Review by Basil Ransome-Davies, 30 January 2020
When I started teaching popular fiction courses forty years ago, having always been more drawn to Jesse James than to Henry James, there were sneers aplenty for making crime novels, ‘pulp fiction’, the focus of academic study. It was as if I had introduced pornography to the curriculum (nowadays that is done too). Moreover, popular culture had become associated with Postmodernism, so it became the target of shotgun blasts from the lowbrows as well as the high-falutin’ traditionals. But the post-1968 redrafting of the cultural agenda had already created an enthusiastic groundswell, especially among younger academics. There was enough published criticism and debate to support the primary reading. Chandler and Hammett had already been admitted to the pantheon of serious literature. Throughout the seventies and eighties new names, such as George V. Higgins, Joseph Wambaugh, James Ellroy and Carl Hiassen, published works that extended the form and scope of US crime fiction in a variety of ways. Each wrote not only of crime but of the late twentieth-century city (Boston, LA, Chicago, Miami) – its underworld, its politics, its murder, mayhem and disruptions.
I would have been very grateful for a volume like this back then. The author has published widely on the topic, and this book is an expanded version of his Rough Guide to Crime Fiction. Honoured with a foreword by Ian Rankin, it is is ‘designed to be both a crime fan’s shopping list and a pithy, opinionated but unstuffy reference tool and history. Most judgements are generous (though not uncritical), and there is a host of entertaining, informed entries on related films and TV’. That’s the publisher’s description, and unlike many promo statements it’s a fair one. Such a sweeping survey is for reference, not cover-to-cover reading. The devil (and the attraction) is in the detail, in the particular judgements (and exclusions) that challenge aficionados of crime fiction to match their knowledge and taste against a maven of the genre. If you’re lucky it will also prove a voyage of discovery.
So that’s the way I’ll review it, using the indexes as recommended by the author to visit entries of personal interest.
For instance: last night I was taking another look at True Romance, a 1993 all-American modern fairy tale of young love and anarchic, homicidal violence that takes the viewer through every register of screen emotion thanks to a fine cast in roles they were born to play. Crime is central to it. Forshaw covers movies. Does True Romance appear in the titles index? No, though screenwriter Quentin Tarantino earns five mentions as author/director in relation to other movies. Director Tony Scott doesn’t appear. I might call that the omission of a cult classic, but so what? Cultural preferences well grounded in knowledge can still be idiosyncratic.
Next up: the ‘late, great George V. Higgins’, as Forshaw correctly names him. A master of low-life dialogue he certainly was, but more than that he developed a narrative style in which the dialogue itself told the story. It was a bold move that could be dizzying for the reader confronted with the convolutions of dialogue-within-dialogue, and led to a complexity that in the end made it hard for him to find a publisher, but for me it worked. Forshaw prefers his brilliant but more conventional first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle as his masterpiece. I would add that it made a damn good movie, with Mitchum in the title role.
On the subject of movies, I decided to look up Altman’s 1973 The Long Goodbye, Chandler’s hero played by ganja-proselyte Elliott Gould as, according to Forshaw, ‘an absurd postmodern anti-Marlow’. For me it was a successful, imaginative updated stroke of revisionism; I’ve always believed that Chandler, born in Victoria’s reign, botched the ending of the novel because he couldn’t imagine Marlowe as a stone killer. Archaic notions of ‘honour’ would have excluded it. I’d say the real cinematic anti-Marlowe was Jake Gittes in Polanski’s masterpiece Chinatown a year later (Forshaw is content to note the ‘absurd plaster’ across Jack Nicolson’s nose).
Thoughts that arise, memories and anticipation (I’ve already acquired two of Forshaw’s recommendations: Romanza Criminale and Arab Jazz). I could go on but won’t. Get it for yourself. In nineteen chapters, five appendices and two indexes it’s a compendium of knowledge and opinion on the genre that ate the world. It can occupy you for hours, but you won’t be wasting your time. Crime may be only ‘a left-handed form of human endeavour’ as Emmerich, the corrupt lawyer in The Asphalt Jungle, smoothly remarks, but there are a lot of people at it and even more extremely keen to read about it.
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
Barry Forshaw, Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide (Oldcastle Books, 2019) 978-0857303356, 448 pp., paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)