"I followed ... with many other officers who were in
same situation as myself and succeeded in reaching Candahar in safety, where I
found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties. The campaign brought
honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and
With these words, we make the acquaintance of Dr. John H. Watson, a
battle-weary surgeon who--after being wounded in the Battle of Maiwand on July
27, 1880, during the British Empire's colonial wars in Afghanistan--has returned
to London, "that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the
empire are irresistibly drained." The doctor moves into a flat at 22B Baker
Street, where his roommate, whom we meet over the course of Watson's story, A
Study in Scarlet, is a consulting detective by the name of Sherlock Holmes.
Of course, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes were hardly the first to use
contemporary historical events as settings or background for popular fiction.
The "penny dreadfuls" romanticized the outlaws of the Wild West in post-Civil War
America; and long before that, Shakespeare drew on the Wars of the Roses for his
dramas. But Holmes's tales, written and published by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at
the turn of the last century, helped establish popular culture--and in
particular, the mystery and thriller genres--as one of society's more effective
venues for assimilating the eruptions and disruptions of history. By the end of
World War I, real-life wars had established themselves as the province of not
only high art and middlebrow culture (as in the poems of Wilfred Owen and
Siegfried Sassoon and the novels of Ernest Hemingway and Erich Maria Remarque)
but mysteries (featuring Dorothy L. Sayers's battle-scarred detective Lord Peter
Wimsey), spy novels (Erskine Childers's Riddle of the Sands), and
potboilers (G-8 and His Battle Aces) of all types.
To read A Study in Scarlet is to be reminded both that the
West's current foray into Central Asia is not its first and that the
world-historical events of our own time will soon be woven into the products of
our popular culture. September 11 and its immediate aftermath; the ongoing "war
on terror"; our new wariness of clunky shoes; our changing relationship to
Muslims and the Islamic world--all of this will bubble to the surface in genre
novels, films, music, and comic books. A recent issue of Spider-Man had an
all-black cover with the wall crawler confronting the horror of 9-11 in the
story. Even before September was over, a profusion of analytical nonfiction works
on terrorism, Islam, and Afghanistan had begun to appear in bookstores. But to
learn in what ways the terrorist attacks have changed us, we do well to look to
genre fiction. What will it say about how we as a culture have assimilated
At the 32d Annual Boucher-con World Mystery
after the late mystery critic and short-story writer Anthony Boucher), which took
place in November at a hotel not far from the damaged Pentagon, there was all the
usual stuff: the panel discussions; the writers bivouacked at the bar griping
about miserly advances; the late-night poker games. Yet there was an
undercurrent, too. Keith Snyder and S.J. Rozan, two mystery writers from New York
City, led a discussion among 60 or so people on how the events of September had
affected their writing.
Rozan said that the difficulty of being a writer "is that, unlike the other
arts, writing of necessity involves narrative content. Painters, musicians,
dancers can create art directly out of emotion without narrative, but writers
can't." And narrative, of course, has to be about something. "In the case
of 9-11," she also observed, "the events are so much bigger than anything you can
write that the question becomes, What can you write that approaches the emotions,
some of which we've never felt before, without trivializing the events?"
hether they become trivial or not, the events and meanings spinning out of
9-11 have already become the stuff of media consumption and production. And while
the underlying structures of the popular forms will be familiar--that's the
comfort genre fiction provides, and what allows it to reflect shifts in the
larger culture--some of the conventions will mutate or be turned upside down.
Consider the evolution of the spy novel in the past half-century. The
immediate post-WWII era gave rise to a noir sensibility in which many films and
books featured characters who had been through the Big One and were on unfinished
business, displaced, or intent on cashing in and getting their share. Many of
these characters, in a subversive nose-thumbing at the era's dominant
triumphalism, are embittered by their wartime experiences. For instance, in the
1952 movie Kansas City Confidential, directed by B-filmmeister Phil
Karlson, Joe Rolfe is an ex-GI and ex-con who is innocently caught up in a
complex robbery. At one point, worked over by the cops, the district attorney on
the case remarks that Rolfe earned both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in the
war. "Try buying a cup of coffee with them," the bitter vet responds.
The work of novelist and filmmaker Samuel Fuller, himself a World War II vet,
is representative of the early Cold War in that it combines pulp style with a
strong anticommunist sentiment. In his film Pickup on South Street, which
Fuller both directed and scripted, a pickpocket named Skip McCoy uses his skill
on the wrong mark and swipes some microfilm from a temptress named Candy, the
former mistress of a Soviet spy. Via a series of plot twists, a prostitute, a
snitch, and a thief (McCoy) end up battling a miscreant more scurrilous to 1950sviewers than the three of them combined: a fifth columnist. Still, Fuller's
patriotism remained appropriately hard-boiled, in deference to the dictates of
the genre. When a fed asks McCoy, "Do you know what treason is?" he replies, "Who
The figure who brings the private-eye novel from the immediate postwar era
into the Cold War is Mike Hammer, Mickey Spillane's Neanderthal in a necktie. The
first Hammer novel, I, The Jury, was published in 1947 and has since sold
more than six million copies. One can track the changing ideological ethos of the
time by following Hammer's passage through the Spillane oeuvre, which has bled
over the years into multiple film and television adaptations. In I, The
Jury, Hammer snarls:
In there was my best friend lying on the floor dead. The body.
Now I could call it that. Yesterday it was Jack Williams, the guy who shared the
same mud bed with me through two years of warfare in the stinking slime of the
jungle. Jack, the guy who said he'd give his right arm for a friend when he
stopped a bastard of a Jap from slitting me in two. He caught the bayonet in the
biceps and they amputated his arm.
By One Lonely Night, published several years later,
Hammer has turned from Japs to Commies. In that book, he raves: "God, but it was
fun! It was just the way I liked it. No arguing, no talking to the stupid
peasants. I just walked into that room with a tommy gun and shot their guts out."
With overheated passages like these, Hammer viscerally expressed the
contempt and suspicion--of pantywaist intellectuals and "outside agitators"--that
were brewing in the male psyche of postwar America, as well as the loosening of
prewar verities. Other novelists reflected different but no less representative
anxieties: The subtext of Richard Condon's classic thriller novel The
Manchurian Candidate is that far left and far right have colluded in their
quest to achieve absolute control of the masses.
So, it's not just specific events that genre novels contend with but
the resulting adjustments in the surrounding culture's attitudes and
demographics. Indeed, spy novels have been changing even within the constraints
of their genre formula for some years now, to reflect changes in the composition
of our society. In many ways, the most interesting new inflection on the P.I.
novel has been racial, because it provides a kind of reverse-angle view of the
classic Sam Spade / Philip Marlowe perspective on the world. Aaron Gunner, for
instance, the reluctant private investigator who is the invention of writer Gar
Anthony Haywood, is the modern doppelgänger of Ross Macdonald's
Freudian-driven Lew Archer--except that Archer operated around Santa Teresa (a
thinly disguised Santa Barbara) and kept an apartment in West Los Angeles as a
place to change clothes, whereas Gunner is black and lives in South Central Los
In The Blue Hammer (1976), Macdonald's final novel, Archer tries to
find someone in Santa Teresa's black community but is forced to admit to himself
that he doesn't know anyone black in town. Archer takes cases primarily from rich
whites; Gunner takes them from all sorts of people. Both Archer and Gunner are
war veterans. But Archer fought in World War II--with the still-segregated armed
forces--in what he called the "green and bloody springtime of Okinawa," and
Gunner fought in Vietnam.
From Dr. Watson and John Rambo (in the movie Rambo III, the steely stud
muffin and Vietnam vet helps the mujahideen in Afghanistan fight the Soviets) to
Lew Archer and Aaron Gunner, the hardbitten war veteran is a fixture of the
genre. Sometimes it seems that only the wars and the race of the veteran have
changed over the years. "I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy's
bar," says Easy Rawlins, the African-American protagonist of Walter Mosley's
Devil in a Blue Dress (1990). "When he looked at me I felt a thrill of
fear, but that went away quickly... . I had spent five years with white men, and
women, from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself. I ate
with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know
that they were just as afraid to die as I was."
Easy's geography of crime, like Haywood's, encompasses a separate and unequal
Los Angeles, yet it also highlights the human ties that bind. This is not how
Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe moved through Los Angeles. "It was one of the
mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all Negro,"
Marlowe says at the beginning of Farewell, My Lovely. Marlowe is just
visiting; Mosley's characters live there. Ethnic divisions are even more
essential to recent American spy fiction set in the former Yugoslavia. John
Fullerton's novel The Monkey House and Dan Fesperman's Lie in the
Dark capture the ethnic madness that until recently gripped Sarajevo as well
as any Robert Kaplan treatise.
How will today's novelists handle race in their rendering of terrorists and of
heroes--and how much, as Americans grow more familiar with another "other," will
the distinction between us and them intensify or blur?
They say that life imitates art. As the spy genre has changed
with the times--expanding its purview beyond the hard-boiled white detective of
the 1950s--it has occasionally anticipated life. Edward Zwick's pulpy 1998 movie
The Siege featured Muslim terrorists crashing an airplane into a
skyscraper. More recently, Salar Abdoh's 2000 novel The Poet Game, which
featured an Iranian secret agent as its hero, provides a foretaste of what is
likely to come in post-September 11 genre fiction.
Owing more to the George Smiley of John Le Carré; than to the James
Bond of Ian Fleming, Abdoh's Sami Amir has been sent by "The Office" in Tehran
to New York City to prevent an act similar to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade
Center. His mission is to infiltrate a cell of Muslim extremists of varying
nationalities who are commanded by right-wingers in his country. Amir retains his
P.I.-ish hard-boiledness even after he has infiltrated the multicultural cell.
"It's Ramadan. You don't eat," a cell member tells him. Amir ruminates about this
and then taps the man, who responds,
"You speak my language?"
"What, Persian? That's not funny."
"Then I'll say it in English: fuck you. I'm going to eat anyway."
Clearly, this is not your mama's spy novel. The evolution of the form is
significant not just for what it reflects about changes in the culture but
because our political leaders often draw their tropes and metaphors from popular
culture. President Bush's mantra that we are locked in a battle of good versus
evil makes him sound like a character from Star Wars. This connects him to
his political forefather Ronald Reagan, who consciously gave his missile-defense
initiative the nickname Star Wars in order to lend it a grandiosity people would
respond to. The Star Wars saga borrows heavily not only from myth but from
post-World War II potboiler novels. The screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back
was written by Leigh Brackett, an early pulp novelist. It's got the iconic
imagery, the Nazi-storm-trooper attire of the Empire's soldiers, the grizzled,
seen-it-all vet as embodied by Han Solo, and the overall good-versus-evil theme.
No wonder President Bush has gravitated so readily to Star Wars language.
(Or did you think his declaration that countries are either with us in our fight
against terrorism or aiding the terrorists was his way of sampling the Black
Panthers' "You're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem"?)
If it is journalism's duty to serve as watchdog, popular fiction's role can be
to excavate beneath the surface of the official story line for motivation and,
subsequently, richer insight. Yes, there are maniacs such as Osama bin Laden; in
certain lights, the Taliban really was an evil empire, albeit a petty one.
But it is also true that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom
fighter--and which is which can shift depending on prevailing political winds.
Before September 11, Chechnyan fighters were rebels; since then, they have become
al-Qaeda's running buddies.
Writers who embrace such complexities--and whose formulas are accordingly
tweaked--will go beyond recording our reality and actually shape it. Or as the
Continental Op says in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, "Sometimes just
stirring things up is all right--if you're tough enough to survive."