Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Detectives Beyond Borders' greatest hits: The Assassin

 Work threatens to swamp the quiet precincts of Detectives Beyond Borders. While I struggle bravely to stem the flood, here an old post that's relevant both to my recent crime reading and to the current American political season. As a bonus, the novel in question, Liam O'Flaherty's The Assassin, contains one of my favorite little speeches in all of crime fiction: "Don't mind him, Kitty. He's mad. Have a sausage."
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I've just finished The Assassin, that 1928 novel by Liam O'Flaherty that Declan Burke called "arguably the bravest Irish novel ever written."

The novel is, for the most part, an exploration of the solitary psyches of an assassin and his co-conspirators. It does, however, contain a passage or two that are, one might say, more relevant today than ever. The first may be especially so in the United States:

"Unity was always McShiel's programme, because it did not necessitate taking sides on any definite question. ... As it was impossible to impose a budget on the community sufficiently large to provide emoluments for all the politicians simultaneously, it was obviously impossible to unite them. But the programme was attractive, as it allowed of unlimited intrigue."
Political questions in the United States tend to be less urgent than they probably were in the early years of Irish independence. The cry here is less for unity than for its relative, bipartisanship. This cry tends to arise when one party loses control of Congress or even of Congress and the White House together. Parties in control tend not to discuss bipartisanship as much.

Back to Liam O'Flaherty:
"`Man, man, there are thousands waiting to rush out, waitin' for their chance.'"

"`To loot,' said McDara calmly, `That's not force. There's no reason in that. That's mob anarchy.'"
Seems to me that McDara, the novel's protagonist, and quite possibly O'Flaherty as well, is one disillusioned or at least disappointed revolutionary. Or maybe revolution is just a more complicated affair than we outsiders can know.

How does politics find its way into your favorite crime stories or maybe into your less favored ones?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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18 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Parties in control tend not to discuss bipartisanship as much.

Profundity lieth here ...

January 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

GOP leaders have already talked about partisanship and reaching across the aisle. I'm not sure they did this in 1994.

January 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

GOP = The Republican Party, for any readers unfamiliar with American political colloquialisms.

January 06, 2009  
Anonymous Iain Rowan said...

I like the way that politics is woven in to all of Peter Temple's novels. Whatever the immediate focus of the novel, there's something larger playing out at local, regional or national level, something which will distort or taint everything with which it comes into contact.

January 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He has a nice way with land-development issues in some of the Jackl Irish novels, I seem to recall.

January 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The same with The Broken Shore, where he has nice passages about gentrying neighborhoods.

January 09, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

How does politics find its way...into your less favored ones?

Political crime fiction and/or thrillers in which politics is the central theme around which all the action takes place almost inevitably become screeds for authors to express their personal anger, contempt, etc. for a political party or politician. It would be redundant to say that political parties/politicians in such novels are almost without exception venal, corrupt, etc. I don't want an overt history lesson or a lecture. Tiresome.

How does politics find its way into your favorite crime stories?

Adjunctly. Favorites include Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key and John Lawton's A Little White Death where, yes the politicians are venal, corrupt, self-serving, and even amoral but they and their actions are components--I won't go quite as far as saying they are incidental, because they may drive the action--of novels with compelling writing and storytelling.



October 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I may be defining "political" more generously -- or less precisely -- than you do. We both like Adrian McKinty, and I think of The Cold Cold Ground and the upcoming I Hear the Sirens in the Streets as political because their milieu is the daily reality behind the things that politicians and journalists talk about.

On the other hand, I don't think of Ross Thomas' satirical novels as political even though they are set smack within the world of politics.

...Political crime fiction and/or thrillers in which politics is the central theme around which all the action takes place almost inevitably become screeds for authors to express their personal anger, contempt, etc. for a political party or politician....

Politics, the abuse thereof, and the effects of that abuse are central themes of Dominique Manotti's novels, but she tells a story so well, and populates her books with such interesting characters, that the viewpoint --skeptical, to say the least -- becomes the part of the fabric of the story, and no mere tacked-on polemic. The same is true, in its way, of Leonardo Sciascia.

October 17, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Ah, but you're illustrating my point. For a left-leaning reader like yourself, the leftist Manotti is just a good storyteller. For a moderate/conservative-leaning reader like myself (yes, I realize we are a distinct minority among DBB's readership) I find myself becoming annoyed at the overt leftist slant of her novels. Ditto Sjöwall and Wahlöö.

On the other hand Sciascia, whom you mention, and Camilleri, both leftists, never leave me rolling my eyes and whining "Ma, dai!" when I read their novels. Perhaps it's a question of degree. And of the two Italians' deep humanity, compassion, and acceptance of human weaknesses and inconsistencies.

October 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Though some might --and probably did-- question Sciascia's humanity, among other things, when he accused anti-Mafia judges of being careerists.

Among Manotti's novels, I'd say Lorraine Connection and Rough Trade might have less to annoy you than Affairs of State. One thing I liked about the first of those is that the cops are no demons and the workers no saints. It's not that I think of Manotti as just a good storyteller; there's no way one could mistake her political convictions. But hers do not get in the way, for me, of a good story, though she comes close a time of two in Affairs of State. Politics ought not to interfere with a good story in crime fiction, but that need not imply that no good story can have a political viewpoint.

October 17, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Though some might --and probably did-- question Sciascia's humanity, among other things, when he accused anti-Mafia judges of being careerists.

And many of them were! Have you seen Ricky Tognazzi's La Scorta (The Escort), 1993? I don't see how Sciascia's anger and scorn directed at these apparatchiks is in contradiction to my assessment of him as essentially humane. Most Italians across the political spectrum are anti-Mafia, it's not a left or right stance. People not associated with any party were murdered by mafiosi.

Politics ought not to interfere with a good story in crime fiction, but that need not imply that no good story can have a political viewpoint.

I agree completely. But how many readers would concur if the novel (no matter how fine) was written from a conservative point of view?

Is there any contemporary crime fiction written by conservative-leaning writers? I almost hesitate to ask since most of my work colleagues equate conservatism with stupidity, racism/sexism/homophobia, mean-spiritedness, etc. etc. (I can hear them now: "And...?")

October 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've heard the quick and dirty truism that crime novels tend to the left, thrillers to the right. How true this is, I don't know. I've never read Stephen Hunter, but I have seen him described as conservative.

Maybe, since crime fiction, broadly speaking, tends to deal with the little guy and thrillers, broadly speaking, deal with big themes (the Cold War, and so on), what appears to be left/liberal leanings among crime writers is really sympathy for the downtrodden. And sure, people associated with no party were murdered by Mafiosi, but what right-wing authors in Italy wrote about this?

In re Sciascia, I read that one of the anti-Mafia judges slain by the Mafia, I think Falcone, said something along the lines of that he forgave Sciascia because Sciascia was so great.

October 17, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"...what right-wing authors in Italy wrote about this?"

I don't know. Surely some conservative-leaning authors did? Right-wing and conservative are not synonyms.

"...sympathy for the downtrodden." Something moderates-conservatives, by definition, cannot have? I give up!

October 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

They can, of course, but hasn't that sort of thing been associated more often with writing from the left rather than the right?

I don't remember noticing anything especially conservative about the books of his that I've, but Mario Vargas Llosa comes to mind as an author who, at least in his political life is conservative. Maybe he's so good that politics don't obtrude on his writing.

And what about sympathy for those trodden down by government in Cuba, China, or the old U.S.S.R.? Would writers whose work bespeaks such sympathies be considered conservative? Anti-communist, maybe, but probably closer to radical than conservative. Perhaps part of the conceptual difficulty is semantic. "Conservative," in a real sense, takes in a desire to keep things as they are, to preserve what is best in a given society. I'm not sure such a desire makes for good drama.

October 17, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Conservative," in a real sense, takes in a desire to keep things as they are, to preserve what is best in a given society. I'm not sure such a desire makes for good drama.

I'd say John D. MacDonald's The Executioners, 1958, (on which "Cape Fear" was based) might be an exception. I think novels dealing with preserving "what is best in a given society," like this one, can make for good drama.

Yes, we are wandering close to the fever swamps of semantics in this thread. Conservative (adj.) vs. conservative (noun). So, some conservatives are concerned about government suppression in totalitarian states, as are some liberals, thus making them antitotalitarians all. (Although liberals tend to soft pedal totalitarianism in its communist form while they excoriate totalitarianism in its fascist form.) Similar semantic muddle when considering "classical liberalism" vs. 21st c. liberalism.

October 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So, where do lone-wolf crime novels fit on the liberal-conservative spectrum?

The fever swamp of semantics characterizes much political discussion in this country. (I'm not knocking the U.S. I just don't know what day-to-day political discourse is like in any country other than this one.)

October 17, 2012  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

I find myself in two minds here, as I tend to agree w/Elisabeth that much contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction hits one over the head with rather obvious leftist cant--as a die hard red lefty I can say this--while still relying on the most conservative of genre conventions. I don't feel this is true of Wahloo and Schovall, however. In their novels, the politics, though hardcore socialist, are interwoven so naturally as to be part of the very air the protagonists breathe. They rail, rightly I feel, against the slathering capitalists at the gates of Sweden's social democracy but in a way that never detracts from the plot or turns the muli-faceted and flawed characters in a way they wouldn't otherwise turn in the life of the novel.

By the by, O'Flaherty is one of the single best Irish writers of the 20th century, tho he gets no credit as such. He writes some terrible sentences in his books, however. Interesting, I've always thought. Is it b/c he was born into an Irish speaking family and English was his 2nd language or was it b/c he used to knock his books out in a matter of weeks? I think he's on record as saying he wrote The Assassin when he was out of work in London and needed cash. Inquiring minds want to know...

October 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have read that O'Flaherty was on the run when he wrote The Assassin, but for futher details, I suggest you consult Declan Burke or a good reference book. It's been a few years since I read the novel, but I don't remember noticing any terrible sentences. This would be interesting, since I usually have sensitive antennae for such things.

Stieg Larsson's politics, or rather polemics, are so obtrusive that he has to cut and paste them into one of his books, in the form of statistics about violence against as women inserted as chapter headings. Good crime novels with a political punch make the politics part of the story, and sometime the same writers can do this well in one book, less well in another. Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström it well in Three Seconds, not so well in Cell 8.

October 23, 2012  

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