A co-worker, an intelligent and widely read lass of nineteen, recently loaned me Michael Harvey’s The Chicago Way with a glowing review. The book made me sad. Not in the way, say Island of Blue Dolphins made me sad as a nine-year old when I got to the end and realized how much I loved my mom and was glad she was upstairs.
It made me sad because I could recognize all the elements of an enjoyable summertime read, and despite wanting to enjoy it on it’s own merits, and for my young buddy, and for first-time novelist Harvey, it left me cold. This is undoubtedly partly Harvey’s fault, as much as fault can be laid in achieving a book of some acclaim. The fault also lies, however, with me.
I love crime fiction. Love it like I love mocha frappes, baseball, and The Simpsons. I have studied it in classrooms, watched the movie adaptations, beat myself about the chest and face ululuating for being such a Chandler man, and not enough of a Hammett. I have loved it to the point, like mocha frappes, baseball, and The Simpsons, that I have lost a crucial piece of my subjective pleasure in it.
I cherish this subjectivity in listening to music. Music is something I refuse to dissect, even if it leads to my having dubious tastes in the music that gently squeezes my gonads and makes me Jersey Shore the car ceiling (“More than a Feeling”? Fuck yes, I will). I can maintain this subjectivity with unabashedly low-to-middlebrow movies. For example, I liked Starship Troopers even before I realized it was satire ( Scott Tobias tells the goddamn truth). I will still watch Bloodsport at any point, or most any John Carpenter flick, or, Idiocracy. I can still sit back at 3 a.m. and enjoy a B minus movie.
But crime fiction? I can’t. I’m constantly comparing, noting, deducting points from an invisible, biased ledger.
Thus, The Chicago Way. Harvey has obviously studied his noirs, and studied well. Almost like the student who uses the teacher’s own examples in his work, Harvey may have paid too fawning an attention. From the Chandler/Hammett playbook we have:
- A gruff, wisecracking P.I. with a tough shell, a noble core, and a couple of self-worrisome black spots in morality. Also, totally gets all sorts of ass.
- Buddies in the force, good people and good cops who haven’t risen higher precisely because they’re good people and good cops.
- Dames in distress, and femme fatales who seem to be in distress and constant readiness to be undressed.
- A lyrically-lavished city that has a rough beauty, even as it masticates innocence and spits out the bones.
- The mob.
- A massive, venal, successful beauracracy.
- A first-person narrator who withholds information from the reader, though the narrator is thinking about the information, just in a way that somehow circumvents the revealing of said information, which, as everyone knows, is the exact way that people think. (What did he drink for breakfast? He knew. It was delicious. Cold. And he would have some more. Chapter break. Orange juice!). This pisses me off to no end.
In his update of Chandler/Hammett, whose taboos no longer provide enough juice for us jaded modern types, Harvey has added some new crime tropes, namely:
- Child Molestation
- Serial Killers
- Dead people everywhere.
I don’t mean this as a takedown of The Chicago Way. In one regard it satisfies all the conventions of both a good summer read and a good ol’ detective novel. The plot plunges forward, tied to an inquisitive and generally likeable protagonist. It is a book I could safely recommend to a number of my reader friends who have sound judgment.
And yet, the book left me sad. Crime is a supple genre, very much so still alive. At its base, crime is simply standard literary techniques of creating and raising tension pushed to an acceptably realistic extreme. Betrayal, infidelity, violence, revenge, greed, shame, fear, these are hallmark storytelling engines in literature. In crime, they are simply used with a muscle-bound hand.
As a living cultural artifact (as opposed to, say, the blues or big-ticket biopics), there are still boundaries to push in the genre. By boundaries, I mean boundaries of style or insight, not taboos. Here is where The Chicago Way disappointed me. It highlights the moth-eaten elements of the genre: Chandler’s lovingly rendered, grime-smeared settings; Hammett’s morally weary and wounded protagonists; one-liners a-plenty; classy broads with great gams, hungry snatches, and dubious motives.
The things in The Chicago Way that feel more modern are precisely the cheats used in the genre: namely child molestation, rape, serial killers, and a morgue’s worth of corpses. These are cultural taboos, easy signifiers for the truly unacceptable. Hell, serial killers, along with Nazis and talking cats, are the universal sign for chilling immorality, a soullessness that exempts any need for development or explanation. He stuffs young girls in his basement. After raping them. In mime makeup. Yeesh (and yes, I know it was obvi based on J.Dubs Gacy).
I’m getting all fired up about a decent read, from a guy who clearly loves the genre. I’m all agog and aghast because, for whatever reason, I’ve taken this genre to my bosom, and I hold it to a set of nerdish standards that seem unnecessary, and tiresome, and pedantic. Why can’t I turn it off and enjoy a ripping read?
Then I look at The Friends of Eddie Coyle. It came out almost forty years ago. It doesn’t aspire to literature as far as I can tell. It simply aspires to being a really fucking good crime novel. And it succeeds. And despite being so fucking hard-edged that the pages are printed on used bar rags, only one person dies in it.
Am I being too harsh? If so, Michael Harvey, successful t.v. writer who will never, ever know who I am or care, I am sorry. You did what you did well, just not well enough for this mom’s basement-dwelling, two-hundred and ninety-five pound tub of unreasonable expectations.