Howard Jackson


A Hell of a Thing:  British Hardboiled Crime.

Critics, readers and writers have all puzzled over why British hardboiled crime so often fails to convince.  British cities have violent criminals and some even have a sense of humour but when the wise guy dialogue leaves their lips the edifice crumbles.   And British crime fiction is not awful.   It has its ponderous baggage like Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and PD James but it did offer Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell,  a profound writer, whose ‘Talking To Strange Men’ is one of the great crime novels of the last century.

Hardboiled fiction, though, needs an existential edge, a brutal truth that life is inconsequential and meaningless and worth can only be defined by action.  This is why it appealed to Albert Camus, Simone De Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre.   The most successful British hardboiled attempt inspired the great movie ‘Get Carter.’   Ted Lewis, an author who destroyed himself at 42 years of age, wrote ‘Jack’s Return Home ‘and revealed the growing brutality within British working class life, a new nihilism.   Like the film, the book anticipated increased American materialism and predicted horror within what had previously been comfortable communities.   ‘Jack’s Return Home’ did more than merely imitate American originals and this is why it was successful but it required a lead character who was without morality and who only felt contempt for others.  Too many British crime novelists romanticise America and its literature and miss the existential despair that is at the heart of American crime writing and plenty of its other fiction as well.   The existentialism that suits crime fiction is the kind created by a hopeless war which is why it took root in France.  There may be war in the cities of Britain but we do not believe it is hopeless.  Our cities are not grand enough to stall victory.   Somebody will win and, whoever it is, the victor will not be that impressive.  This is why ‘The Long Good Friday’, the only other great example of British film noir, needed the introduction of relentless IRA vengeance to produce the memorable climax at the end of the film.  The Irish assassin is an agent from the omnipotent force of a military ideology.  Not quite as doom laden as the representative of irresistible fate played by Javier Bardem in ‘No Country For Old Men’ but far more worrying than an overweight Cockney villain beating up even dopier criminals. 

Of course, the original stylists played a part.   Hammett and Chandler are important.  Hammet’s detective The Continental Op can be compared to Jack Carter.  The Continental Op just happens to be on the right side as is Sam Spade in ‘The Maltese Falcon’.  When Spade reminds Brigid O’Shaughnessy that he has a morality he adds the caveat that morality is how he stays in business, it is rooted in self-interest.   Chandler was, as everybody knows, the product of an English public school.  But the writing of Chandler is also defined by existentialism because his character Marlowe, named after the creator of Mort D’Arthur, exists as a protest against existentialism.  Marlowe is anonymous and unrewarded but he occupies a state of grace because of his independent worth.   This protest was not possible in forties England because few believed that anyone could be that worthwhile and that remote.  

The notion of remoteness is fundamental to American culture.   It derives from what was originally a unique sense of space and place.  America dwarfs human beings.   The geography exists as a reminder that people are small and frail.   Cities are enormous and have transient populations and are alienating.  It would be nonsense to say that there are no neighbourhoods in American urban life but in American fiction the neighbourhoods appear to be as mysterious to its residents as they are to alien observers.   Writers argue that isolation and inconsequence are the true American inheritance.  Its material wealth is no compensation, not even for those prepared to kill and rob.  

We can borrow plots, characters and even wisecracks but the ghosts within American life have to stay where they belong, in the poetry left behind in American crime novels.  Sometimes it is done consciously and sometimes not but remote isolation, inconsequential existence, the weight of fate and the importance of action to determine identity are irresistible themes.  He may not be so fashionable now but nobody wrote about them better than Ernest Hemingway.   His classic short story ‘The Killers’ has a victim who refuses to run. The Swede understands that there is nowhere to escape to and more disturbing nowhere from where he can escape.  This is what the repetitive dialogue about the menu in the diner makes clear.   When Hemingway wrote this story he revealed, like Poe, how crime fiction could be literature.   The British live in a different world.   They can be cynical but optimistic imperialism always prohibited gloomy existentialism.   When we romanticise detectives we invent Holmes and Morse.  Holmes is the ultimate expression of British self-belief and we need him because what really frightens us is failure - the betrayal of Holmesian purpose.  Morse is failure romanticised. The success and approval of Holmes and Morse reflect our fascination with merit and reward and they help explain why the British repeatedly fail at existential crime. 

Howard Jackson