Contemporary American Crime Fiction

An Introduction to American Crime Writing, 1970-2000

Lee Horsley, Lancaster University

The inheritors of the hard-boiled tradition are diverse, producing many different forms of contemporary American crime writing. The darkly comic tone of much earlier crime fiction has resurfaced in the work of writers like Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen; the tough detective has spawned (no doubt to his surprise) a host of female private eyes; Hammett’s Continental Op, an individualistic investigator playing a role in a larger investigative structure, has been succeeded by the case-hardened cops of the police procedural; the violent heirs of Jim Thompson’s psychopathic protagonists stalk the pages of the contemporary serial killer novel. Much that is best in this large body of crime fiction falls into the larger category of ‘contemporary American noir’.

There were bound to be some changes in literary noir as the ‘lurid era’ of the twenty-five-cent paperback originals drew to a close in the sixties. There was, however, no real watershed, and one’s sense of continuity is strengthened by the fact that some of the most notable noir crime novelists of the fifties and sixties were still publishing in the seventies: amongst others, Stanley Ellin, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Margaret Millar, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Willeford, Donald Westlake (under his own name and as Richard Stark) and James Hadley Chase. The influence of such mid-century novelists as Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Chester Himes on contemporary writing was made possible by the reissue of their work from the 1980s on in Black Lizard and Vintage Crime editions.

Many of the new voices of the period offer striking revivifications of the traditional patterns of literary noir. Edward Bunker, for example, drawing on his own experiences, writes from the criminal’s point of view about the effects of imprisonment, deprivation and exclusion in novels like No Beast So Fierce (1973) andLittle Boy Blue (1981).

The staple fare of gangland revenge and betrayal is given freshness and immediacy by the dialogue of George V. Higgins’ first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle(1970), the film adaptation of which (directed by Peter Yates, 1973) is judged by Silver and Ward to be ‘closer to the true noir cycle than the homage offered by such films as Chinatown and Farewell, My Lovely‘. Long-established noir themes have continued to exert their hold in more recent fiction. Craig Holden, in his first novel,The River Sorrow (1995), provides a distinctly modern (or postmodern) reworking of sexual obsession and wrong man plots. James Ellroy, writing in the eighties and nineties, uses the more extreme possibilities of the crime novel to recreate the violence and corruption of post-World War Two Los Angeles, imaging the beginnings of what Ellroy calls a ‘half a century of tumult and change in America’.

New Investigative Series

The last three decades have also seen the creation of a large number of new investigative series, with a variety of strong regional identities. Several series protagonists have contended with the crimes of northern cities: Lawrence Block, for example (who started in the sixties by writing paperback originals for Gold Medal), began, in the seventies, a series of novels featuring an ex-cop, Matt Scudder, a guilt-ridden, gloomy alcoholic (eventually ex-alcoholic) investigator of a New York in which it seems that ‘people could adjust to one reality after another if they put their minds to it’ (A Stab in the Dark). In the eighties, Loren Estleman started to write his rather less noir series of Detroit-based Amos Walker novels, which tend to move towards detective-story resolutions, complete with penetrations of disguise and revelations of identity (for example, in The Midnight Man and Downriver). In the nineties, Sam Reaves introduced his cab-driving Vietnam veteran Cooper MacLeish, who first appears in A Long Cold Fall (1991), in which sentiment, human warmth and hearts of gold effectively counteract the noir potential of the pitiless Chicago cold and the ‘blind universe’ that grants Cooper ‘the grace of survival’. Louisiana has been another location well-served by tough investigators.

At the more noir end of the scale, there is James Sallis’ New Orleans detective, Lew Griffin, who, like many another investigator, is guilt-ridden and ex-alcoholic, but also a university teacher and a writer, postmodern and self-reflexive – and black (Sallis, who is white, says he was ’20 or 30 pages in before I realised he was black’). Working nearby is James Lee Burke’s Cajun detective, Dave Robicheaux, the protagonist of narratives in which the defeat of villainy is set against reminders not to accept ‘the age-old presumption that the origins of social evil can be traced to villainous individuals’ who can simply be locked away – a dark awareness that is in turn moderated by life-affirming contacts with a loved child (A Stained White Radiance) or an earthy dance (Dixie City Jam). Strongly positive elements, particularly the affirmative presence of family, also counterbalance the sense of a ‘whole nother side of [American] life, a darker, semilawless, hillbilly side’ (Give Us a Kiss), in the ‘country noir’ novels of Daniel Woodrell, some of which (like Under the Bright Lights) feature another Cajun investigator, Rene Shade.

In series such as these the honourable ghost of Marlowe is often near at hand, encouraging the nobler possibilities within the hard-boiled tradition, bringing to the fore the moral integrity, the compassion and the tough-sentimental view of life that infuse the investigative narrative with a redemptive potential and make it less darkly noir. Contemporary writers both acknowledge Chandler’s influence and try to differentiate themselves from him, as Ross Macdonald did in the late fifties, when he modified his ‘heir to Chandler’ role, declaring that The Doomsters (1958) marked ‘a fairly clean break with the Chandler tradition’.

The Lone Male Finds an Alternative Family

One way in which more recent crime writers have made a break with the Chandler tradition has been to distance their protagonists from the identity and ethos of the lone white male, the crusader-knight of the mean streets. They have done this either by creating an investigator who is himself black, as in Sallis and Mosley, or by making the protagonist homosexual (as in Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter novels) or part of a close-knit group of mixed race and gender. James Crumley, who introduced two hard-drinking, tough-talking protagonists – Milodragovitch and Sughrue – in the 1970s, is a self-declared heir to the Chandler tradition (describing himself as ‘a bastard child of Raymond Chandler’), but emphasises that his is a much less traditional morality. He defines his own sensibility as conditioned by the disillusionments of the Vietnam war and his ‘vision of justice’ as in consequence less clear-cut. His protagonists are ‘reverent towards the earth and its creatures’ and sustained by eccentric alliances with criminals and other misfits. In addition to male bonding, there are the beginnings of surrogate families – Sughrue, for example, holding ‘Baby Lester laughing in my arms’ at the end ofMexican Tree Duck (1993).

Like many other recent investigators, Crumley’s protagonists, though retaining some of the romanticised qualities of the lone male, are no longer solitary defenders of macho values. What we see in novels of this kind is a ‘softening’ of the protagonist by allying him with others, often with a larger surrogate family that represents those marginalised by the dominant society (non-white characters, strong women, outcasts of all kinds).

This is a widespread tendency, evident in the little family collected together by Easy Rawlins, in the bond between the white, straight Hap Collins and the black, gay Leonard Pine (in the comic noir novels of Joe Lansdale, such asSavage Season and Two-Bear Mambo) and in the representative sampling of minorities and misfits allied with Andrew Vachss’ ‘outlaw’ private detective, Burke. Even in the decidedly Chandleresque novels of Robert B. Parker (who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald), the protagonist, Spenser, develops strong ties both with an impressive black sidekick, Hawk, and with his Jewish psychiatrist-girlfriend, Susan Silverman.

Belonging v Complicity

The alternative family offers the investigative protagonist a real human connection, a hedge against what British writer J.G. Ballard, in High-Rise (1975), calls ‘a new kind of late twentieth-century life’ that thrives on ‘the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others’. It provides a way of belonging that does not involve acquiescence in a wider society which, whatever its underlying disorders, has an almost irresistible surface allure.

It has been increasingly the case in the noir thriller that various kinds of ‘belonging’ – assimilation, complicity, dependency – have become nightmares as disturbing as deprivation and exclusion. In post-eighties noir, as America moved into the Reagan years, there was a marked emphasis on tedious homogeneity and on the threat posed by the erasure of difference consequent on an addiction to the pleasures and games of a consumer society. In novels in which this kind of dependency is a source of anxiety, what often distinguishes the more positive characters is an ability to form individual bonds in a society that seems to be losing its capacity for genuine social relationships.

In a large body of contemporary noir, characters are defined in relation to consumerism. The attack on those who ‘consume’ the natural world emerges strongly, for example, in Ross Macdonald’s 1971 novel, The Underground Man, in which the greed of the destructive rich, careless of the land on which they build their extravagant houses, is juxtaposed with the simple integrity of Lew Archer, identified from the opening scene with the natural simplicity implied by feeding peanuts to his ‘scrub jays’. In a nineties novel like James Hall’s Buzz Cut (1996), there is a similar opposition between simplicity and rampant consumerism, epitomised in the contrast between Thorn, with his ‘trial and error’ hand-made fishing canoe on the one hand and, on the other, Morton Sampson, with a cruise ship that is the ultimate in consumerist luxury.  In the comic ‘noir grotesque’ of Carl Hiaasen, which takes the commercial exploitation of South Florida as a recurrent theme, the good guys are the reclusive drop-outs from the consumer society, like ‘the guy at the lake’ who lives in a cabin that ‘looks like a glorified outhouse’ (Skink, in Double Whammy [1988]) or Stranahan, in Skin Tight (1989), who lives in solitude in a ‘dirt cheap’ stilt house, ‘delighted to be the only soul living in Stiltsville’. Consumer greed acts as a metaphor for moral bankruptcy (Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford), cannibalism acts as a metaphor for ungovernable and dehumanising consumer urges (Bret Easton Ellis).

As a central element in the noir narrative structure, the ‘consumer’ has always been there, but consumption in all its forms is a more dominant theme in the contemporary thriller, often accompanied by more explicit attention to the commodification of people, the irony of the ‘consumer consumed’ and the postmodern city, ‘saturated with signs and images’, as a centre of play, performance and consumption.

Copyright © 2002 Lee Horsley

For further discussion of the above writers, see:

Lee Horsley, The Noir Thriller (Palgrave, 2009).

See also:, for Lee Horsley, article in the online Literary Encyclopedia on  ‘The Noir Thriller’.

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