|50 years of living with the USA
On my tenth birthday I was given my first "grown-up" novel, Edgar Wallace's crime thriller When The Gangs Came To London. I was smitten.
Wallace was English. He moved to Hollywood only for the last four months of his life. He died in February 1932 while working on the initial script of King Kong for RKO. The book is set in London but as the title indicates it was about the invasion of the Chicago mob to establish protection rackets similar to those prevalent in the USA. Scotland Yard chief Inspector Terry Weston is the investigative lead, but he is assisted by Captain Jiggs Allerman on secondment from the Chicago Detective Bureau. The USA connection is made.
Gangs was published in the year of Wallace's death in 1932; my copy shown above is a 1962 re-print by Arrow. The background tone is quite old-English quaint. It is spiced, particularly in the rhythm and slang of dialogue, by the presence of the Americans. I think that was the difference that grabbed me. Alongside the music that crossed the Atlantic to Britain in the 1960s, its fresh excitement eventually lured me to the USA for the first time in 1970.
The detective novel didn't start in America. To find its origin, you probably have to go back to China and the foundation of the Yuan dynasty by Kublai Khan in 1271. The stories then were typically based on the investigations of a local magistrate. Later there are the Persian Arabian Nights, whose first English language editions emerged in the early 19th century, although the content was developed well before. In Western literature, Edgar Allan Poe published The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841 with the eccentric hero C. Auguste Dupin. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes tale A Study in Scarlet appeared in print in 1887. The period between the two 20th century world wars is seen as the "Golden Age"; Agatha Christie introduced Hercule Poirot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920. Gangs fits into the same period.
So, not much to do with America. What's more, I'm going to include the work of more recent British and European authors as well as classic film and television from the genre. But the heart of it for me is still the American crime novel.
I've read more than my fair share of detective fiction, about which I feel some embarrassment. It's not exactly highbrow literature, is it? Escapism has played its part.
My plan is to highlight the characteristics of the genre that appeal to me and to analyse the qualities of the heroes.
Where do I start? It has to be with Raymond Chandler.
Now I've said that, I'm going to put Chandler to one side. You can be sure I will return.
The reason is that I want to acknowledge the inspiration I've gained from an excellent article by Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian Review of 18 October 2019 titled "Fearless, free and feminist: the enduring appeal of Jack Reacher". She explains why Lee Child's hero appeals to her and many other women. Here's a taste:
"This month, Lee Child's latest novel - his 24th thriller featuring Jack Reacher, a 6ft 5in, 250lb former US army military policeman - will be at, or near, the top of the bestseller charts. The books have been a publishing phenomenon, a huge commercial fiction brand, since the Coventry-born author (real name Jim Grant) wrote the first, 'Killing Floor', in 1997, when he heard he was getting laid off from his job as a TV executive. The stories are, essentially, westerns. Reacher is a loner, a wanderer. He has never settled into a 'normal' life after leaving the army. He travels the US, hitching or taking the bus: it's a way of life he began as a means to explore the country, but by now, it's a compulsion. He carries only a toothbrush. He buys new clothes when he needs them, junks the old ones. He doesn't look for trouble, but trouble finds him. In each new town he solves the mystery, gets the bad guys and doles out rough justice. There's a lot of violence: guns, or scrappy hand-to-hand fighting. Kicks in the groin, punches to the head, elbows scything ferociously into flanks.
"'Reacher is the archetypal hero - the stranger who walks into town and avenges its wrongs - the classic trope identified by Auden in 'The Guilty Vicarage', his essay on detective fiction,' says novelist Amanda Craig, a big fan. She calls him a 'modern knight errant'. In myths and fairy tales, we expect certain patterns. So it is with Reacher stories."
Click on the PDF icon here to read the complete article:
To be continued ...
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