A Defense from the Gutter: the case for Crime Fiction as ‘Serious’ Literature

In a recent review of Jake Hinkson’s latest effort, the reviewer’s choice of words: “The Deepening Shade is very much at the literary end of the crime genre…” chafed me like sand in a bathing suit. I remain perplexed why crime fiction, particularly hard-boiled or noir, is considered less than ‘literary’, less than ‘serious’, as if the writer were slumming his or her talent for story-telling.

What if I told you that the first novel in western European literature was crime fiction? I’m well aware that the Jeopardy answer for the first novel is Cervantes’s Don Quixote or that the survey classes in English literature cite Samuel Richardson’s Pamela as the first novel in English. I’d argue, though, that the more accurate answer preceded Don Quixote by half a century and Pamela by almost two centuries. I’m talking about the anonymously written Lazarillo, published in 1554. Both Don Quixote and Lazarillo are classified as picaresque tales, a genre that retails bumbling adventures, with touches of buffoonery and satire; but Lazarillo is a very dark work of crime fiction. There is nothing amusing in Lazarillo. Lazarillo is, in my opinion, the first hard-boiled novel.



Image from Wikipedia.

Lazarillo offers so many atrocities that all of the horrors found in Dickens seem quaint; in fact, Lazarillo rivals most of the modern nonfiction novels that deal with child abuse and some of the the violence in today’s crime novels. It is that graphic and disquieting. Young Lázaro, like a Chaucerian pilgrim in steerage class, tells stories of what it is like to serve as an apprentice to a variety of social superiors, starting with a blind man who, despite his handicap, manages to smash in the boy’s face with a wine jug. His misdeed? Thirst. It doesn’t get better for Lázaro; the blind codger, thinking the boy had stolen sausage, pries open his mouth, sticks his pronounced nose into the boy’s mouth and forces him to vomit the stolen food. The blind man is but the first station on the path of miseries. Lázaro will go on to serve a priest, a squire, a friar, a pardoner, a chaplain, a bailiff and an archbishop. Only Dante had an extra circle in hell. The novel was banned for its realism, for its use of the poor as main characters, and for its anti-clerical and anti-aristocratic tone. Lazarillo did not, in a word, elevate its audience; the anonymous author reminded them all too well of the gutter. Until Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Lazarillo had been the only novel — perhaps the first — I know to depict the inequities women experienced and an interracial family (Lázaro’s mother is white; his father, black).

Lazarillo de Tormes is a story of survival, literally about finding food and outwitting sadists, who were protected by their class and privilege. Jean Valjean was a man sentenced to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, whereas Lázaro was but a child. The darkness of the story is, on the surface, the series of tribulations that the boy endures, and later, below the surface, all the negotiations and forfeitures he has to make in order to become a town crier at the end of his ordeals. Perhaps, the tradition of cynicism found in the modern hard-boiled protagonist may have started here, with a young man’s shattered childhood; it would just take a few more centuries and a passage through several languages for that cynicism to be wedded to the descendants of Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, the first literary detective, and then for the femme fatale for a love interest to be added.

Noir, hard-boiled’s second act, requires the protagonist to make a really bad choice. Since I started with Jake Hinkson’s The Deepening Shade, I’ll pick an example from one of his other works. In Hell On Church Street, a self-professed tough guy picks a fat man as an easy score. Big mistake. Paul meets Geoffrey Webb, the equivalent of Hammett’s Kasper Gutman as a driver; for those readers who haven’t read The Maltese Falcon, imagine carjacking a rotund creature behind the wheel that turns out to be as lethal and cagey as Mike Tyson.

If Lazarillo is hard-boiled, then Francisco de Quevedo  (Historia de la vida del Buscón in Spanish) is noir; it appeared in 1626, and what a crime spree it is. Imagine Quevedo as James Dickey: a writer first known for poetry, until he pens a novel such as Deliverance. The hero here, a young Pablos, undergoes a gruesome education very much like the one Lázaro experienced, except worse. Where Lázaro does what he does out of hunger and survival, Pablos does the same, at first, but then enjoys the role of criminal. If Flaubert offered an education in feelings (L’Éducation sentimentale), Pablos is the graduate of numerous humiliations and depraved rituals, not unlike Musil’s Törless at his military school. Pablos is beaten, spat on, peed on, and shat on. The degradation of the flesh here is scatological, the inverse of hunger. The result? Pablos becomes an astute liar, a master con man. He chooses the criminal path. Pablos lives day to day, using his only weapon: words. Is it here that the noir hero or anti-hero’s witty repartee originates? Much of modern noir opens up with a snarky line said in a bar, during some act of violence, or spoken by a has-been to a woman next to him in bed. The snarky line, which, if spoken in a bar, would get the speaker the business end of a shotgun in the ribs or the bouncer’s choke-hold; or, at the very least, a well-deserved slap across the face from the woman in bed.




Image from Wikipedia.

For an anti-hero, Pablos enjoys striking the pose, looking the part (quedar bien, in Spanish). He has that criminal tough-guy bravado of Paul in Hell On Church Street: “I’m also one mean son of a bitch,” or the pluck of Jim Thompson’s grifters, except that Pablos does not escape unscathed. One of the complaints Raymond Chandler had about pulp writers in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” was that there was no comeuppance, no more morality. He sensed a trend, an inherent nihilism in contemporary stories; in Quevedo’s Swindler, Pablos survives the con, but there is a terrible price: his face is cut in half, from ear to ear, like The Joker in Batman. The Swindler ends with Pablos lighting out for the New World, but not before he commits yet more crimes, including murder. In both of these Spanish novels that I have mentioned, the hero’s desire and journey is survival. Lázaro starves and suffers; Pablos is victim and then deceiver. Lázaro elicits sympathy, while Pablos receives the same until he makes his decision. Their stories are a rite of passage, albeit a brutal one that anticipates the con men of Balzac and Dickens.

So crime fiction grew up from boys with ‘street smarts’ to men with despicable characters. More than that changed in modern times: Sam Spade might have “looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan,” or Marlowe, a “shop-soiled Sir Galahad,” but there was a chivalric code of conduct, a boy’s-only club. On the point of misogyny, I have read little on the sympathy that James Cain showed to single mothers in his writing, although Robert Polito did touch on it lightly in his introductory essay to the Everyman’s Library edition. I don’t know whether or not the ‘code’ originated with the boys centuries ago with Lazarillo and Swindler, but there is a stigma attached to crime fiction; it is not considered ‘serious literature.’

I guess that there are numerous questions, all of them with uncomfortable answers. Why would anyone read a narrative with such brutal violence, excessive profanity and queasy sex? I imagine that Lazarillo and Swindler would have scandalized their first readers. A modern reader is likely to raise an eyebrow and then move on, somewhat desensitized. Is the appeal of crime fiction mere wish fulfillment – a subliminal desire to be bad, to exact revenge out of a feeling of impotence, or the thrill of getting away with it? I say this from two sides of the equation: the anti-hero is the criminal and the detective is often flawed and unlikeable. Items in the gallery: Dexter, Erlendur, and Kurt Wallander, to name but a few.

To relegate crime fiction to the lower shelf as not ‘literature’ and hold the writer in lesser esteem because they choose not to offer slick wordplay that they footnote (David Foster Wallace and David Eggers) for the reader, ramble on for hundreds of pages, offering opinions on everything (Robert Musil), or any other acutely self-conscious post-modernist tricks, is unfair to the writer’s skills. Crime fiction has plot; it has an arc, a beginning, middle, and end to satisfy Aristotle, even if the hero or the ending is frustrating. Is not Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl crime fiction? Are other genres not ‘serious literature’? Readers may read YA because they hunger for a good story, are tired of the ‘serious’ and choose to ignore the designator, ‘Young Adult’ because they want to be entertained, taken elsewhere. A writer does not need ‘the chops’ to make characters sympathetic in crime fiction; good writing does that in and of itself and genre is but is just an arbitrary flavor in the variety on the bookshelves. No stigma, please.

About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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