‘You let the white folk worry about pride and dignity. You learn where you are and get yourself power, influence, contacts with powerful and influential people – then stay in the dark and use it!’
Arguably, crime fiction, of whatever stripe, is all about staying in the dark and ‘using’ it, repurposing the illicit for sensual and material profit, with crime (and punishment) as the occluded methodology. Ralph Ellison, one of whose characters imparts the headline advice in his classic, ‘Invisible Man’ (1952), recognised the danger of crime fiction, done badly, encrypting little more than high toned voyeurism for the seamy underside of respectable society. Yet ultimately in his indifference to self or social standing, Ellison’s eponymous hero only properly tastes the freedom to be himself when he emerges from the shadows, albeit exposed as a fraud. The invisible man charts a minimal tango between pathos and bathos, eventually landing foursquare in our consciousness too. Crime traverses space, it always has. It recognises few boundaries, making the leap from street level smash-and-grab to globally syndicated shock-and-awe in a few brief news cycles. It is our monstrous id, prising open every nook and cranny of long-repressed desires. And once those have spilled out into the broader atmosphere, their corrosive effects have proved irresistible to novelists, luridly plotting crime and punishment against the shapeshifting properties of an English urban milieu.
Some basic co-ordinates, as you’d expect. The who, the what, the when. Edgar Allan Poe’s story, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) is often credited with being the first crime fiction. But it is the period between the First and Second World Wars which is widely regarded as the ‘golden era’ of British crime fiction. Yet the acute social problems occasioned by the Great Depression and mass unemployment barely featured in the crime fiction of this era. Rather, a devoted readership emerged for the Lord Wimsey sleuth novels by Dorothy Sayers, dubbed ‘snobbery with violence’. These early crime novels also reflected the prevailing social attitudes of their day. Hence the class-ridden, formulaic, resolutely monocultural storylines, with ‘foreignness’ and any sort of urban grit banished to the margins of English country houses. Crime here, a little like foreignness, is essentially a puzzle to be solved, preferably by a member of the English upper classes, with or without cocaine at his disposal. Dark faces, even if seen, are very rarely heard from, and the sense conveyed, as in the whodunnits of Agatha Christie, is of a ‘society within’, largely sealed off from the convulsions of the world beyond.
The aftermath of World War Two registered an important shift in the tenor and trajectory of the British crime novel. The horrors of war, both at home and abroad, percolated into the fashion for more cynical, proximate crime stories. Murderers were now depicted as more complex figures, while the shadow of the noose was draped across a fictional milieu in which the innocent would suffer and the guilty were not always brought to justice. The novels of Josephine Tey, Cyril Hare and Margory Allingham exemplified this shift, which saw the bodies transplanted from country house libraries to, for instance, a fog-bound London, as in Allingham’s 1952 classic, ‘The tiger in the smoke.’ The struggle between good and evil is, for once, played out in the genteel squares and dark alleyways of the English capital. Much as Raymond Chandler had once praised his contemporary, Dashiell Hammett, for taking ‘murder out of the Venetian vase’ and dropping it ‘into the alley’, the slew of post-war crime novels rehabilitated the English city, in all its dilapidation, as a key component of the demi-monde being conjured from the shadows.
Jack’s return home, written by Ted Lewis in 1968, and the inspiration for the 1971 cult classic gangster film, Get Carter, can be seen as part of the lineage of British low life thrillers by James Curtis, Gerald Kersh, and Arthur La Bern. Its starkness of prose is matched by the bleakness of the moral, behavioural, and physical world it describes. The Humberside of the book is a landscape of undiagnosed sickness, within a shadowy network of municipal corruption. Lewis’ vision is unsettling, generating the sort of moral vacuum that Orwell previously condemned James Hadley Chase for creating in ‘No Orchids for Miss Blandish’ (1939). By contrast, in that same era, a seedy Brighton of racecourse touts and razor gangs becomes the canvas upon which avowedly Catholic novelist, Graham Greene explores moral philosophy in ‘Brighton Rock’ (1938). Crime fiction, then, rather like crime itself, clearly thrives on its speculative dimension.
Crime, its monochrome symphony, even limited to the page, unhinges things. It certainly games the theory of working class respectability as proposed by Richard Hoggart in ‘The Uses of Literacy’. In practice, post-the Kray twins’ imprisonment (1969), Britain was convulsed by a spate of bank robberies and kidnappings, as well as by moral panics surrounding the violent skinhead subculture. On film, this darker cultural turn could be seen in Get Carter, A Clockwork Orange, and Straw Dogs – all released within a year or so of one another. Richard Allen’s ‘skinhead’ novels cashed in on the youth cult as pulp chauvinist bildungsroman. Angry young white men now had their literary template for moving through the gears of urban alienation. A uniform and a lexicon too. ‘Pakis’, ‘hairies’ and ‘queers’ the designated enemies to be stomped on by radicalised droogs in boots and braces. Themes of protest, conflict, permissiveness and crime began to bleed into one another in the reordered spaces of local literary noir. Suddenly, along with ‘kitchen sink’ drama, crime fiction was extracting ‘realist’ value from an avowedly urban milieu. Rainy streets, leaden skies, railway sidings, narrow terraces, pubs; even Anderson (bomb) shelters peppered this newer fiction, with its grim settings of mean local streets and even meaner locals: Machiavellian, bullying, misogynistic bigots prefigured in an alternative public sphere of spielers, bookie shops, illegal gambling and Empire nostalgia.
This is the world of Derek Raymond, the ‘Godfather of English noir fiction’, whose autofictional milieu and protagonists have no truck with righting perceived societal wrongs, unlike his American progenitors, such as Hammett and Chandler. Instead, his solitary, jaundiced hero is regularly intoxicated from 9am on a diet consisting of Kronenburg, vodka martinis, Bells whisky (ring-a-ding), sherry, single malt, tumblers of whisky, and morphine ‘on a whisky base’. Black people are only visible here when they serve in junk food places and pubs. The Sunday Times described his work as ‘the kosher article by a man who was on the down escalator all his life’, and indeed, the author himself made no effort to disguise his contempt for the class he was born into in the semi-autobiographical novel, ‘The Crust on its Uppers’’ (1962), with its cast of upper class wideboys and low rent villains. This is the picayune squabbling of the capital’s underbelly. Card grafters in Peckham, rent collectors on the Balls Pond Road, jellied eel stalls in Whitechapel and greasy spoon caffs in the Gloucester Road. Raymond brings the style of American noir to the London streets, anticipating both James Ellroy and David Peace in his ‘terrifying determination to disclose the skull beneath the skin…a supreme example of how nasty Britain actually is’. (Time Out).
The seam splits again in the murmur within Raymond of that other postwar London, the occluded negative of Allingham’s smoggy Manicheanism. This is England’s ‘mongrel glory’, plotted in the London novels of Colin MacInnes. An inchoate world of ‘spades’ and ‘jumbles’, London redrawn from the imprint of an emerging teen culture, Black immigration and the glamourisation of crime and criminals. Johnny Fortune, the African hero of ‘City of Spades’ (1957), slices and staggers his way through a city on the make and across ‘prose as sharp as a pair of Italian slacks and as vivid as a pair of pink socks.’ (Harpers and Queen, 2005).
The polyglot, syncretic city is also staked out by Jake Arnott and Stewart Home, The Long Firm (1999) and Tainted Love (2005) excavating the decadent demi-monde of ‘60s’ London – its cultural minutiae of gangsters, rent boys, politicians, actresses of dubious repute, flower children, and Black Power wannabes, which also bleeds into the 1970s. On show too, an interesting shadowplay on Sam Selvon’s picaresque collection of chancers and rogues in ‘Moses Ascending’ (1975) and the earlier Windrush era classic, ‘The Lonely Londoners’ (1956). The moving ciphers of a ‘London particular’, Selvon’s Caribbean migrants acclimatise in a performative psychogeography: ‘In the grimness of the winter, with your hand plying space like a blind man’s stick in the yellow fog, with ice on the ground and a coldness defying all effort to keep warm, the boys coming and going, working, eating, sleeping, going about the vast metropolis like veteran Londoners.’
The thread dissolves altogether in Selvon’s extraordinary prose, streams of consciousness melding with vernacular brio just as immigrants rehabilitate the exhausted metropolis with their fearless modernism. Cloth, speech, sounds reinvigorated by fresh patterning, and yes, these ‘constacklers’ on the make carve their bespoke way through a city on the mend. Yet if the law of diminishing returns says that to be ‘Black’ in this city means a shrunk fit world of police and thieves, then Selvon’s dissident modernists warp the telos of this arrangement. Crime doesn’t always mean punishment here, especially within the disjunctive time signatures of these recent arrivals.
Selvon’s protagonists, forever at the crossroads between cosmic despair and iridescent hope, are at one and the same time a phantom presence and an homage to modernism in the raw.
Their journey through the city intersects with its underbelly in much the same way that the grammar on the page starts skittering at the edges, greedily absorbed by passages of pure licentiousness. Yet the dissolution into party life is also an eruption within the sentence, a statement of literary rather than criminal intent. ‘We here now’, says this voice. ‘Ignore us at your peril.’
Cordite, cutters, crime as inferred ontology. Being ‘liked’ by old-fashioned coppers and Home Secretaries for the ‘crime’ of just being here. ‘Go home or face arrest’ the abiding mantra against which real and fictional lives are lived. The designation, ‘illegal immigrant’, largely reserved for undocumented Brown and Black folk consigned to what the philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, describes as ‘bare life’. And which complicates the issue of what might even constitute ‘crime fiction’ under such conditions. Arguably, the thread here leads back to Selvon’s contingent chancers rather than Christie’s whodunnits. Take for instance the precarity of the lives depicted in Sunjeev Sahota’s ‘The Year of the Runaways’ (2015). This is a story which skips generic assumptions, landing the novel in a no-man’s land with inherently transgressive narrative possibilities. Crime fiction, social drama, speculative punt, taking in the whole tabloid panoply of lives lived in the shadows: ‘bogus’ visas, ‘scam’ marriages, illegal work permits. Sahota’s ‘illegal’ Indian immigrants move through a Sheffield rarely before encountered in fiction, an off-the-grid world of migrant workers, rooming houses and exploitative labour. This is the city as viewed from its subaltern haunches.
Cardiff too is rendered thrillingly fresh in the Amy Lane mysteries of British Sri Lankan crime novelist, Rosie Claverton. Her eponymous crime-fighting heroine is also an agoraphobic, so what unfolds is a necessarily taut, highly original and restrictive encryption of the city and its criminal undercommons.
A.A. Dhand’s fast-paced police procedurals remake Bradford through the jaundiced eye of Sikh detective, Harry Virdee. His disruptive presence is that of the dark body in a presumptively white metropolitan milieu, that of policing itself. Bradford is also the backdrop to M.Y. Alam’s hardboiled slice of neo-noir, ‘Kilo’ (2002). The story articulates the experience of dual cultural identity via its own composite paean to Scorsese (Mean streets, Taxi Driver), with hip hop and American gangster films the key psychological frames of reference for the eponymous British Pakistani protagonist and anti-hero.
As with Selvon’s Windrush era cast, these dark bodies are shown to move differently through city space, their fictional tangent underscored by a dismal and all-too-real history of over-surveillance, saturation policing and draconian sentencing.
So it’s interesting by itself that Black and Asian authors have made a concerted effort to recalibrate both the generic conventions of crime fiction and address certain hitherto glaring omissions, for instance in how the principal crime locale of the British city has been mapped. In this reimagining, attuned to broader social shifts, law and disorder are no longer ‘bloodless butterflies’. Criminals are cut from variegated cloth, with collars just as likely to be white as they are blue. The bigger step change though, is found in the ranks of those bringing them to justice. Sikh, Muslim, female and Black detectives and PIs are the bold new breed staking out the terrain. Ergo the relentless Chief Inspector, Ambrose Patterson in Peter Kalu’s ‘Lickshot’ (1993), or Ervine James, PI, in Courttia Newland’s London based crime novel, ‘Snakeskin’ (2002), who resurfaces in ‘The Dying Wish’ (2006). Both latter tales play knowingly with the traditions of African-American crime fiction while simultaneously trying to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of Black London life, and one of the effects of this is to render the city at a remove, even as the landmarks, behavioural tics and dysfunction remain highly familiar.
Patrick Neate updates the Chandleresque formula of down-at-heel gumshoe, a mysterious prostitute and corruption in high places in his acclaimed novel ‘City of Tiny Lights’ (2005). But for good measure he relocates the seamy contours of Philip Marlowe’s Los Angeles to a modern day London of crime, drinking and cricket. And his wisecracking gumshoe is Tommy Akhtar, cricket lover, ex-jihadist and something of a booze hound.
‘The London morning smelled like a London morning – bitter, charred and artificial – but it was good enough for me…I’m the latest in a long line of Marlowe wannabes. Only trouble is, the title ‘private dick’ has an altogether different connotation in this neck of the woods.’
Crime is always about an elsewhere; the template for a life bent out of shape by what else it desires, yet chooses to leave strictly undeclared. Gluttony, excess, violence as method. Its appeal is precisely to those vicarious instincts for so long stymied by the imputed respectability of the social contract. Thus the popularity, onscreen, in print, of sharp-suited gangsters, spivs, wideboys who seem to cut against the grain of austerity and social conservatism. But it’s about an elsewhere too in how it places a finger on the shifting urban pulse. For instance, the London of Patrick Neate or Courttia Newland, the Manchester of Peter Kalu, or the Bradford of M.Y. Alam or A.A.Dhand. An alterity too within the mythos of the crime writer, assured by the brutal denouement of one of its finest, Donald Goines, shot dead at his typewriter in Detroit, as he was putting the finishing touches to his seventeenth novel, ‘Kenyatta’s Last Hit’ (1974). Newland has made no secret of his stylistic debt to Goines’ gritty, graphic accounts of unbridled ghetto realism, but the effect is all the more unsettling when transposed to the particularities of London.
Slipping into darkness now, the body, her blood, muscle, fiction, is propelled by her own litigious grammar. A vexed history of stop and search, with certain bodies – raced, classed, gendered – consistently subject to more stringent evaluation.
As in life, so it is with fiction. Not all bodies matter equally, the library or street cadaver apportioned less weight than the aristo sleuth assigned to solve its mystery. Yet the dissident praxis of the best crime fiction renders even this distinction obsolete. Its internal argument, with generic convention, with what even constitutes ‘crime fiction’, reviews the city, its ancient shibboleths, as a series of staging posts for the body in flight. It is, as Raymond Chandler suggests, the ‘bony structure under the muck’. A parenthetic verbiage of crime and punishment. In short, it is us, in all our occluded, epigrammatic glory. An ending of sorts, where nothing is ever really resolved.
About the writer
Koushik Banerjea is a London based writer and novelist. He trained with the BBC and worked as a journalist before dedicating himself full time to making things up. His short stories have appeared in Minor Literatures, Verbal, Writers Resist and in the crime fiction anthologies, Shots in the Dark and Shots in the Dark II. His debut novel, Another kind of Concrete was published in 2020. Category Unknown is his second novel, out now with London Books. He is currently working on a short story collection and a number of original essays, developed under lockdown.
In fumbling around for answers, and in its own less-than-forensic way, this investigation has made use of some imaginative leads first supplied by Raymond Chandler in his famous Atlantic Monthly essay, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ (1950), which made the case for the literary virtues of hardboiled crime fiction. The point being that the novels displayed here like courtroom exhibits are all worthy literary enterprises. We can argue all we like about their subject matter and the often complex motivations behind their mythic crimes, but not so much about their literary merits. Other than that, any suppositions, false starts and occasional breakthroughs are offered up in the spirit of the finest amateur sleuthing.