Monday, December 2, 2013

Socialists and Shamuses

To psychoanalyze an individual seems unlikely enough, but to do that to an entire society ... ? This author—a socialist with an existentialist bent—seems undaunted by the task. In his article, which wobbles in all directions, he attempts to contextualize detective fiction into his overarching theme—still popular in academia—of Modern Man being in revolt against himself.
Here we excerpt only some of his thoughts—remarkably puritanical—on the detective story:
If, ironically enough, it is to an intellectual that we owe the first full presentation of the absurd, this is not so with violence.
The increasing emphasis on pure violence forms an integral part of the development of what we might call popular literature: the comics, the pulps, the detective stories, etc. The heavy-handed display of sexuality and violence in the comics today are a far cry from the innocent anti-social activities of the ‘ThimbleTheatre’, ‘The Captain and the Kids’, or ‘Krazy Kat’.
Similarly remarkable is the shift from the cerebral exercise of Sherlock Holmes to the perverted brutality of the modern murder mystery.
There are two essential elements in the modern detective story which relate it to the literature of extreme situations.
In the first place, the hero operates outside of the conventions of society. He is frequently a private detective, who, although formally dedicated to upholding law and order, can accomplish this only by violating certain of the laws of the society he is theoretically defending.
His capabilities and achievements are sharply contrasted with the unimaginative and unproductive blunderings of the orthodox guardians of the peace.
His activity is revolutionary in the sense that it ignores the legal framework of society. Like the political revolutionary, who justifies his destructive work by an appeal to the fundamental laws of society, he must violate the existing laws in the name of a higher good.
And both figures, who stand alone, thrown back entirely on their own individual resources, must expiate their anti-social acts by the periodic submission to violence.
The other essential element of the modern detective story is, precisely, this presentation of violence.
Violence is an integral part of the actions of those who, standing alone, violate custom in the name of some higher good.
Literary tradition utilizes violence primarily as a means: it is the inevitable companion of those who deal regularly with the naked forces of power; it is also the expiatory mechanism by which the hero recognizes the superiority of society.
But in the modern detective story a significant shift has occurred: violence becomes an end in itself.
The description of gratuitous violence, frequently accompanied by marked sexual over-tones, has become more and more important. Especially in films or in the comics has the visual display of this gratuitous violence become primary.
Aside from the subtle, perverted sexual gratification such scenes afford, the exercise of violence is a method by which the modern hero can purge himself of his guilty feelings of hatred against the stifling and hostile stupidity of the mediocrities who represent society, the crowd, the human race—all those ugly absurdities against which he is in revolt.
Our time is, however, not a revolutionary time; thus the heroes of popular literature must always ultimately submit to the recognized authorities—moral or legal. It is only in the works of those writers who are in conscious revolt against society that this violence is permitted to remain in its unregenerate purity. — Albert Votaw, "The Literature of Extreme Situations," HORIZON (September 1949)
Speaking of socialism and detective fiction, there is Dan Billany's THE OPERA HOUSE MURDERS (1940; U.S. title: IT TAKES A THIEF), published in the Golden Age but written by a man in conscious revolt against the society it represented:
Billany had been born into a strongly socialist working-class family in Hull, Yorkshire, in 1913, the very year that E. C. Bentley’s 'Trent’s Last Case' appeared, a work regarded as ushering in a ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction that was to last until the Second World War.
Despite this coincidence, Billany, like others of his generation reaching adulthood in the ‘Pink’ decade of the 1930s, came to resent the typical Golden Age detective story’s ‘snobbery, nostalgia, and lack of social concern’. 
The outbreak of war did little to diminish the fervour of his politics, and particularly, as his later writings show, his strong sense of class consciousness. Vague hopes for a new world order may have informed the writings of certain poets, novelists and essayists, but for Billany the old class system was proving itself considerably resistant to the pressures of a so-called People’s War.
[In another novel, Billany] turns on the very genre which, to that point, represented his sole claim to literary fame. He singles out for attack Dorothy L. Sayers and her detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey as survivors of a literature where ‘Real Human Beings’ are ‘the gentle Writer and the gentle Reader’ for whom,
     ". . . from the windows of Rugby Chapel or Eton, from Oxford or from Park Lane, . . . the working-class, those droll, non-literary, non-ablutionary, non-intelligent, non-creative masses, made a pleasant background of racy, smelly, ludicrous movements for the activities of the normal non-working world."
In such a literature, says Billany, the working classes are a ‘sub-human species’ drawn with a ‘Few Bold Strokes’ into either ‘comic relief’ caricatures or ‘as examples of Humble Worth’. In the figure of Wimsey, Sayers perpetuates this attitude, and neither is spared Billany’s sarcasm and disgust:
     "How her Lord compromises within himself the delicate wit, the erudition, the calm, the intelligence and all the rest of the virtues natural to the non-working world! How skilfully and with how few words, he corrects the Common Persons he meets in the ’bus, train or street! How the vulgar, ‘flashy’, ‘horsey’, persons of the Lower Orders, the bobbies, the sergeants, the plumbers, the butchers and the bellringers become the hilarious laughing stocks of Lord Peter’s and Dorothy’s wit – that wit so subtle and so sensitive, so delicate and so adroit." — Paul Skrebels, "The Socialist and the Detective Story: The Case of Dan Billany’s THE OPERA HOUSE MURDERS" [PDF]

Category: Detective fiction

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