Crime fiction, it’s been argued, is about maintaining the status quo, and ensuring that those with the power continue to keep it–that crime is an anomaly, and that once it’s rooted out, order is restored and all is right in the world. It therefore must have a conservative agenda. But more than one guttersnipe has suggested that the hard-boield detective or crime novel is actually political commentary for the masses, with a decided left slant, probing and exposing the injustices of society; that crime is not an anomaly so much as part of the human condition, and that while the detective may crack the case and save the day, he won’t be saving the world.
Certainly not all private eye fiction (consider Race Williams, Mike Hammer or any of Cleve F. Adams’ semi-fascist Irish dicks) could be considered left-leaning (or even moderate), but a case can certainly be made that Dashiell Hammett, who would later be imprisoned for his political views, was no fan of the status quo. In the intro to Red-Handed, an anthology of “radical crime (short) stories,” editor Jon E. Lewis states that a “central concern of Hammett’s works…is the civic corruption which grew up in the wake of Prohibition. As Hammett revealed, corruption had become all-pervasive… In such a world the only guarantor of justice was the shamus or private eye.”
It’s a notion that has certainly continued, from Hammett through Chandler and his ilk, through the compassionate eyes such as Lew Archer, Thomas B. Dewey’s Mac and Michael Collin’s Dan Fortune, with their concerns for young people, workers and the environment, and right into the present era, with the adventures of gay, black, female, hispanic or other “minority” eyes. Their mere existence is a boot right into the nuts of the status quo.
And part of a longer tradition. In Alan Wald’s Writing from the Left: New Essays on Radical Culture and Politics (1994) he suggests that when many writers potentially associated with the communist party or leftist politics in general, started to get blacklisted in the 1940s and ’50s, some of them may have resorted to writing for the pulps and other popular forms of fiction (like the burgeoning paperback market). Among those who leaned left and wrote crime fiction in this era were Robert Finnegan, William Rollins, Ed Lacy, Kenneth Fearing, William Lindsay Gresham, Margaret Larkin, Guy Endore, Abraham Polonsky. E.V. Cunningham (Howard Fast), Robert Terrall, Robert Carse, Edwin Rolfe, Vera Caspery and Jim Thompson.
In fact, back in the late seventies/early eighties, Pluto, an academic press in England with unabashedly progressive politics, published a lot of “serious left wing books,” and even boasted an imprint called Pluto Crimeline. The idea was that since mysteries are the meat of the masses, they would publish these politically edged mysteries to make money for the more serious stuff. Among the authors originally printed by Pluto were Gordon DeMarco, Jeremy Pikser, Gillian Slovo and Manuel Vasquez Montalban.
- Dan Fortune by Michael Collins
- Hector Belascoarán Shayne by Paco Ignacio Taibo II
- Dan Banion by Robert Finnegan
- Tom Bethany by Jerome Doolittle
- Riley Kovachs by Gordon DeMarco
- Jack Liffey by John Shannon
- Ivan Monk by Gary Phillips
- Easy Rawlins by Walter Mosley
- Joe Posner by Jeremy Pikser
- V.I. Warshawski by Sara Paretsky
- Dave Brandstetter by Joseph Hansen
- Kate Baeier by Gillian Slovo
- Pepe Carvahlo by Manuel Vasquez Montalban.
- “Dan Fortune Has His Say (Dan’s Last Words)”
A mini-rant by Michael Collins
- We’re Livin’ In a Political World: The Bookshelf
Books About (mostly American) Politics and Detective Fiction
- The Urban Landscape of Marxist Noir
Alan Wald, author of Writing from the Left, discusses the ‘lost’ leftwing authors of the 1940s and 1950s, with a focus on crime fiction.