Chris Harman


Socialist detectives?

(September 1984)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 68, September 1984, p. 32.
Transcribed & marked by Einde for the Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

October Heat
Gordon De Marco
Pluto Press, £2.95

Morbid symptoms
Gillian Slovo
Pluto Press, £2.95

The China Option
Nancy Milton
Pluto Press, £3.50

Murder in the Central Committee
Manuel Vazquez Montalban
Pluto Press, £3.50

Why should the devil have all the good tunes? Why should the bourgeoisie monopolise the production of popular literature?

The idea of socialist writers using the form of detective novels and thrillers is, on the face of it, a good one. It could represent an attempt to break out of the ghetto of middle class academicism in which many socialist intellectuals have hidden for the past decade. And the attempt would not involve a complete breaking of new ground, since one of the pioneers of the detective story, Dashiell Hammett, saw himself as a Marxist.

This is the rationale behind the new Pluto series of ‘political’ crime fiction. Unfortunately, the first four books in the series fail, in various different ways, to live up to these aspirations.

Hammett was, on occasions (especially in Red Harvest), to challenge established stereotypes about American society. The Swedish writers Sjowall and Wahloo have continued in this tradition – indeed putting more explicit political comment into their stories than Hammett did, although never actually managing to write as well as he did.

But three of the Pluto books move in a completely different direction. Their concern is not using a popular form to put across a critique of existing society, but rather in simply using a political milieu as the background for conventional stories.

Murder in the Central Committee by Manuel Vazquez Montalban is by far the worst. The setting is the Spanish Communist Party, wracked by factional disputes between Eurocommunists and Stalinists. But it’s not the relation of these arguments to the class struggle or the fight for socialism which concerns the author, but cynical, sickly tittle-tattle about people’s personal lives and political pasts. Presumably, Spanish readers are supposed to get some vicarious pleasure out of guessing who the real figures behind the fictional names are.

If it is the inside story of the disintegration of Spanish Communism you want, then the job has been much better done in Jorge Semprun’s two recent autobiographical books, The autobiography of Frederico Sanchez and What a beautiful Sunday. His conclusions are cynical enough, but Montalban’s are, if anything, even worse. It is not just a disintegrating Stalinism which is pilloried, but any form of serious socialist commitment. Far from providing a critique of life under capitalism, the novel embellishes some of its nastiest aspects. The hero rejoices in a scene of brutalised sexuality which could come straight out of Micky Spillane – and his main other pastime is indulgence in the most expensive of expensive restaurants.

Morbid Symptoms is not nearly as bad as Murder in the Central Committee. I read it while suffering from a mild dose of flu and found it vaguely interesting. But not because it presented any political ideas. It too simply uses an allegedly political milieu to act out a conventional detective plot.

The milieu is that of the trendy left new middle classes, the upper stratum of the inner city fragments. The key characters live in Hackney and Islington. But not the Hackney and Islington that thousands of working class people live in: with the deteriorating council estates, decaying streets, shut down hospitals, 20 per cent unemployment levels, and factories that long ago closed.

Instead, this is a world where people are always jumping into their Citroens, eating out at nice French and Italian restaurants, flitting across to parties in Hampstead, and earning a couple of hundred a week doing ‘research’ for some vaguely left-wing charity off Oxford Street (and, one suspects, writing bad books for Pluto).

This is all very interesting if what you are interested in is the cultural anthropology of part of the swamp. If, however, your interest is in the real world of exploitation and oppression, you need to go back to Hammett or Sjöwall and Walloo. China Option is worth reading. Its setting is both interesting and important: present day Peking, with its repression, its deals to provide cheap-labour for Western multinationals, its dissident movement and its unpublicised strikes. The book gives you a real feel for important aspects of the world’s biggest country. But it’s still not in any real sense a socialist novel. It belongs, rather, to the same tradition as The Crash of 79 and Gorky Park: novels that provide some insight into the working of the world, but from a view which is not necessarily at all left wing.

Gordon de Marco falls into a different category to the other three. Not only are his settings political, but he aims to persuade people to draw socialist conclusions. He did this quite well in his Canvas Prison, which is set at the time of the anti-Communist witch-hunt of Hollywood in the late 1940s. October Heat (written before Canvas Prison) is not quite as successful.

It is set in San Francisco in 1934. A general strike has just led to unionisation of the waterfront and the left wing novelist Upton Sinclair is running for state governor, on the Democratic Party ticket. A routine case for private eye Riley Kovacs leads him into a bloody labyrinth of right wing plots and political murders.

So far so good. But the effectiveness of the novel is undermined by two things. First is de Marco’s insistence on writing in a style which parodies that of Hammett and Chandler. This works up to a certain point and then becomes simply annoying. Second, is the way he introduces real historical figures into the narrative (the longshore man’s leader Harry Bridges, Upton Sinclair, Charlie Chaplin, the imprisoned wobbly, Tom Mooney). These inevitably come across as wooden and unreal.

George Lukacs made the point in his study, The Historical Novel, that real historical figures can never play more than a marginal part in a novel, as opposed to a play. Novelists have to provide some all round portrayal of their central characters and their interaction with the rest of society. They cannot reduce them to one or two dimensions so as to provide a particular angle on events, in the way that the playwright can. So even the great historical novels of a Walter Scott or a Tolstoy are weakest at those points where real figures (the Duke of Argyll or Napoleon) appear. In de Marco’s case this means that October Heat begins to fall flat just as it should be reaching a crescendo. But at least he tries to use the detective novel to put across socialist ideas, and that puts him in a class apart from the other Pluto novelists.

Last updated on 8 October 2019