Thursday, July 12, 2012

Down These Dickensian Streets A Man Must Go

By Jay Stringer

One of my earliest posts on DSD,  back in 2009, was a three way discussion between myself, Russel, and honorary DSDer Ray Banks. We were hammering away at whether P.I. fiction can work in Britain. Each of us had a stake in it; Russel has a great series starring Dundonian P.I. J Mcnee, Ray had written four Cal Innes books in which he wrestled with the idea and stake was vague.

OLD GOLD was out for submission at that point, but I couldn't really call myself a P.I. author without feeling a bit like, well, a dick. Here's the first couple of paragraphs from that old post (though you should go and read the whole thing);

We all know the tradition on the PI in fiction.
Even the mention of it evokes certain images. Mean streets and trench coats, strange camera angles and seedy Motels. Maybe it evokes New York hotels with introspective alcoholics, crazy Colombians and Irish gangsters. One of the most lingering images for me is of a beach trailer and a gold car, and in the last few years it’s begun to conjure up poetry and whiskey in a rain soaked Galway.

Okay, maybe none of those things. There are a number of writers doing interesting things with the PI at the moment, and some of them are on this very website. But what I’m getting at is that all of the images that spring to mind when you mention the phrase “Private Eye” seem inextricably linked with America. And, thanks to writers like Bruen and Hughes, Ireland. I’ll take that a step further, and say that the images that spring to mind are “anything but British.”

I didn't agree with the proposition even back then, but it had felt important to make that case at the top of the discussion before getting on with disagreeing with it. I've had a few years to think about my position, and I have a book coming out in 12 days that is also thinking about the same question. OLD GOLD is not a traditional P.I. novel, but it is in part the result of me trying to figure out how a PI works in British fiction.

First, I'll make the argument, stealing from people who've made it better than me, for why the character doesn't work over here.

The P.I. is a lone wolf. Raymond Chandler wrote; "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness."  He's The detective of Chandlers mythology, and in one form or another survives to this day with some tweaks and revisions. The gunslinger. He's the man with no name riding into town and having to time for the corruption or the system. He's a fundamentally American myth, and that's said with no intent to patronise.

British fiction, on the other hand, is all about the system. It's all about knowing ones own place. Detectives are cops, reporters or little old ladies, and they all work in service of maintaining the status quo. The nod towards any kind of maverick detective within this world is to have a character who is actually better at preserving the status quo than the people around him (or her); their methods may be wild and their reputation may be as a loner, but ultimately they're working to the same end, to put everything back in it's place.

It's almost tempting to make a different comparison, based on the mutual respect between Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming. The Private Detective is the American, written by Chandler, and is the man of individual integrity and agency, the man who walks down the mean streets and is not afraid to take on authority. The British end of this comparison is a spy, a cruel and skilled killer hired by the government to do their work. He has integrity and humour, and shares many of Marlowe's traits, but his job is to upset someone else's  authority in order to maintain the status quo.

I don't disagree with any of this line of thinking. I don't doubt that this version of the Private Detective is fulfilling a role that doesn't seem to fit easily into a British setting. But I think that's only half the argument. First I think it's interesting to note that Chandler was a mix of both cultures, he was born and died as a United States citizen, but spent many years between as a Brit (on paper at least) and it could be argued that his mythical Private Eye was formed as much on my side of the Atlantic as his. Perhaps he cast an eye back towards figures like Robin Hood, and a time when our fictional characters operated outside the system? There is a forgotten tradition in British culture of making heroes out of some nasty people. Warlords become noble kinds. Petty thieves become folk heroes. This changed somewhere around the French Revolution, but that's a story for another time. By the same token, it's important to note the relationship Ian Fleming had with the United States, and to argue that Bond was perhaps formed as much by American pop culture as British. Marlowe is an American filtered through Britain and Bond is a Brit filtered through America. And neither of them are realistic, but both were brilliant to read.

The other thing to mention here is that the version of the Private Eye we talk about in these conversations, the honourable cowboy(as opposed to Le Carre's honourable schoolboy) overlooks an other important writer. It's easy to mention Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe in the same breath, but they were very different characters. Spade was aware of his place within the system, and was willing to lie, cheat and manipulate to get his own way. I think Spade is a character who would fit very comfortably in the British tropes that I've mentioned.

So while I agree that the honourable cowboy detective is a character who doesn't fit easily into British fiction (though there are writers who manage it) I would argue that doesn't mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just as that character says something about the culture he spawned in, we simply need to find ones that say something about Britain. Jack Taylor works (in addition to Ken Bruen's brilliant prose) because he says something about Ireland, not because he's honouring Chandler.

My first point of contention would be to ask that British writers stop apologising for so many things. "Oh yes, we're British, we can't really get away with certain things". I come from a region rife with guns and gun crime, and live in a country that is genuinely struggling in it's most built up areas with large drug and gang problems, yet we forever seem to want to fence things off, shrug our shoulders, and say "of course, there are certain things we can't write about because we're British."

My second argument comes with another quote. I recently read some words by George Orwell in which he somehow -in then first half of the last century- managed to sum up exactly what I'm trying to say. he noted that the English (he was more pre-occupied with Englishness than Britishness, but I'll expand it for the sake of my argument) novel was full of rules and primness, whilst the American novel was busting with noise and violence. He questioned if the difference was down to there being a spirit of freedom alive in the American psyche that no longer existed in British culture. He closes out the argument with;  "...the hero of an American novel is presented not as a cog in the social machine, but as an individual working out his own salvation with no inhibitions." That was in 1936, but it says everything about the argument I'm making today.

He also points out that the sense of freedom in the American psyche is perhaps no longer reflected in reality. That's a much deeper issue than I want to get into here, but I raise it to make another point; So much great American crime fiction of the past twenty or so years has been more pre-occupied with the bigger picture, I'm thinking of things like CLOCKERS and THE WIRE, works that made a cliche out of the phrase, "The Dickensian aspect." The idea that the fiction explores the whole and not just the lone wolf. At the same time we're seeing more British writers turning to the Private Eye rather than go the long way around with a maverick cop or a rogue reporter. This is no doubt down to our cultures bleeding into each other, the cross over that we're all experiencing in our language and customs. But to me it also shows that some of the rules we've thrown up over the years are false.

The British P.I. can very much exist. He's a character who reflects the existence of the machine, and is aware of his status as a cog within it. Down these mean streets a man must go who is himself mean, and into this machine a man must go who is aware of the machine. Perhaps he spends his story trying to break free, or perhaps he spends it trying to make his own life easier. Perhaps in great noir tradition he is doomed to fail, or to be reminded of his place or even comes to love big brother.

I think there is a lot of room for a British Private Eye who brings with him that, "Dickensian aspect."

1 comment:

Dana King said...

There is probably a place for PI fiction in almost any culture. The fact he or she is set apart from the official mechanisms allows the author an opportunity for observation in a manner not possible from an insider. The PI's efforts to gain satisfaction from a system that resembles a black box more every day is something readers can relate to in their everyday lives.

PI fiction has cyclic rises and falls in popularity, but it's always going to be around in one form or another. The potential is too great.