One Punk’s Guide to Crime Novels by Sean Carswell

Originally appeared in Razorcake #109 April/May 2019

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One Punk’s Guide to Crime Novels by Sean Carswell

1.

Razorcake probably wouldn’t exist if not for the crime Jim Ruland and I plotted twenty-four years ago.

I’d just moved to Flagstaff, Ariz. to attend one of the least prestigious graduate schools in the country. Jim was already a year in the program. He caught up with me as I sat outside the student union, waiting for my student ID to print. We’d never met but had sat in the same room for several hours the day before. It would’ve been awkward not to talk. I did what grad students in English do: I asked Jim about the books he liked to read. Jim did what grad students in English never do. He started talking about crime novels.

I love crime novels. I love them now and I loved them then. When I was a teenager, my dad turned me on to Mickey Spillane. I couldn’t really get behind Spillane’s protagonist, Mike Hammer. At the time, I didn’t have the words to express my problems with Mike Hammer. Now I recognize that he’s a festering sore of toxic masculinity. Still, the books rocked. Everyone was tough. Even the prose was tough. It told me exactly what I needed to know and no more. It whipped me through a world of pure id. And Mike Hammer was a dick, for sure, but he was an entertaining one. Nothing like the books I was assigned in high school classes, shit like Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. The protagonists from those books were dicks oozing toxic masculinity, too, but they were rich dicks whining their way through a world of privilege. At least Mike Hammer seemed like a guy I might run into in real life.

Jim told me, “If you like Mickey Spillane, you gotta check out Jim Thompson. He’s a hundred times better.” Then Jim confessed to me his plan. He wanted to write crime fiction that was literary. I knew what he was talking about. I’d just finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s V., which is basically a literary spy novel. The whole time I was reading it, I daydreamed about doing the same thing, only with crime fiction instead of spy fiction.

So this was the plot we’d both developed without having met each other or even existed within thousands of miles of each other.

Neither of us mentioned punk rock in that first meeting. That happened later. I walked through downtown looking for a place to grab lunch. Jim and his roommate drove by. His roommate stopped and offered me a ride. I hopped in. Big Black was playing on the tape deck. I’d found my tribe.

Jim’s roommate turned out to be a guy named Todd Taylor. Their other roommate was a guy named Danny Clarke. Six years later, Todd and Danny would build the website for Razorcake. Before it went live, Todd would enlist me to start the print magazine with him. Jim would write for every issue. Eighteen years later, we’d have not just over a hundred issues of the magazine, but a publishing house with a couple dozen titles and everything else the Razorcake platform promotes: podcasts, zines, shows, DJ sets, community outreach, and so on.

It’s funny to think that I came into this through a conversation about Mickey Spillane and Jim Thompson.

On the other hand, it makes total sense. There’s a deep-seeded entanglement between crime fiction—and the specific type of crime fiction I’ll write about here, which is often called noir—and punk rock. Noir is not punk, and punk is not noir. Sometimes, punks write noir. Sometimes, noir writers are in punk bands. The real connections are mostly abstract, but they’re significant. At their core, both the punk and the noir I love are working class art movements. They have deep veins of anti-authoritarianism and anti-capitalism. They exist at and for those of us who prefer to live in the margins.



2.

Let’s start with Jim Thompson. Ruland was right. Thompson is a hundred times better than Mickey Spillane. Thompson’s prose is tough and lean. His books grab you by the front of your T-shirt and whip you into a world of madness. The masculinity is different. It’s toxic in Thompson, too, but that’s seen as a problem, not a goal. And if there’s anyone living in a world of privilege, they’re the villain.

The first book I picked up by Jim Thompson was The Getaway. Ruland didn’t recommend it, specifically. I picked it up because it was the only Thompson book at the local used bookstore. I was skeptical. I’d seen the movie adaption of it starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Bassinger. It is not a good movie. It is a great novel. The Getaway tells the story of a pair of bank robbers, Doc McCoy and his wife Carol. They knock off a bank and pocket a quarter million dollars. Their plan is to flee to California, then Mexico. Much of the novel follows their escape and the trail of corpses they leave behind them. To think of it as a chase story, though, ignores the complicated characters Thompson builds out of Doc and Carol. Most compelling is the constant battle they have between needing to trust each other and needing to overcome all the evidence that they’re both vicious criminals who shouldn’t be trusted. Or, put in a more general way, it’s a book about the desire to be in a loving, trusting relationship while recognizing that the person we love the most is also the person who brings us the most pain. And, if everything works out, we’re left in a situation where the best case scenario is either dying first or living out your final days in a fog of heartbreak and loss. Beyond all of this, though, is the frantic, almost desperate drive to ignore the way our stories must end, to keep moving, to try to outrun what we can’t outrun.

Holy shit!

The end of The Getaway is as devastating as a book can be while still being enjoyable. Neither film adaptations (there’s also one starring Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw) adapt Thompson’s ending. That’s only part of the reason why those two movies suck. Mostly they suck because The Getaway relies too much on things that you can’t represent visually—the unresolvable internal struggles of Doc and Carol, the smell of a manure cave Doc and Carol have to hide in for three days, the surreal nature of their final destination.

This was what got me about Thompson when I read him in those early days of graduate school: his mastery of the “literary” in a gutter genre. I was reading Thompson while taking literature classes, balancing his complicated crime novels with works by Henry James and Ernest Hemingway. James and Hemingway, I was taught, were Literature. Thompson was Trash. This was one more example in what I’ve seen as a lifetime of people talking about books in which arbitrary hierarchies are established, then really smart people try to justify these hierarchies. Henry James, for instance, is supposed to be literary because of the psychological complexity of his characters. And his characters are okay. Sometimes they’re memorable. But his prose is a slog. His novels are boring and overwritten. Hemingway is supposed to be different. He’s supposed to be the literary giant a guy like me champions because his prose is sparse and his men are manly. But reading his books feels like reading a Spillane novel without the plot: all tough-guy talk and no action. Forget it. Give me Thompson instead. His characters are every bit as psychologically complex. The situations he creates force readers to ask big, deep philosophical questions. He draws us into a room in our subconscious where a menacing lump lies beneath a blanket, and he seduces us into lifting that blanket and taking a peek. That’s what I want books to do for me.

So the first recommendation I’m giving (a good starting point but by no means the only starting point for punks looking to get into crime novels) is Jim Thompson. My favorite of his is Pop. 1280. Two other good ones to start with are The Getaway and The Killer Inside Me.



3.

Back in the mid-nineties, when I first started hanging out with Jim and Todd, those guys hunted down books the way we used to hunt down good bands. Some of you might remember this, some of you might find it incredibly archaic, but in the late eighties and early nineties, it was really tough to find good music. I grew up in a town where I couldn’t access Flipside, MRR, or any other national zine. I’d stumble across a good band, see what bands they thanked in their acknowledgements, and, if a few good bands thanked a band I hadn’t heard of, I’d take a chance on their album. I’d send out a check, wait four-to-six weeks, and get the new cassette. This process was honed down once I started to really recognize record labels. If SST or Dischord or Alternative Tentacles put it out, I’d buy it.

By the time I met Jim and Todd, we could get zines and bands were easier to find. Still, we’d talk about which record labels were putting out good music. Similarly, Jim and Todd were both really into this publishing house called Black Lizard. Black Lizard was edited by Barry Gifford. Gifford rose to national prominence through his Sailor and Lula novels. One of those novels, Wild at Heart, was adapted into a film directed by David Lynch and starring Laura Dern as Lula. The film (at least as I remember it; I haven’t seen it this century) is great and the Sailor and Lula novels are a big deal. Perhaps the bigger deal is what Gifford did once he rose to national prominence: he brought the crime novels he loved back into print.

Every time I see a Black Lizard book for sale that I don’t have, I purchase it. I’ve done this for the past twenty-something years. I’ve never been disappointed. The series introduced me to great obscure writers like Charles Willeford, Charles Williams, and the best of the forgotten crime writers, David Goodis. The series also brought back some major crime writers, introducing them to a new generation of readers, and a new generation after that. Three in particular can be seen as the Godfathers of noir: Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler.

Hammett is often cited as the first real noir writer. As punks who’ve argued about which band was the first punk band know, claims like this are always specious. Artistic movements always come out of somewhere. Hammett came out of somewhere. Pulp magazines publishing the kind of fiction Hammett wrote existed before Hammett wrote it (just as venues existed for the Ramones before the Ramones played them). An appetite for Hammett existed before Hammett fed his readers. Despite this, Hammett’s influences came from somewhere a little less literary.

When he was twenty, he started working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The Pinkertons were mostly hired thugs and strikebreakers. Occasionally, they’d have a case they tried to solve. Mostly, they went into places where unions were trying to strike or workers were trying to organize, and beat, shot, stabbed, or otherwise bullied workers until the labor action was resolved one way or another. Hammett was both a thug and a detective. He was also very good at writing reports of his daily activities. He developed a style of being concise but complete. Brevity in writing is much harder than it looks. Hammett had a talent for it.

Seven years into his tenure with the Pinkertons, Hammett was offered five thousand dollars by the Pinkertons to assassinate labor leader Frank Little. Hammett refused. Shortly thereafter, Little was murdered by “vigilantes.” Hammett knew the vigilantes were really Pinkertons who’d accepted the money he’d turned down. He was so disgusted by the company and his actions that he quit. The timing for this was bad. He’d recently been married. He and his wife had made a baby and another baby after that. Hammett needed money. He started writing stories from his Pinkerton days, keeping his concise style and focusing more on the detective part and less on the strikebreaking part. His main character was called “The Continental Operative.” The Continental Op usually went into a town, figured out exactly where the corruption was, and started killing. These stories were published in pulp magazines like The Black Mask. They allowed Hammett to make a living with his pen. He grew as a writer, and, in the 1930s, he published three of the greatest crime novels ever written: The Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, and The Glass Key.

While Hammett was in San Francisco writing his first Continental Op stories for The Black Mask, a young journalist from Baltimore named James M. Cain was in the coal fields of West Virginia reporting on labor issues for the Baltimore Sun. A labor leader named Bill Blizzard was being tried for treason. Cain was assigned to cover the trial and the accompanying unrest. The trial was a sham. The events surrounding it changed Cain forever. A year earlier, the coal miners in West Virginia had raised an army ten thousand strong to fight against the several-thousand-strong private army that coal operators had already raised. A war broke out. It was the largest armed conflict on American soil since the Civil War. Coal operators went so far as to employ WWI fighter planes and attempt to bomb tent communities of striking miners and their families. When the dust settled, because most of the state government in West Virginia were coal company lackeys, the private army was referred to as a State Militia and the labor leaders were arrested for trying to smash the state. Cain covered it all for the Sun. The situation catalyzed deeper questions for Cain. He started to wonder what a society was, how ethical a state was when it sponsored such abject violence against its citizens, and what compelled all of us to act. He resigned his post at the Sun and spent the next several months trying to write a Great American Novel about the coal fields. According to Cain, all four drafts he wrote of that book sucked and labor wasn’t fertile ground for literature.

Cain narrowed his scope, kept his journalistic style, and started writing crime novels that were mostly about decent people driven to crime by overwhelming passions. Several of these novels involve lovers who kill one of the lovers’ spouses so they can be together (two of these novels rightfully made him famous, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity). Sometimes, the passions are just a mother’s love for her daughter (as in Cain’s best novel, Mildred Pierce). Some of Cain’s work may be dated and troubling now—the way he portrays Mexicans in Serenade and the way he portrays Appalachians in Butterfly is fucked up—but it’s still worth it. I’m not one to put down a book because it’s sexist, classist, racist, et cetera. I want to understand how those beliefs are formed and manifest in all of us. Cain, more than any writer I know of, was willing to explore these ideas. He confronted some of the worst aspects of our society and ourselves. He often stumbled in his confrontations, but his willingness to have these conversations and to expose his own personal flaws raise the level of his prose far beyond what anyone expects of a crime novel.

While Cain was explicit that his style arose from journalism and that comparisons between him and Hammett were off base, another of their contemporaries gave Hammett a lot of credit for being an inspiration. Like Hammett, Raymond Chandler was a guy working in a corrupt industry and wanting to use his writing as a way out. For nine years before he started writing prose, Chandler worked for a Southern California oil company. The job ate him up inside. When he finally quit (or was fired, stories vary), he also found himself in need of a new way of making money. Like Cain, Chandler had been a journalist in the 1920s. Like Hammett, Chandler started writing stories focused around a single protagonist. Chandler’s hero was Philip Marlowe, a grizzled WWI veteran who follows only his own moral compass while delving into the corruption of the wealthy in Los Angeles. If these tropes sound familiar, it’s because Chandler developed them.

Through his Philip Marlowe novels, Chandler took the cues from Hammett and Cain and elevated them to an aesthetic. In his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler says that the hero of a detective novel must be “the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” Typically, Philip Marlowe is the best man in the novel. The others are so corrupt and petty it doesn’t take much to be better than them. Still, Marlowe deserves credit for believing in our ability to be better than we are, more just, more caring, more active in trying to do right and impact the world positively. Like most white men in mid-century fiction, Marlowe is at times racist and sexist. Like Cain, Chandler recognizes that race, gender, and class are huge impediments to justice. Any writer exploring justice (which crime novels must explore) has to push conversations about race, class, and gender as far as they can. And, if he’s a white man, he has to be willing to recognize that he’s been indoctrinated with so much sexism and racism that he’s going to take a few mistakes. Marlowe does his best recognize this while he dives headfirst into the worst parts of our society and culture for us. It’s a courageous and dazzling dive.

Chandler only wrote seven original novels and a few dozen short stories during his career. You can’t go wrong with any of them. His two most famous, The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, are his two best.



4.

Of course, all of the writers I’ve spoken of up to this point (including Jim Ruland, Todd Taylor, and myself) are white men. I’m acutely aware of the dangers of a white man espousing the excellence of other white men writers. I start with these guys for two reasons: first, these are the guys who started the genre. Like it or not, noir started as something specifically white and male. One of its most recognizable tropes is one of the most misogynistic: the femme fatale, or deadly woman who drives good men to murder, lust, greed, et cetera. To a greater and lesser extent, all of the writers I’ve mentioned employed the trope of the femme fatale. Also and notably, Hammett, Cain, Goodis, and Chandler all abandoned and tried to repair the trope in their later works. Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man, is about a married crime-fighting couple, with the wife being the more complicated and compelling character. Goodis never seemed comfortable with the trope. Even in books that are supposed to be about femmes fatale, like his The Blonde on the Street Corner, the crimes are never really the woman’s fault. The real crime in most of Goodis—and this is why I love his work, particularly Shoot the Piano Player and Nightfall—is poverty and the economic system that perpetuates it. Cain’s last several novels consciously develop more complete women characters who are not to blame. His final novel, unpublished in his lifetime, is told from the femme fatale’s perspective. It’s a book-length polemic on why that trope is so fucked up.

The second reason I start with these guys in this essay is just because these are the writers I read first. I was a working class kid in a graduate program, trying to climb a socioeconomic ladder and get access into parts of society typically closed off for people like me: Literature and academia. Goodis, Thompson, Hammett, and, to a lesser extent, Chandler and Cain, were guys like me who climbed this ladder. They showed me that working class people in America are not really allowed to write Literature. Of course, there are rare exceptions to this, but look closely at most of the writers who you study in high school and college courses, who win awards like the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, who get reviewed in places like the New York Times and LA Times, and who get published in places like the New Yorker and the Paris Review. What you’ll see is that, regardless of race, gender, or sexuality, all of these writers come from the same narrow community. They were typically raised in the same socioeconomic class. They went to the same handful of Ivy League or otherwise “elite” schools. They have the same agents and publishers. In fact, Literature has come to mean simply fiction written by people from this community. It follows that Literature is closed to everyone—regardless of race, gender, or sexuality—who is outside of this narrow community. The best we can do is master a gutter genre and push it to its extremes.

I learned this from reading Chester Himes. Himes was a brilliant working class kid from the Midwest. He attended Ohio State in the late 1920s, but institutional racism and the pigment of his skin got him expelled pretty quickly. Shortly after that, he got arrested for a petty theft and sentenced to twenty to twenty-five years hard labor in prison. He ended up serving nine years. While he was in prison, he started writing and publishing short stories. Once he was out, he moved to Los Angeles and worked building planes in the Los Angeles area as part of the wartime effort. He wrote a literary fiction novel about this, changing the wartime industry to a shipyard and sometimes fictionalizing what was a largely autobiographical novel called If He Hollers Let Him Go. It’s one of the greatest novels ever written. It should have brought him fame and wealth. Instead, he made just enough money off his fiction to scrape by and keep at it for the next few decades.

One day in the 1950s, Himes was at his wit’s end. He was in Paris, broke, out of prospects, and desperate. He was visiting a guy named Marcel Duhamel. Duhamel had translated the French version of If He Hollers. Himes asked if he’d translate some more recent work. Duhamel said no. He was editing a series of books called Serie Noir. Duhamel told Himes to write a crime novel for him. Himes said he didn’t know how to write crime. Duhamel told him, it’s easy. Start with a body and find the murderer. Write pictures in words for 220 typed pages. Himes said he didn’t have money for paper. Duhamel gave him about a hundred dollars to get started.

A few months later, Himes produced a novel originally published as For Love of Imabelle but now known as A Rage in Harlem. It’s an intense, wild ride following a con woman, a dupe, and escalating corruption. Two detectives, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, are on the case. It’s the first of eight Coffin Ed and Gravedigger books. In these books, Himes creates a Harlem that never really existed, but provides a platform for Himes to explore all the issues of race and class that publishers weren’t open to him exploring in his more “literary” titles. Any of the Harlem series are worth checking out. My favorites are A Rage in Harlem, The Crazy Kill, and Cotton Comes to Harlem.

Himes wasn’t the first or only black man to come to writing crime novels in prison. Iceberg Slim famously wrote his autobiographical novels during his pimp years while serving time. Donald Goines wrote crime novels about his own crimes while in prison. When he got out, he started cranking out sometimes three or four novels a year, writing his way into a law-abiding life. The only problem is, he borrowed plots from criminals he knew. They didn’t like it. One of them shot him dead at his desk. The novels he left behind, especially Daddy Cool, are a gift to us all.

On the contemporary side of things, Walter Mosley still seems to be cranking out a book or two a year. His most famous (and first) is Devil in a Blue Dress. Reading Devil in a Blue Dress after reading If He Hollers Let Him Go shows what a huge debt Mosley owes to Himes. Devil in a Blue Dress is set in the same time period and geographical region as If He Hollers. Mosley’s protagonist, Easy Rawlins, works the same kind of job as Himes’s protagonist, Bob Jones, and really could be Bob Jones’s twin. Reading Mosley after reading Himes is kind of like listening to Teenage Bottlerocket after listening to the Ramones. You see where they get it from, but still, it’s good shit. I don’t care how referential it is, as long it’s done well. Mosley does it well.



5.

With the exception of Mosley and Gifford, who’s still writing, everyone else I’ve mentioned was writing fifty to a hundred years ago. This shouldn’t give the impression that noir is dead. Like punk rock itself, people tend to focus on the early years of the genre and ignore all the amazing and diverse stuff that’s happening today. But rest assured, there are amazing writers coming out with noir novels that expand the genre in directions that Hammett, Cain, and Chandler never touched. Perhaps the Godmother of these writers is Megan Abbott.

About fifteen years ago, Abbott was a graduate student studying masculinity in the early noir writers I’ve mentioned here. To give herself a break from her dissertation and the overwhelming masculinity of it, she wrote a novel of her own called Queenpin. It’s a rewriting of The Glass Key, but both the crime boss and the boss’s second-in-command are women in Queenpin. This simple gender reversal opens up whole new avenues for the genre. It’s the first of four historical crime novels she wrote. The other three are Bury Me Deep, The Song Is You, and Die a Little. Pick any one. You won’t be disappointed.

While Abbott was writing Queenpin, she befriended a clerk in a New York bookstore named Sara Gran. Gran was also a fan of early noir, and had written her own historical noir novel, Dope. The two worked together to promote each other. Gran built on the success of her early novels and started a series of crime novels featuring a detective named Claire DeWitt. Claire DeWitt comes out of the ‘80s New York punk scene, and she worships a missing French detective/philosopher who seems to be based the Situationist philosopher Guy Debord. Also, Claire gets really fucked up on drugs and alcohol. A lot. So much that her books tend to be almost as much about her decompensation as it is about her solving the crime. I always get to the end of the books more worried about Claire’s bender than I am about the mystery. It’s an amazing trick Gran pulls off again and again.

Southern California is still churning out great noir novelists, too. Steph Cha’s Juniper Song series follows a young woman from Koreatown who loves Raymond Chandler and decides to be a detective when a buddy of hers gets into trouble. Like Marlowe, Song dives headfirst into the world of money and corruption that most of us never see. Unlike Marlowe, Song is refreshingly unprepared for what she sees. When people die, she mourns. When people attack her, she has to heal. It takes away any superhero aspects of the protagonist and makes her painfully human.

One of Cha’s contemporaries is San Diego writer Lisa Brackmann. Brackmann’s novels are unapologetically left-wing. The criminals are the rich, the higher echelons of government, white supremacists, and the like. Her heroes are all women. This may seem like a recipe for didactic books that are more concerned with spreading a political message than entertaining the reader. But no. Brackmann’s novels are always first and foremost novels. They’re faster paced, more enjoyable, and less political than your typical superhero movie. I recommend starting with Getaway or Black Swan Rising.



6.

If it seems like I’m focusing only on women when I talk about contemporary noir, it’s because most of the great noir being written today is being written by women. If I had more room, I’d talk about Denise Mina, Naomi Hirahara, Elizabeth Hand, Denise Hamilton, and Natsuo Kirino. Instead, I’ll end this article with two more white men: me and Jim.

It would be too incestuous or arrogant for me to sing the praises of Jim and myself at the end here, so I won’t. I do want to think back to us as two mostly-unpublished writers in 1994, sitting outside the student union, talking about crime and plotting to write our own crime novels. I want to tell those guys, “Good news. You’ll pull it off.” Because Jim wrote one of my favorite crime novels, Forest of Fortune, which came out in 2014. It’s almost as good as the new one he’s written, which is as-yet unpublished. I’m sure I’ll be pushing it on everyone I know when it comes out in the next year or two.

As for me, my first three novels were all plotted around crimes, but they’re not really crime novels. My new one is purely and unapologetically noir. I took Marcel Duhamel’s advice to Chester Himes—start with a murder and solve it—and set it in ‘40s Los Angeles like so many of my favorite books. I took my own dive into the corruption of early Hollywood and midcentury psych hospitals. The novel is called Dead Extra. It comes out in May. Hopefully, it’ll end up on your bookshelves with a handful of the ones I’ve recommended above.



Apologies to Shawn Kerri for shamelessly swiping her “Skankin’ Kid” pose for my Skankin’ Raymond Chandler. She’s my punk rock cartooning her; what can I say? –Brad Beshaw