Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Fucked-up folks

Raymond Chandler and his buddies gave us a dark model of the crime investigator: impoverished, silent outsiders whose knowledge that the world is a corrupt place allows them to speed straight to the centre of the ill doing they've been hired, ostensibly to probe, in reality to cover up and obfuscate.
Philip Marlowe (the hero Chandler (left) called after a house in Dulwich College in London, which he attended at the same time as PG Wodehouse) is a pulp fiction detective, but like Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster, is a wisecracker; you'd have to assume that both honed their knives of wit under the tutelage of a master, the headmaster AH Gilkes, known for his "quality of merciless chaff". It is his savage wit that distinguishes Chandler's Marlowe from the creations of his mentors, Dashiell Hammett and the other writers of the literary detective story magazine Black Mask, in whose pages the genre came to maturity.
The detectives of this mid-century version of the genre are fucked-up folks, but they are working-class heroes, alone with their honour and taking arms against vicious upper-class criminals protected by the law that the criminals have bought and paid for.
In a series of these formal tilts, which spread from books into films, battle is joined between the cynically honest working detective and the cruel and wealthy: The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and the ultimate iteration, Chinatown.
It's part of the understanding with the readers that the brave representative of the working classes fights the rich, but never wins. The basset-faced Humphrey Bogart played both Chandler's Marlowe and Hammett's Sam Spade with sepulchral decency; keeping to the contract, he's beaten down by the rich swines, but wins out morally, keeping the rotten contract between wealth and exploitation with all the indignant sorrow of the beaten wife who stays with her abusive husband.
Chinatown is the ultimate because not only is the rich swine about to become a multi-bulti-hulti-smulti-gazillionaire by cheating poor farmers out of their water rights to supply the new town of Los Angeles, but he is a child rapist who fathered a child on his own daughter. At the end of the book the old moneybags is preparing to repeat history as he takes control of this child, now an attractive teenager.
Is it - was it - a sign of a changed world when Donna Leon produced a very different type of detective. Commisario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police also investigates the crimes of the rich. But he is no sole trader in decency.
Brunetti is a policeman, for a start: he is within the system, and he has allies - good people, all prepared to bend the rules - within that system. Elettra, the beautifully named hacker, arrives first as PA to Brunetti's ambitious and vicious boss, Vice-Quaestore Patta, a Sicilian who is quite obviously destined for great political power. Elettra finds her way into every computer system with the innocent amorality of a visiting angel; she is a creature of glamour (in both the old sense of illusion and the new sense of being a fashionista), sitting in her office surrounded by expensive flowers and dressed in the loveliest garments the Italian couturiers can provide. Her formal amorality is a coating on absolute morality: she will come to the rescue of any oppressed creature.
His loyal constable, Vianello, is Brunetti's reflection, a decent man in an indecent world. Yet in Leon's hands, he is not a cut-out; somehow his baffled honesty deepens the picture.
Brunetti walks home for lunch and dinner, described mouthwateringly; his wife, Paola, is a university lecturer in English (Leon's own second trade), and the daughter of immensely rich aristocrats with a pedigree stretching back to ancient Rome, people Brunetti regards with deep caution. Their two children, typical teenagers, add to the deliciously uxorious vision of a happy home.
Brunetti's world, although there are corrupt wealthy people here too, and they act with the same cavalier spitting upon the rights of anyone not richer or more influential than themselves, is a world where there is an approach to equality.
I think that it's a vision that comes out of a brief blossoming of egalitarian values - values which swiftly gave way to the idea now gaining currency that only those who can express their greed and gather all the gold to themselves are worthy.
The times are changing, and the next generation of investigators will, I suspect, return to the bleak cynicism of Chandler and Hammet, as the food queues grow and the wealthy jet in to gift buildings to universities starved of municipal cash. We can look forward to a new Marlowe, and forget about Brunetti.

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