Wednesday, January 8, 2020
PROS VS. AMATEURS:: THE DIVERGING ROADS OF CRIME FICTION
There is a great line from the epic caper film Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels that goes
"Guns for show, knives for pros."
The fact that the line is being spoken by a character who is most definitely not a pro adds a bit of irony that I sincerely hope was intentional.
Crime fiction has many many sub genre's and tropes. I've talked about a few on this site. One trope that I personally love is the professional criminal. Now some might say that is a nonsensical title. Surely there is nothing professional about an individual who makes their living breaking the law. But I beg to differ. Some of the best crime and noir novels or films tell the story of a criminal or group of criminals who takes their job seriously. One of my favorites films in this vein is Michael Mann's masterpiece(say that five times fast) HEAT.
HEAT is the quintessential crooks as pros movie. Robert De Niro's Neal McCauley is the consummate professional. He doesn't have a code he has a set of rules that he lives by and that shape his heist. Of course since this is a movie events conspire to force him to break his rules which leads to his downfall.(sorry no spoiler alert, if you don't know the plot of HEAT you're on the wrong site.). It's Neal's methodical business like temperament that I find fascinating. De Niro plays Neal as a kinder gentler Parker but still not a man to be crossed or trifled with in any way. A cold blooded killer who will absolutely destroy anyone who gets in his way but never makes it personal.
Until he does.
Speaking of Parker , so much has been written about the pros's pro by better authors than me that I won't belabor his importance to the crime genre or how perfect a character he is but suffice it to say Parker is the ultimate craftsman of crime. A near automaton when he is planning or executing a job Parker has no attachments, no loyalty and no mercy. Later in the series he gets a steady girlfriend and later wife but as a reader I always got the notion he would not lose any sleep if he had to " take care" of her for some reason.
The pro is the height of the fantasy that draws some of us to a crime novel. He or she is the Michael Jordan or Serena Williams of their chosen vocation. The suspense of seeing someone who knows exactly what they are doing meticulously plan the score of a lifetime is only topped by the thrill of seeing how they adjust on the fly when the heist invariably goes off the rails. Its like watching a high wire acrobat walk across the Grand Canyon. You know they have the skills but you still watch through your fingers because anything might happen.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the amateur. These are the folks that find themselves drawn into a dangerous underworld, usually against their will. These kind of tales provide a different vicarious exhilaration . We are the amateurs. Most of us ,if we are lucky, have never been a part of a crew or had to knock over a bank to settle our debt to the local mob boss. But we like to think if we were for instance, Michael Williams, Nic Cage's character from the classic neo-noir Red Rock West, we would be able to hold our own against as crazed Dennis Hopper. (was there really any of kind of Dennis Hopper?) Or we watch with a bit of supercilious arrogance as we watch Mike Swale, Peter Berg's character in the phenomenal film The Last Seduction, fall prey to the lustfully dangerous Bridget Gregory safe and secure in the knowledge we'd never fall for that!.
Or would we?
John Ridley created one of my favorite amateur criminals in his wonderfully dark and wacky novel Everyone Smokes In Hell. Paris Scott a lonely and depressed convenience store clerk finds himself in possession of not only the last recording of one of the biggest rock stars in the world hours after his death but also inexplicably a huge cache of drugs that belong to a vicious dealer. Ridley sets this dizzying tale against the backdrop of 1990's Hollywood where everyone bleeds technicolor and love is a racket. Paris moves from one life threatening encounter to the next surviving on dumb luck and a stubborn refusal to realize he is in way over his head.
Personally I'm partial to the pros. There is an artistic purity in their deliberate machinations. That being said I'm not opposed to a well written novel with a hopelessly out of their depth amateur at the helm. Ed Aymar's Better off Dead or Johnny Shaw's The Upper Hand comes to mind in addition to the aforementioned Everyone Smokes in Hell. Read all three. YOLO.
Regardless of whether the main character is a cool and precise professional or a harried and terrified amateur if the writer or filmmaker is skillful enough we are drawn in and become invested in their success or watch and meditate on their failures.
Either way you son of a bitch I'm in!