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The Boston Phoenix Library of America

"Crime Novels."

By Jonathan Veitch

NOVEMBER 24, 1997: 

CRIME NOVELS: AMERICAN NOIR OF THE 1930s AND '40s (990 pages) and CRIME NOVELS: AMERICAN NOIR OF THE 1950s (892 pages), edited by Robert Polito. Library of America, $35 each.

In a brief essay titled "Some Notes on Violence," Nathanael West accounted for the ubiquitous presence of violence in American fiction by comparing it with the quite different approach taken by European writers:

For a European writer to make violence real he has to do a great deal of careful psychology and sociology. He often needs three hundred pages to motivate one little murder. But not so the American writer. His audience . . . is neither surprised nor shocked if he omits artistic excuses for familiar events. When he reads a little book with eight or ten murders in it, he does not necessarily condemn the book as melodramatic.

That is because, to West's way of thinking, "in America violence is idiomatic." In our own century violence has manifested itself in a spectacular series of idiomatic crimes, from the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti to the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the serial killings of Charles Manson. No wonder that so many of our best novels have tended to focus on crime, including Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, Richard Wright's Native Son, and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.

Given this fascination with violence, it is no accident that crime fiction should be getting its due. Pulp fiction, as crime fiction is more popularly known, has long enjoyed a privileged place in the demimonde of American literary opinion -- prized by intellectuals who have raided it for a lively vernacular, forbidden sensation, or the cachet of slumming it. With the publication of the Library of America's two-volume collection of crime novels, a not-so-subtle case is being made for pulp fiction's place in the American literary tradition. Alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, and Wallace Stevens, one now finds the likes of Kenneth Fearing (The Big Clock), Cornell Woolrich (I Married a Dead Man), Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me), and Chester Himes (The Real Cool Killers). The invitation to join the haute monde may seem a bit incongruous until one notices several other writers on the Library of America's list who also have a reputation for packing heat: Edgar Allan Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, Jack London, and William Faulkner, to name just a few. Seen in this light, pulp fiction becomes only the most recent entry in an American gothic tradition that Leslie Fiedler has hailed as the richest and most vital part of our literature.

But if pulp fiction clarifies (and intensifies) our understanding of some of American literature's central preoccupations, its inclusion in the Library of America's series may not do those novels any service. Terrence Rafferty, writing in GQ, complained that

in Crime Novels we now have a museum of the formerly disreputable which both exalts its inductees and somehow diminishes them. In their day, the writers in Crime Novels operated like guerrillas, recklessly and clandestinely, and that underground energy is what gives the best of this work its bitter power. . . . But now they're canon fodder.

There is some truth to this assertion. Pulp fiction was, as its name implies, an ephemeral art, purchased in bus stations and drugstores by young men (and the readership of this fiction is predominately male) looking for a heady brew of sex and violence. They read these books furtively and obsessively, with pages creased to identify the smutty passages: "I pushed her over to the bed. She held on to the glass and spilled some of her drink. I began slipping off her blouse. . . . "(page 70 of The Postman Always Rings Twice, for those who want to get down to business).

Robert Polito, the editor of Crime Novels, would certainly argue that his collection offers more than these obvious cheap thrills. In his elegant biography of Jim Thompson, Polito observes that these "novels join, even anticipate, such quintessential violations of 'Silent Generation' decorum as William Burroughs's Junky, Allen Ginsberg's Howl, Mailer's Advertisements for Myself, Robert Frank's The Americans, Laslo Benedek's The Wild One, Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, and the rock 'n' roll of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley." Their value lies in their capacity to "root through the dark patches of American experience, undermining privileged institutions and values."

Polito is talking about Thompson's novels, but these observations could easily apply to any of the novels in the collection. In Charles Willeford's Pick-Up, for example, a confessed murderer laments his own "freedom" (and, by extension, America's most cherished ideal) upon his release from prison on a legal technicality:

The ugly word, "Freedom" . . . meant nothing to me. After the time I had spent in jail and in the hospital, not only was I reconciled to the prospect of death, I had eagerly looked forward to it. . . . But I was an innocent man. . . . I was free to wash dishes again, free to smash baggage, free to carry a waiter's tray, dish up chile beans as a counterman. Free.

In pulp fiction, the protagonists are nothing without an omnipresent sense of doom and compulsion that robs them of their freedom even as it imbues their lives with a perverse significance and protects them from the bland, self-congratulatory world of the American Century. It is this dark cynicism that is most saliently and usefully preserved by including these "ephemeral" novels in the Library of America's series.

These days pulp fiction may not be available at the corner drugstore, and it is at least as likely to be read by a graduate student writing a dissertation as by a young man killing time on a long bus ride. But that does not mean that the power of these novels has been diminished, only that their significance has changed. As Ross MacDonald wrote in the foreword to Archer in Jeopardy, "The dead require us to remember and write about them. . . . We reinvent them and ourselves out of memory and dream." One does not need James Ellroy or Quentin Tarantino to see that that reinvention has already begun -- transforming noir into the reigning cultural style of the moment. The richness of these volumes helps us to understand why.


Jonathan Veitch, chairman of the humanities program at the New School for Social Research, is the author of American Supernaturalism: Nathanael West and the Politics of Representation in the 1930s (University of Wisconsin Press).


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