SOLOMON HUGHES bemoans the dearth of radical whodunits
THIS month I published my first thriller, Oliver’s Army. There are two main motives for publishing a book: “Look at me!” and “Pay me!”
I do hope that you read my book, admire the craft and pay the modest cover price. But I had another motive for publishing it. I think that there is an important space on the bookshelves for political thrillers and wanted to see if I could fit in that space. But in the process of looking for agents and publishers, I found that this feeling is not shared in the publishing industry.
My thriller runs from the battlefields of Iraq to the Houses of Parliament, with mercenaries, spin doctors and lobbyists arguing over the spoils until people start getting killed.
That concern with society’s political and economic structures, and the way they can go rotten and turn to violence, is a very common theme in thrillers and crime novels. I started with the assumption that this is a very basic truth but that doesn’t seem like a common feeling in the book trade.
Making a drama out of the social and political isn’t just a left-wing thing. The very Tory Freddy Forsyth’s Day Of The Jackal and Dogs Of War dramatised the world of assassinations and coups. House Of Cards brilliantly lifts the curtain on established politics. Author Michael Dobbs is also a Tory, if a less red-blooded one than Forsyth.
But, good as those books are, it was the left-wing thriller that interested me. This isn’t a fringe thing. Dashiell Hammett, one of the top cooks behind the hard-boiled school, was deliberately telling stories that were full of action and colour but also informed by left-wing politics. His Red Harvest is a picture of organised crime dominating a town but it is also a picture illustrating how big business can be a criminal business.
The importance of crime in the thriller is part of what makes it so political. Once you write about crime, you are writing about the rules of society — which gives every option to consider whether the rules are right or followed honestly, or about who the law protects and who it doesn’t.
Anatole France’s political point that “both the rich and poor are equally prohibited from peeing in the streets, sleeping under bridges, and stealing bread,” is easily dramatised in crime fiction. So is Berthold Brecht’s question: “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?’”
Fiction turns social analysis into human drama through characters, dialogue and plot. It’s the storytelling that makes the book come alive in the end, not the politics. But it is a good thing that so many well-told thrillers have a socialist viewpoint.
The 1930s were a very fruitful time for the political thriller. The genre became popular at the same time as the left was building a wide influence in the struggle against the recession and fascism, an influence that included many writers.
In Britain, Popular Front-flavoured writers made some popular books that are still well worth reading. Cecil Day-Lewis, writing as Nicholas Blake, turned a Peter Wimsey style country-house-and-vicarage investigator into a gripping and funny fighter against fascism in The Smiler With The Knife. Eric Ambler’s series of thrillers travelled over the new and frightening landscape of Europe between the dictators.
In the 1980s — remembered as the years of Thatcherism — Pluto Press made a self-conscious effort to publish radical crime fiction. The left lost that’80s battle in the end but they were also years of broad resistance to Thatcherism, from picket lines to publishing houses.
I particularly liked Julian Rathbone’s two Pluto Crime contributions and Nigel Fountain’s Days Like These. Some of the authors like Gillian Slovo and Sarah Dunant are still rightly big in the book world. But most publishers and agents seem keener to recall the ultimate closure of the Pluto list rather than its successes, if they remember it at all.
Serpent’s Tail, thanks to publisher Peter Ayrton do, however, keep some of the spirit of Pluto Crime alive.
Perhaps the biggest event in recent crime publishing — Stieg Larsson’s Girl With A Dragon Tattoo and it’s sequels — were a self conscious attempt by a left-wing writer to pick apart Swedish society, from fascist-collaborating industrialists to predatory women haters exploiting the authoritarian aspects of the social services.
The publishing industry enjoyed the success of the books, but largely ignored their origin and theme. They focussed on the serial killer/super-talented outsider battle in the series instead. Treating the books like Spiderwoman v Hannibal Lecter, they looked for follow ups in yet more serial killer books instead of encouraging political thrillers.
The publishing industry is in the middle of a massive loss of self-confidence. It just chases the one big hit, without encouraging the small books that might become one. And in thrillers, they seem a bit blind to the social and political crime book: By contrast television is open to using the thriller to look at how society ticks, from The Wire onwards. I want my thriller to nudge the crime story back in the direction of examining capitalism. It’s going to be quite a small nudge because the initial edition is on Kindle only, but I hope it’s a nudge Morning Star readers will enjoy.