make of that collection of innocents conspiring not to know how much guilt is left in the world even after the murderer has been carted off; of the vast hubris implied in the subjection of the world to our ingenuity? Much detective fiction, it seems to me, creates the Bride of Frankenstein without knowing what it has created; invents what Borges would call an order for angels, forgetting that it has only humans to sustain it.

It is at this point that the distinction between detective fiction and thrillers begins to seem slender or non-existent: the world in either case is the Great Wrong Place, the only difference lies in the way the wrongness is acknowledged, whether through fantasy or more direct evocation. I played for a while with a distinction between fiction in which crime was a shock, an interruption – and in this sense many West Coast novels have the same movement as those set in rural England, innocence is an appearance, precisely what is cantilevered over the ravine – and fiction in which crime is a sort of norm, just what there is. It is easy to collect novels for both groups, and the grouping does, I think, catch something of the effect of much crime fiction – more precisely, the way the effect arises out of an implied premise about crime’s ordinariness or otherwise.

In the end, however, the groups collapse into each other. Crime can’t really shock in any kind of crime fiction: it’s what we’re there for, whether we’re fans of Kojak or Miss Marples. Crime is what there is in these imagined worlds. It’s all there is, and the really interesting question concerns not fiction but our assumptions about reality. How surprised can we still manage to be about the real crime out there? How surprised should we be? And if we are not surprised, how do we feel? Crime fiction is really not a genre any more: it’s simply fiction. The roman policier, as the French might say, is just écriture. It is also true, speaking of écriture, that many crime novels are now, as they used not to be, distinctly better-written than many so-called straight novels. How many of our highbrows, for example, the ones who get the lead reviews, write as well as, say, Michael Dibdin, author of the haunting Ratking?

P.D. James’s new novel seems to return us straight to Auden’s theology. It is set in rural East Anglia, and takes its title from the Anglican prayer book: ‘We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.’ A psychopath called the Whistler is on the loose, killing young women. Then the haughty and handsome female administrator of a nuclear power station is murdered. Has the Whistler struck again, or has he found a disciple? Suspects include several scientists at the power station, a retired schoolmistress, a writer of cookery books, a protester against the use of nuclear energy, a secretary who has secretly joined an international terrorist organisation, and, marginally, Adam Dalgliesh, James’s poet-detective, who has just inherited an old mill in the area, and is awkwardly close to several of these people. The book ends in a brilliant train of misdeductions and evasions, and an explicit contrast with the work of H.R.F. Keating, standing in perhaps for all detective fiction of the old school, where ‘problems could be solved, evil overcome, justice vindicated, and death itself only a mystery which would be solved in the final chapter’. This book itself of course belongs to the old school, and does solve its central mystery at last: but it also signals with unusual clarity what the school is up to.

Dalgliesh, reflecting on his work, is also, necessarily, musing on the sort of fiction he is in: ‘Perhaps this was part of the attraction of his job, that the process of detection dignified the individual death ... mirroring in its excessive interest in clues and motives man’s perennial fascination with the mystery of his mortality, providing, too, a comforting illusion of a moral universe in which innocence could be avenged, right vindicated, order restored. But nothing was restored, certainly not life, and the only justice vindicated was the uncertain justice of men.’ ‘Excessive interest’ hints at the same reservation as Macdonald’s image of Los Angeles; the rest of the passage confirms Auden’s diagnosis, but denies his conclusion. An escape which so thoroughly knows it is an escape is a form of realism, and asks to be judged like any other form of activity. James doesn’t write quite as well as is often claimed – she is too keen on ripe old prose of the ‘mystic-thicket-woven-from-thin-shafts-of-light’ variety – and her characters cling a little too cosily to their stereotypes: but her ability to embed searching questions in a strong and complicated narrative is really impressive.

The novel emphatically argues, for instance, that death is not ‘only a mystery’. An interesting conflict is remembered, in which a policeman calls a rotting female corpse a thing and is severely rebuked by Dalgliesh:

Sergeant, the word is ‘body’. Or, if you prefer, there’s ‘cadaver’, ‘corpse’, ‘victim’, even ‘deceased’ ... What you are looking at was a woman. She was not a thing when she was alive and she is not a thing now.

This is just, but a little preacherly, and Dalgliesh has his own later encounter with what was a person and now feels like a thing. The question, I take it, is not a matter of words but of how we feel about endings, the abrupt crossing from life into death, the sudden absence of human identity. This is not an excuse for detection: it is what stalks detection itself, the story behind the stories, the reason, one might guess, for all the whimsical titles, those would-be jaunty whistlings in the dark: Bodies in a Bookshop, or Dead on the Level, or Death on the Rocks or Murder among Friends (all of these titles are mentioned by Binyon). Devices and Desires is a thriller and a detective novel.

Murder, one of James’s characters thinks: ‘that iconoclastic act of protest and defiance, that single step across an unmarked, undefended frontier which, once taken, sets a man apart for ever from the rest of his kind’. Elmore Leonard, or almost anyone in the world of his novels, would be sceptical, would probably think: that must be how they talk in rural England. Nothing, for Leonard, sets a man apart from the rest of his kind. The recognisable kinship we have with even the worst of his thugs or killers is part of what makes him such a distinctive writer. In Killshot, we spend a lot of time in the mind of Armand Degas, alias the Blackbird, a half-Indian Canadian hit man for the Toronto Mafia. This mind is not a pleasant place, and one of the first things we see in the novel is Armand cold-bloodedly doing a killing: but Leonard doesn’t need to get us to like Armand, only to see that, apart from certain short-circuits and blockages of what we like to believe are ordinary feelings, Armand thinks just the way we do. He doesn’t care for the partner he picks up, for example, Richie Nix, a dim, would-be flamboyant psychopath whose head is full of fantasies about blowing people away in extravagant fashion. Armand has no fantasies about killing, or about being a legendary gangster. For him killing is a job, distasteful in its way, but what he has to do when the call comes. The other two chief characters in the book are Carmen and Wayne Colson, witnesses to a hold-up attempt made by Armand and Richie, and therefore on these two’s death-list. Carmen and Wayne are taken into custody, a government programme for the protection of witnesses, and Carmen, in hiding for her life, has to suffer the unsubtle and ultimately very threatening advances of the government official who is supposed to be looking after them. Between the sexual frying-pan and the murderous fire, she tries to survive; Wayne meanwhile, a nice guy and very much in love with his wife, but not too sensitive about details like whether she wants to be left alone or not, has gone off on a long river trip.

This is a novel about waiting. There is no detection as such, but like all crime novels, it deals in traces: the traces left in a house, for example, when intruders have been in; the traces the crooks have left and seek to erase; the tracing of a telephone number that is supposed to be secret. The writing is efficient and subdued, a quiet novel by a writer who knows he can afford to leave the louder effects for another time. The trick is to get us very close to four very different people, and let our experience of that closeness do the work. In interviews Leonard tends to stress the steady professionalism of his novels, won’t be drawn into discussions of philosophy or literary ambition. But he doesn’t need to be drawn. In a series of now seventeen novels or more he has set up a world which equals and revises Chandler’s. ‘Down these mean streets,’ Chandler famously said, ‘a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished or afraid.’ Down Leonard’s streets, the streets of Miami, New Orleans, Atlantic City, of small towns in Michigan, go mean, tarnished, frightened people, along with others who are not so mean and only a little tarnished but just as frightened, and far from being heroes. It is a vision of America not as riddled with corruption, or perched over a drop, as the California fiction suggests, but full of energy and desire and violence. It’s not rural England, but the devices and desires of the heart have a field day.

In George V. Higgins the devices and desires are more often those of the wallet. The central character of Trust is Earl Beale, a former basketball star who has done time for game-fixing, and now is involved in a little car-stealing and blackmail. A nice enough fellow, and in this sense Higgins, for all the tough talk of his characters, is more romantic than Leonard: he wants us to like his central figures, and we do, at least at first. The dialogue is rather self-consciously written, as by an author who knows he has a reputation for crisp conversation, and the insistence on brand names sometimes seems a little strained. No car moved or drink drunk without the make and the label being dutifully spelled out, as in ‘There was a can of Miller beer on the table next to the chair nearest the door. Earl parked the Dodge alongside a charcoal gray Lincoln Continental in front of the office.’ By contrast, birds are just birds, undifferentiated, not up for discrimination: ‘Some night birds cried in the air.’ This effect is calculated, of course, and the vague birds feel like a lyrical lift out of the dogged naming of the saleable world. And the swerve of the plot here from small-time crookery into large-scale political skullduggery is splendid: the year is 1967, the Vietnam War has become a home issue, an election is coming up. The question of trust is nicely engaged too. Trust means knowing someone owes you a favour and will pay it when you call it in. It also means knowing exactly how much a favour is worth, which is to say it means not really trusting anyone at all – except in the special sense just suggested. The argument recalls a gag in Fielding’s Jonathan Wild: taking only the precaution of locking and bolting all the doors and windows, a gaoler accepts a prisoner’s word of honour that he will not try to escape. Higgins’s dry wit also renews the language of corruption. Here are a Boston politician and a Vermont car dealer contemplating a fiasco:

‘Whatever doesn’t kill us, makes us strong,’ Cobb said.

‘Fuck Nietzsche,’ Beale said. ‘He’s never around when you need him.’

Polar Star is billed as a ‘sequel’ to Gorky Park, but is so only in the sense that it picks up a later moment in the life of Arkady Renko, the honest but disaffected Russian investigator from the earlier novel. We are back in a world of detection here – a girl’s body comes up with a trawl of fish from the waters of the Bering Straits, Renko and we are out to find out how she was killed – and the Great Wrong Place is a fishing fleet, a joint Russian-American venture. The plot is well managed, and the details of fishing life seem to have been carefully researched: but the writing feels rather slack if you have been reading Leonard and Higgins. Characters keep repeating bits of dialogue. ‘An interesting comparison, Arkady thought.’ The comparison – the running of lines from ship to ship is ‘like sex between spiders’ – has some interest, but loses almost all of it when our man ploddingly tells himself (and us) that it’s interesting. In this novel, as in Gorky Park, a certain dullness is part of Cruz Smith’s idea of Russianness. Renko’s integrity is attractive in its rigid way, but I’d rather hang out with Higgins’s crooks.