Crime Fiction and Capitalist Reality

The novel is generally acknowledged to be a bourgeois form of literature. It wasn’t until there were enough literate people with time for leisurely reading that this entertainment came along. The crime novel reflects the bourgeois obsession with order and usually represents the concerns of that class. There is a crime against an individual that shakes up bourgeois society. A detective from the police force or a private investigator hunts down the perpetrator through a series of clues, makes the arrest and all is well again. Agatha Christie’s novels are perfect examples of this. Then there are the tough guy novels featuring men like Mike Hammer. In this type of story, the protagonist easily forsakes the niceties of bourgeois society in his crime solving. Naturally, this alienates the police and the bourgeoisie, but he still gets the job done, captures (or kills) the criminal, and allows the middle class to get on with their lives. This representation is occasionally turned around and the protectors of order — the police and courts — are the criminals and by association so is the system they work for. This is noir. Noir does not pretend that the society their protagonists operate in is worth saving. It’s just the only one we have. This is where the novels of a few current writers exist, and where mine are intentionally placed.

Writing about Italian noir for World Literature Today critic Madison J. Davis noted:

The traditional mystery, deriving from Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and evolving through Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie to contemporary practitioners like Carolyn G. Hart and Simon Brett, requires a certain faith in the legal system—or at least in a measure of justice parceled out to those who commit crimes. We live, however, in a skeptical world, in which even those who enjoy the puzzles and deductions of the traditional whodunit cannot see them as realistic. The events of the twentieth century have cracked, often splintered, our faith in the legal system and the triumph of justice, even in the good ole U. S. of A.

I would argue that the twenty-first century has brought us beyond even the skepticism Davis acknowledges. Indeed, skepticism seems almost quaint, when we read about hundreds of men being released from prison because they were jailed for crimes they did not commit. Their incarceration was not due to a mistake, but a conscious decision by authorities to match a crime to the victim they chose. Every time news like this comes out, the credibility of the police as protectors of society diminishes. When working people see their friends and children going to prison for drug offenses while the wealthy usually avoid doing time, their perception of the legal system being rigged in favor of the wealthy and powerful is reinforced. Since the police are the most obvious representatives of that system (and the individuals most citizens encounter) they are no longer perceived as much more than enforcers of the rights of the wealthy and powerful. This perception, long held by those considered The Other in society, is now part of the common parlance. Indeed, television crime shows assume this in their portrayals of police departments and individual cops. Certain series, most notably David Simon’s depressingly exquisite take on the corruption rampant in an entire city’s political and legal system called The Wire, create a world where the incorruptible individual has no place.

This does not mean that the police don’t enjoy at least tacit support by a majority of the population; it does mean that the number of people who believe the police are not above criminality is much diminished from just a few decades ago. The abuse of power by police during the protests of the 1960s and onwards; the revelations of individual cops like New York’s Serpico regarding corruption and illegal arrests (among other things); the militarization of most police forces in cities and towns large and small; and the continued abrogation of civil liberties in the name of the war on drugs and the war on terrorism. All of these make the line between the police and the criminals they supposedly oppose very thin. Despite the multitude of cop shows on television attempting to present police as protectors of order and the innocent and even the presence of movies like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry series (which serve as propaganda for authoritarianism), many residents of modern society are convinced the police are not there for their sake.

Nor is the legal system. Occasionally a clever lawyer is able to keep an innocent person out of prison — in real life and in fiction. Indeed, certain authors have made a good living writing legal thrillers that feature these kinds of stories. More often than not, however, the police and the courts conspire to convict the person in the docket no matter what. It’s not that the conspiracy is intentional; it’s just how the system works. Police arrest a person for a crime and the courts do the rest. Without a good attorney — something very few can afford — the suspect’s options are very limited. If one adds a cop with a grudge, a judge with an agenda, or a politician with a law and order platform to the equation, that person in the docket does not stand a chance.

A few decades ago I was charged with “possession with the intent to sell” because I was sitting in an automobile when an acquaintance sold a small amount of marijuana to an undercover cop. This all went down not long after the state I was living in had passed a law that rendered the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure null and void. Anyone who was in the vicinity of anything having to do with illegal drugs was as culpable as the person actually involved with the drugs. So, since I was in the car when the drug deal occurred, I was also involved in the sale. When I showed up at court on the charge, I asked my public defender if I should challenge the charge and plead not guilty. His response was simple. If I challenged the charge, I would not win. He advised me to take a plea deal and do community service. I took his advice. The law was not interested in justice, just in throwing people in jail.

Much anti-capitalist and antiwar activity is already labeled criminal in an imperial society. This, in itself, means that characters participating in activities that fall into this category are already suspect. Meanwhile, the forces of law and order trying to stifle such characters have a leeway not provided the citizen, no matter what he or she is involved in. The often violent reaction of the authorities to the Occupy Wall Street protests in Fall 2011 provides a recent example of this fact. A greater contradiction occurs when the forces of authority engage in criminal behavior in the pursuit of the forces aligned against the rulers the police are hired to protect. A further complication comes into play when criminal actions by the police are ignored or sanctioned while criminal acts by the targets of the authorities are not. In a line quite familiar to most rock and roll fans (especially those who listen to the Rolling Stones) that calls every cop a criminal, this contradiction is even clearer.

Back to that incorruptible individual. Most noir features a private investigator. Like the accused, he or she is an individual who lives on the edges of the law. In a world where the law itself can be unjust, only those not in debt to the system designed to bring justice can find that justice. Most often the investigator is one who works for hire with a set of morals that are immutable. In certain cases, like two of the novels in my 1970s trilogy, the investigators are regular folks determined to help a friend. Still, they are not without faults. Alcohol is often a vice these characters deal with. Most recently, in Thomas Pynchon’s foray into the genre with a book titled Inherent Vice, his private eye smokes a lot of marijuana. Early on, many of the so-called tough guys like Mike Hammer were sexist and racist. As the genre has evolved, so have the investigators. Like the society they operate in, today’s investigators include Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and women.

Today’s noir fiction is the story of a system and society in decline. Marxist Ernest Mandel published a book on crime fiction in 1986 titled Delightful Murder. In this book, Mandel looks at the genesis and development of crime fiction. We see the development of the criminal from a lone individual whose exploits shock and dismay, but whom heroic police agents can capture. As capitalism moves into its monopoly phase, the lone criminal remains a problem, yet the real problem developing is an entire class of criminals. These are what Marx labeled the lumpenproletariat: that part of society whose sole task is surviving no matter what it takes. Usually extremely poor, only occasionally employed in conventional jobs, and existing literally outside of society, the lumpen are the truly dangerous ones in the bourgeoisie’s midst. They provide respectable society with their entertainments such as illegal drugs and sex, but must be controlled at all cost. The investigator’s position in society is closer to that of the lumpen than to any other stratum. He or she understands the justice of the streets is often not the justice of the courtroom. Of course, this position outside of society means there is nothing to lose in fighting the wealthy and powerful.

Mandel published his book before capitalism’s latest phase was truly underway. That is, neoliberalism. This stage of monopoly capitalism is the nightmare that Rosa Luxembourg warned us about. Financiers who produce no product run the world. Instead of creating work, their actions profit from the destruction of jobs and the impoverishment of millions. They launder the millions made by international drug lords while financing politicians who want to build more prisons and lock up those who use the drugs. As far as the financiers are concerned, the working class itself is now a criminal class. Yet, we know better. It is the financiers and their class that are the true criminals. Still, they go free while workers go to jail for the crime of being poor. The conspiracy of the super rich is not an accident. They built the world that way.

Writers can choose to point this out or they can go along with the status quo. Good crime fiction on a neoliberal planet chooses the former. The task of those who write these tales is to point the finger at the true criminals. The police are only heroes when they bust the big guys. The system can only be just when it turns on its own. At this juncture in time, this only seems to happen in stories. Unfortunately.

This essay appears as a foreword to all three novels in Jacobs’ “Seventies Series.” (Fomite Press)

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.