This paper was written in 2009 as a plenary for a conference at the University of Limerick, and combines elements of two project so which I was working, my study of the mid nineteenth century `Mysteries of the Cities’ (published in late 2011 by McFarland, U.S.A) and recurrent work, in reviews and talks on the latest versions of crime fiction in the 1990s and early twenty-first century.
I have always regarded myself as basically a historian, if a cultural historian. I like to chart how structures of myth, genre, theme, change across time and place, and how those changes reveal the actual forces at work in the varying periods. So in crime fiction I have argued in a recent book that in series from 1800 to 2000 the detective is developed, death becomes the central crime, and the modern formation is diversity, especially of gender and ethnicity, but also diversity of form itself. I would always avoid any facile sense that things are improving, but would certainly expect to find them changing, consistently different.
Puzzling, then, and even disturbing, to find in my recent work that this does not seem to be the case. In recent months I have been working in two areas of crime fiction. One is updating my Palgrave Macmillan book Crime Fiction 1800-2000 to become Crime Fiction 1800 to the Present, and this has involved looking at a remarkable amount of new material – mostly fiction but also impressive amounts of new critical material. At the same time I have been researching a long-planned project, to look at the sudden emergence in the 1840s of the sub-genre of `The Mysteries of the Cities’, first in France with Eugène Sue, then in London with George Reynolds and around the world as far as St Petersburg and Melbourne.
The puzzle, and the disturbance, was to find a remarkable amount of similarity, even identity, between the two formations, 1840s mysteries and crime fiction at the turn of the 20th to 21st centuries. In my title today I have isolated three major areas of congruence, Cruelty, Conspiracy and Capital Cities, and I will explore these overlaps, especially the first two categories, and explain why the third, cities, is different. I fear the differences won’t make us moderns feel very progressive.
The charges brought against the Newgate Novel in the 1830s and 1840s rested on its representation of violence: some just felt it was wrong that the audience was invited to enjoy the violence, but more searching commentators felt that the form worked, as we might now say, to naturalise violence, to make the criminal life seem structural to society when previously, as in the Newgate Calendar, criminality had firmly been identified as aberrant and its practitioners extirpated on the gallows. These anti-Newgate novel commentators did not note that in their own time social analysts, not only alarmist ones, were identifying the existence of a new criminal class, hidden in the new cities, people who preferred a life of crime, and often violent crime, to a life of exploited labour. One interesting question, looking back, is if there is any truth in the idea that things were changing then, or was it just that publishing was now for a much wider readership in fiction and newsprint and that accordingly the old social controls of publication were weakening and long silent views were appearing? The best answer, I suggest, is a bit of both: things were changing, and urbanisation was a major force in criminal self-identification and random violence, but also the means of reproduction of narratives about these matters were increasingly in hands other than the hegemonic and morally censoring elite of the past. It will be interesting to consider whether this is also true of the late twentieth century formations which I am going to argue are surprisingly similar in many ways to the formations of the 1840s.
First: cruelty. I remember when elements of this argument first appeared to me. In the 1980s I was a regular crime reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald: I would get a swag of books in and decide which to use for a theme-focused column each month, trying to avoid or at most accommodate the pressures put on me by editors, both on the paper and in publishing houses. It was a Jonathan Kellerman title of 1988 entitled On the Edge, it had a white jacket, which my wife told me were then fashionable with the designers. And like much American crime fiction, it was embossed. But embossed with the tip of a knife just protruding from, as it were, the belly of the book onto its jacket, at the end of a long red curve indicating an incision. So we were actually inside the belly looking at the knife tip coming in. I blinked at this, and penetrated the book. The story had no knife, no belly wound. It was the designer or publisher or, let’s blame the easiest, the publicity person, who had dreamed up this jacket design. Or nightmared it up. I felt offended as both a reader and author and also a rather squeamish person. I thought of the recent Ed McBain Widows with a horrible multiple-wound knife-murder at the start, and others like that. Things were changing. Was it to respond to readers’ anxieties ? Or was it just to up the level of shock, horror and sadomasochistic fun in an increasingly blood-soaked and horror-jaded market. Was the knife in our heads ? I decided I had had enough and wouldn’t be party to disseminating this somatic manipulation. I wrote a goodbye column, Stephen Knight Turns in his Trenchcoat.
I don’t think I was wrong – just last week a British reviewer decided there was too much violence and gave up, to be upbraided on radio by a lady publisher with a very posh voice. Ooah Naoow, we are meeearely giving the paaaublic whaaut it waaaunts. Yes - like cigarettes, very strong cider and public executions.
Where are we now ? A well-dressed well-spoken young lady student comes into my office, takes a seat and politely says `Professor Knight I wanted to discuss my essay plan with you. I am thinking of writing on disembowelling in the modern thriller.’ My first response is to blurt out `Does your mother know?’ But I know that’s wrong. `Oh’, I weakly say, `let me look at your essay-plan.’ We actually used to call it disembowelling studies. I notice that Patricia Cornwell’s Predator includes a lectureette on disembowelling and how the knife behaves, as if from the inside. The young ladies would find that interesting.
At least it’s not that sensitive introspective stuff in all the other modern literature classes, which we call `Me Studies’. Or perhaps it is: there is some good analysis on the serial-killer fiction and the Brett Easton Ellis /Stella Duffy school of brutal violence as a somatic realisation of personal identity in a posthuman world. The tattoos just go a bit deeper.
Back to the cruelty mainstream. I have been doing a body count lately as part of my critical policing. The term itself is pretty interesting: here are a few 1970s novels and films (it’s a Vietnam term) and just a couple from the 1990s. I notice that one of the 3 novels with this title is missing from the Library of Congress stack. Then there is the 1992 rock group Body Count with their big hit, the not uncontroversial, `Cop Killer’ by Ice-T. I think the term `body count’ isn’t used much in titles because it is too uneuphemised: the really savage body-count novels have nice titles like Roses are Red, Paint It Black, Birdman, Cross Country. Cornwell gets closer to business with The Body Farm and Cruel and Unusual, but those earlier titles are noticeably less euphemised than her recent ones, apart from the recent Predator – but that is the name of a police project on serial killing, not an uneuphemised term for the killer himself, and here, herself too.
Hidden inside the euphemism lies the body count. From the late eighties to early noughties there is a fairly steady count: in two figures. There will be a couple of multiples, usually a family, with quite a bit of nastiness in the reporting – from blackened bodies to multiple wounds, very multiple, and extra touches like beheadings. There are also single deaths stitched through the narrative, often of casual victims, or police taken out, or possible suspects, red herrings neatly filleted. And, to me very interestingly, there is also what I’d call cruelty foreplay, which is then abandoned: typically a group of hostages taken who end up not getting killed. It is as if, to speak grimly, serious North American murder is between say 12 and 18, just like a real life school shoot-up. Perhaps it was the single victim that really annoyed Chandler so much about the classic mystery ?
Like motor cars and red wine, bigger and stronger is held to be the best in body counts. I score James Patterson’s very recent Cross Country at a remarkable 108 kills, and there are quite a few other possibles and probables: not, as in aerial warfare because you’re just not sure, but because the author is too hurried or vague to clarify some outcomes. This total includes, interestingly, a set of 34 hostages who are in fact finished off, the foreplay completed. That surprised me. I like the BBC Radio5 description of this book: `You’re completely engrossed in it from start to finish.’ Gross is right. Then it goes on `Absolutely incredible.’ Is there a tongue in a BBC cheek here ? The back covers of these books are worth studying: most blurb-merchants just recycle the magic words, you know, pacy, exciting, gripping, page-turning -- present participles are good, they have no sense of completion. I like the comment by Crime Time, whatever that might be, on Patterson’s Roses are Red `Left my mouth watering for the next Alex Cross’… My mouth watering ? There are in fact some bite wounds in the story.
A step now across the Atlantic – and indeed across the Irish Sea and indeed the River Severn. I don’t think either nascent Irish or just conceivable Welsh crime fiction figures in this litany of cruelty. But some English writers claim to belong. Mark Timlin’s Paint It Black of 1993 says on the back jacket `you will need a calculator for the body count.’ This is not true, and this novel is one of two examples I will cite here to suggest that when English writers go in for cruelty they do it on a faked up and mechanistic basis. Paint it Black is basically a solid story about drug problems touching the detective’s daughter, now elsewhere like her mother. Two decently developed sections show his intervention and his destruction of a lorry-load of drugs. Then in part three he is suddenly involved in a flimsily related plot, with changing identities and a crazy final shoot-out: then the hero with his car wrecks a light plane as it takes off. I make the body-count just from this section (there were none previously) a decent American-style 19, plus the added benefit of a foetus burnt with its mother in a car-crash. It all seems a bit cranked up to me.
Then there is Mo Hayder, another British claimant to cruelty, and much better-looking than Timlin too. The back cover of Birdman (1999) has `not for the faint-hearted’ -- from Val McDermid of all people -- and from the publisher, an `astonishing novel of frightening and raw intensity’. Well, like Timlin, yes and no. It certainly starts with five nastily decomposing bodies, with quasi-forensic Y cuts and, the best bit, live finches sown into the chest cavity of each. Well formerly live finches you understand. But there are no more bodies after chapter 4 (and they are very short chapters) except the killer who is, yes, a deranged doctor, and has the decency to top himself, without any finches. He’s just an ex-public schoolboy turned necrophile, run of the mill stuff for England.
Hayder has turned away from this squeezed-out cruelty in later books and now writes decent plodding local mysteries: she has even moved her scene and her only moderately troubled detective to the sad depths of Bristol. I speak as a Cardiff resident.
Well, with an apology for the English failure to alarm us in a properly energetic manner, I hope I have done enough to remind you of the multi-violent character of recent crime fiction: I think it goes back to Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon of 1981, with its posed and mutilated families rather than the surprisingly reticent, in visual terms, The Silence of the Lambs of 1988. It’s certainly different from the golden age and the tough guys are not in this tough a league. But what about the 1840s ?
From the start of Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris of 1842-3 we are aware of the forbidding presence of The Schoolmaster. An educated man, he has turned fully to crime, with his hideous sidekick La Chouette (`The Owl’), agent in his thefts and murders and the brutal exploiter of girls into prostitution, including the beautiful and still in a way innocent La Goualeuse (The Street Singer’). Our hero, who roves the vileness of inner Paris at night to seek out subjects for his moral crusades, is Prince Rodolphe, as strongly committed to both normative morality and its authoritarian imposition as ever a crusader was. To be brief: the Schoolmaster is captured, bound, brought into Rodolphe’s study. There, in a chapter entitled `Punition’ (`Punishment’), the noble liberal Prince has his doctor, a noble black Caribbean, blind the Schoolmaster. After this high-flown vigilante violence the criminal is left in a cellar to develop his penitent soul: it’s the Foucauldian disicplinary model in full flow, right down to we can see him but he can’t see us.
In Reynolds’s Mysteries of London, 1844-5, the central criminal is `The Resurrection Man’. His own practices are grisly, with a good amount of horrible detail as he blows up houses and executes the weak – he actually rarely just digs up bodies: that is an ironic title: he mostly just positions people for resurrection. He is also the main enemy of the hero Richard Markham, of whom more in a while. Just as a reformed criminal, Le Chourineur (The Stabber), captured the Schoolmaster for Rodolphe, so in the end, after nearly a million words of multifarious narrative, the reformed Cranky Jem revenges himself on the Resurrection Man and with general approval walls him up in his own cellar and just waits until he starves to death – Patricia Cornwell could have written the body-finding scene.
Reynolds offers much more in this cruel mode: there is a harrowing, lengthy and sometimes semi-pornographic sequence about the fall into prostitution of Lucy Harrington, the savage vengeance she takes on her oppressors, and the rotting corpse she becomes. Reynolds does this more than Sue. The illustrations in the book form of the Mystères are genteel parlour pictures, not the savage sub-Gillray Cruickshank cuts that emphasise brutality and threatened violence in both Reynold’s penny weekly and volume formats.
But Reynolds was working in the context of the London penny dreadfuls about urban crime, where Sue was coming off the tradition of French Cooperism and romantic adventure. The London Police Gazette style publications, as well as the Newgate novels, had opened up a world of cruel behaviour and violent representation of it. The body count is not at Patterson levels, but it is at the double figures norm of the 1990s. However, there are differences. The 1990s really liked its violence to impact on agonised victims: quiet curvy women with glass fragments stuck in their eyes, beheaded babies, bourgeois professional hostages like exploded rag dolls. The 1840s did enjoy marking pain on bodies, especially the bodies of young women, but it saved its worst cruelty for forms of punishment, hangovers of the sovereign power execution system. The modern villains either escape, to be discussed under conspiracy, or get their just deserts very easily – in the imaginatively sadistic Cross Country the killer, who has scored his century, is merely tackled to the ground by Alex Cross and shot in the head by his cop girl-friend. It makes you wonder whom we moderns are identifying with -- victim or killer ? Perhaps we are subtextual conspirators ?
This takes us to our next topic. The master criminal is familiar enough in crime fiction but tends to appear in popular series fiction rather than in what are felt to be the more searching one-off forms. Collins and Gaboriau don’t use a serial criminal, nor did Christie or Chandler. Their perpetrators may be similar, but that ideological repetition is recreated each time. The detective is serial protection, the threats are different, sitting ducks trundling across the detective’s gaze. The master criminal conspiring all the time against order seems like a simplification, a response of a simplistic or a tiring author. Doyle invents Moriarty as he kills off Holmes, and he proves useful on Holmes’s return – though not in major late stories like The Hound of the Baskervilles, `The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton’ or `The Adventure of the Creeping Man’.
As soon as the city mysteries appear in the 1840s, they have recourse to a mastermind behind the malpractice. Perhaps this is because of their serial form -- a set of different villains would fragment the reading experience unbearably; but perhaps it is also a sign of the limitations of their real interrogation into criminality. This is the area where the 1840s and 1990s are most similar, and modernity seems to have made no real movement either forward or back, as it has in the other two categories under discussion.
In Sue there is the master criminal The Schoolmaster, who is dealt with as described above. The Skeleton is there at the end to threaten Rodolphe’s life and then disappear into the crowd, characteristic of masterminds in present fiction. But he does very little: the real conspirator is the Countess Sarah Macgregor, formerly Rodolphe’s lover, mother of the daughter he thinks is lost, who plans to manipulate him into marriage through the daughter she has hidden away with criminals – indeed the Chouette and the Schoolmaster are themselves just instruments of a conspiracy. Sarah is very bad and very beautiful – and described as English – perhaps the Scots won’t mind this misattribution. The Irish folks perhaps might mind the fact that Rodolphe’s loyal Little John figure, Sir Walter Murphy is also called English – though he is in the French rather oddly surnamed just Murph.
Sarah’s aristocratic-level malice is matched by Sue’s one bourgeois conspirator, the very evil notary Ferrand. He lends money to, extorts and generally monsters the deserving poor and white-collar people, including sexual assault on his female servants. Sue’s liberalism is basically pro-aristocratic and anti-bourgeois, very different from later French writers like Gaboriau and also contemporaries like Balzac. There are some real villains, all from one family, named Martial, and a cast of minor criminals, but the malice of the narrative is driven by the three-class tier of conspirators, Sarah, Ferrand and Schoolmaster-Chouette. It’s interesting that they all impact on Rodolphe personally – Sarah and the low-lifers directly by taking his daughter, Ferrand by harassing his gentry friends and the deserving poor he befriends. The conspiracy is more personally than socially focused, and is defeated by Rodolphe personally as well. We’ll see more of this personalisation.
In Reynolds, the pattern of multi-level conspiracy also exists, but somewhat differently located in social terms. Richard Markham is our hero, born into the upper bourgeoisie but fallen on hard times and variously assaulted by swindlers, tricksters and the justice system. He rises socially when he very improbably himself becomes a noble when he is the military leader of resistance in the Italian state of Castelcicala. At first a Count, but not a body-count, he will be a Prince, just like Rodolphe when his father-in-law dies. One recurring and conspiratorial enemy is the Resurrection Man – he robs and extorts on a wide basis, but his recurrent hatred is against Richard. But does itself justify his cruel end ? Hardly: it is the whole society that casts him out. Higher up the social scale, the bad aristocrats are fairly feeble conspirators: they manage to get Richard into jail as an utterer of forged notes, but their malice pales beside the much amplified threat of the bourgeoisie and even, Reynolds’s real target, the bourgeois state. The central conspirator looks forward to the 1990s: he is a character with multiple names, real skills in the city, banking, politics and involving others in his plots. I like his name, Mortimer Greenwood, because it has a smack of the urban outlaw about it. But his real name, which clue-happy crime fiction readers will pick up before they have read very far, is Eugene Markham: he is Richard’s elder brother, the bad other of the hero, naughtily named for Eugène Sue.
A determined conspirator, manipulating and damaging innocent people along the way, a bit of a sexual monster, cruel, relentless – and very close to the conspired against central figure: Mortimer as bad Other could be come straight from the work of Patterson or especially Cornwell where detective and master-conspirator are ideological siblings. Reynolds exploits the very common `double’ or `twin’ structure of nineteenth-century fiction to express two modes of response to modern civilisation, one of plodding probity, harassed but eventually rewarded, and one of very dodgy exploitation, initially decked with splendour but finally humiliated. The trick is, Reynolds like Sue sees his conspirators defeated and morality triumph: that is the one point where the modern conspirator writers diverge: they like to let him – has there been a her conspirator ? – live on to another story, another anxiety.
In the modern authors conspiracy is also a basic manoeuvre – but not the Brits. Timlin’s final cruelty spree does use a minor conspirator motif, with one apparent monster turning into another one whom we thought a fairly good guy. Mo Hayder’s semi-cruel villain just conspires to find pretty druggies for his post-mortem attentions. In all these writers the mad genius is a very convenient figure, avoiding any difficult questions about the origins of criminality. Sue and Reynolds do link the conspirator figure into formations of their period: both Ferrand and Greenwood represent the insurgent bourgeoisie, new forms of wealth and wealth-production that were to haunt fiction from Dickens’s Mr Merdle to John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. Cornwell develops this figure in Temple Gault, replaces him with Jean Baptiste Chardonne, and makes the crucial step of running both across several novels, so effectively serialising them. The fact that Chardonne is a were-wolf with a name like a dodgy wine makes you wonder if she is satirising conspiracy. Like the double-figure body count, it seems modernity needs multiple conspirators to generate real mystery, or twistery, and this can give problems. Patterson, not a great literary craftsman, tries this in Roses are Red, but after discarding one possible master conspirator after another, he has got himself into such a banalising set of twists that he simply has to tell you on the last page who the true conspirator was – a totally improbable senior police colleague. This mere name, a ghost of conspiracy, haunts later books with his undeveloped presence as at the end of Cross Country. It is much like the early crime writers being forced back on confession to get them out of narratorial jail.
But as in Sue and Reynolds, the personal contact between conspirator and central problem-solving figure is crucial – and again like cruelty, something that the early twentieth century classics largely avoided or, as in Chandler, left implied. In Predator Scarpetta herself is as usual very close personally to a serious conspirator, and her niece Lucy is ever more closely threatened by the instrument of another. It gets deeply improbable: the conspirator’s glamorous lady assistant picks up Lucy in a bar, then infiltrates Quantico, then gets a job in male form on the equipment being used in the Predator survey. What a girl ! The Countess Sarah would probably bow to her. But with a knife in her hand.
You could argue that just as the identification of the killer at the end of a golden-age or tough-guy story is in fact only a formal closure with no ideological weight, but simply invites the next novel in the series of repetition compulsions, so the way in which the modern thriller of cruelty merely gestures towards identifying the real conspirator, with a quick flick of exchanged cards at the end, is itself both an expression and a euphemisation of the individualist anxiety that in capitalism anyone can be, and structurally should be, your enemy.
I suggest it is for both the sociologists and the psychiatrists to expound the role of conspiracy in these books and its evidently crucial and compulsive link with cruelty. What from about 1850 to about 1980 was censored out of narratives of disorder is certainly now, and then, not under censorship. Is that good ? It doesn’t look like an advance to me.
So much for conspiracy: or nearly. I have a rabbit in my hat. An Irish rabbit. Not only Paris and London have mysteries in the early 1840s. In 1844 there was another city, called Londres. Paul Féval provided its Mystères. They score OK for cruelty – a lot of ladies left to scream and starve and wither in dungeons, and plenty of violence between men, including that standby in the cruelty business a mad doctor long before Stevenson and modern television. There is also quite a bit of city stuff, but this is not your hero with all-round badness conspiracy, nor yet your class enemy to the honourable gentry conspiracy. This is real Ian Fleming style international crazy plot conspiracy.
The central figure is called the Marquis de Rio Santo. Handsome, and free with it, charming, and keeping many at his beck and call, a friend of the Czar and the president of Brazil, he has a mysterious secret that drives his potent presence in London and around the world. We discover fairly soon that while his front is that of a highly active Don Juan, his secret is this. Please expect to feel proud, generous Irish hosts.
He is really Fergus O’Brian: he grew up in London and then Scotland. His father died in misery and he has huge hatred of the English state. He has Scottish allies from his time there and with massive wealth built up from the years when, after escaping from transportation to Australia, he became master of a world-wide pirate fleet – I told you you’d be proud. He has now perfected a plot to destroy the Bank of England, the House of Parliament and the English Royal Family, all with overseas support from Russian, Portugal, Brazil and indeed Ireland, from where 10000 armed men will march on London when he gives the word. All the London criminals – said to be 100000 -- are under his command, his army of `gentleman of the night’.
That’s what I call a conspiracy. This is very much a French take on the English capital, and Fergus gained the approval of Napoleon himself when his pirate ship sailed past St Helena.
The novel actually contains a lot of sharp critique of English lords, parliamentarians, business men, but none of Reynolds’ institutional critique. It is a fully Gothic and political conspiracy without an in-the text target, just operating as a paranoia thriller – and so it is like those very popular cold-war thrillers that authors have struggled to revive.
Féval’s knowledge of the city of Londres is more or less touristic, though, interestingly, he like Reynolds sees the Thames as a dangerous waterway – as did Sue with the Seine and indeed Dickens with the Thames. There’s a tide to follow up there. But Féval falls short of Sue and Reynolds in charting the new city, as Balzac had done and Zola would do, and as Dickens was already doing in Sketches by Boz and the great walk across London by Bill Sykes and the hero in Oliver Twist.
There’s a huge topic, still not fully developed, in the way in which by the early mid nineteenth century in Paris and London, and Philadelphia and New York, and on every other continent, people recognised they were in a new context. Housing, transport, water supplies, sewage, health services, religious observation and above all personal identity and personal threats were not only magnified but categorically changed by the new agglomerations that were the spin-off of industry, business and the transportation, national and international, that aggrandised them.
Reynolds and, especially, Sue record their cities before major changes, though both wrote as the demolition men were beginning to work on the worst areas – the Rue des Fèves was gone before Haussmann changed Paris for ever, and the great St Giles’ rookery at the top of Charing Cross Road was under the hammer before Reynolds wrote about it. Sue is the simpler: he locates the homes of the wealthy and the poor in the right places, and does show how the barriers are the domain of social slippage and negotiation - as well as the final execution; he also, almost in TV documentary style, homes in on the Rue du Temple (still there) as the site of events through the middle of his multi-volume series. But he still tends to divide good and bad, and the pastoral sequences along the Oise are all good, while the ferocity of the Seine at Asnières is almost unrelieved. And though Sue does chart Paris as no-one had before, and as Hugo only had in the medieval past in Notre Dame de Paris and would in the near future in Les Misérables, at the end Sue’s story simply leaves for Rodolphe’s apparently paradisal Germanic estate.
Reynolds’ city is both more detailed and more varied. We go into thieves’ kitchens in the centre, the east and south of the river; there is action in the smart and ensnaring west end, in unreliable professional central London, and when we get out of the city it is not to Sue’s pastoral leisure but to fine houses riven with tensions and aspirations together. Reynolds is particularly strong on the malign institutions of the city, from banking houses, through prisons with their terrible treadmills through to the at best dubious house of parliament with its offshoot in the Home Secretary’s vicious office for letter espionage. More than Sue, Reynolds envisages a dialectical and teeming city, with figures funnelling into it from all over the country, and indeed the world., He too envisages an ideal exit for Richard and Isabella in their Italian principality, but plenty of the citizens remain at home to battle on with their just about manageable lives.
This is where the 1840s part from the modern fiction of cruelty. Though Patterson and Cornwell often set their stories in Washington and Boston, and Hayder and Timlin use London (though a very limited London, suburban and desocialised for Hayder, suburban and caricatured for Timlin), none of them could not be said to be taking issue with the city as such, as you could argue McBain did in the Police Procedural and it is often thought Chandler did with Los Angeles (though I think that his city corruption is just a cover for his gender politics and that actually Mickey Spillane’s New York is closer to a tough look at an American city). But urban issues became a real concern in the later twentieth century, so much so that I have recently argued for a new sub-genre which I call urban collapse. The curiosity is that its authors are not really writing thrillers of cruelty or conspiracy.
You might think so from the opening of James Ellroy’s first in the urban collapse mode, The Black Dahlia. A young woman’s body lies on waste ground in the heart of the city, literally cut in two. But it is also drained of blood, a human discard rather than the victim of torture, as she would have been in the cruelty writers. The city turns out to be even more tormented than the woman. Ellroy goes back in time to the Zoot Suit riots and further to Hollywood corruption, and involves partly good police in his powerful account of the dangers, immoralities and exploitations of the modern city. He continued this mode in The Big Nowhere and LA Confidential -- the first is the most telling of the titles. Though he does tend to find a sentimental resolution as when at the end of The Black Dahlia we look forward to a child from the mind-weakened cop and the body-scarred woman who have suffered with the city, and though the stories can as in the film of LA Confidential be re-wound into vintage cosiness, Ellroy set a standard not pursued in his increasingly allegorical and referential Underworld USA series.
I would see two serious followers in urban collapse: George Pelecanos with his quite powerful exposés of Washington DC, starting with A Firing Offense, and Ian Rankin with a now completed series about Edinburgh, its variations and its multiple instabilities. Both of these are refracted through strong but also troubled central figures but they avoid the collapse into personality that is the sentimental get-out for Cornwell with Scarpetta and Patterson with Cross, and they especially avoid the sentimental subjectivism of cruelty and conspiracy.
The difference from the 1840s is the sense that the cities are not new and so mystifyingly threatening, but are running down and losing the idea of communality. The modern urban collapse genre, that is, uses a fantasy communal city of the past as its totem of value, just as the 1840s city analysis used a rural communal fantasy. You have to be reminded of Raymond Williams describing the `escalator’ of positive memory in The Country and the City.
The main difference with the third of my three categories is that in the modern city material the methods used are not going back to the 1840s, but are deploying approaches that come from intervening sub-genres. They are a mix: some elements descend from a police proceduralism in method – Ellroy, especially; some elements look to tough-guy narrative technique – Pelecanos especially; and other elements pick up the `great policeman’ model – mostly Rankin, but he uses the other two strands as well, and they all appear here and there.
If the modern cityism develops primarily twentieth-century modes of detection, and also epistemology, and ontology, and ideology, the modern mode of cruelty, and its related technique of scientisim, both lead into aspects of the body, that somatisation of individualism, and also that interrogation of inividualism. The 1840s avoided that through the pillars of morality and gentry faith that were still standing. The mode of conspiracy remains to some degree in the urban collapse stories but only as a plot instrumentality not as a tracing, and displacing, of any or all sociopersonal responsibilities for crime as it is in its alliance with cruelty. And cruelty itself seems as lively now as then, but now more brutally, and solipsistically, exploited as specular horror against the innocent, not as the last sadistic spasms of sovereign judgement, as it was in the 1840s.
This is effectively why the city material has now separated from the cruelty-conspiracy structure: the latter duo has become privately fixated, where in the 1840s it still had a general and social reach that empowered its use as an element of an investigation of the dramas of the city.
Not only are the city stories now separated from cruelty and conspiracy, where in the 1840s they all worked together, a dynamic, if neurotic, mix. I think the urban collapse genre is already thinning out and not just because the cities have in the post-Reagan and Thatcher years improved through investment. Now, as then, the key is perceptions of threat and they have become more privatised. We still have mysteries in the city, but we are too concerned with our own personalised detective stories, our pleasures in cruelty and our delusions in conspiracy, to recognise those real urban mysteries either in our plots or our titles.
One hundred and seventy years on we are still dreaming of princes. Or rather of being princes.