Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Labor pains: Organized labor in crime fiction

"`Mr Amrouche, my predecessor told me you were a reasonable man, a man of compromise, able to make allowances. So I am keen for you to be the first to know this: in one week, the works council will meet and the question of the last nine months' unpaid bonuses will once again be on the agenda. If the company were to pay those bonuses today, plus the arrears, its financial stability would be jeopardised. The financial situation is still precarious, as you well know, and there's a risk the factory will have to close. So, management is going to suggest – and when I say suggest, you know what I mean – that all bonuses be cancelled for this year and paid next January.'"
Thanks goodness that's just fiction, from the opening chapter of Dominique Manotti's Lorraine Connection, winner of last year's International Dagger award from the Crime Writers' Association in the UK.

Mr. Amrouche is the union representative in a plant that makes cathode-ray tubes, and his presence reminded me how small a role organized labor plays in crime fiction. Evil corporations? Crime fiction has them by the score, generally of the real-estate development variety, but their adversaries and victims are usually lone-wolf private eyes, individual down-and-outers, or gentrified neighborhoods rather than unions. Even the few American proletarian crime stories I've read from the 1930s tend not to feature labor unions except as extensions of and counterparts to the mob.

The passage above is from very early in Lorraine Connection, and I have no idea how Mr. Amrouche or the union will figure in the novel's action (no spoilers, please). But he is one of the few labor-union characters I can think of in all of crime fiction, and the only one that comes to mind who is shown as a moral actor rather than a victim or villain.

And now, your thoughts. What crime stories give prominent roles to labor unions or unionists? What are those roles? Is labor underrepresented in crime fiction? If so, why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Labels: , , ,

35 Comments:

Blogger Fred said...

Good question. The easy answer is that labor unions are the good guys, the representative and embodiment of the working classes which must be depicted as victims, rather than villains.

The exceptions, of course, are those taken over by organized crime, and then again it's not the union's fault; it is a victim.

i remember only two works right now that included unions or union organizers. One is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's _The Valley of Fear_ which depicted a murderous union group called the Scowrers. It's been a while since I read it, so correct me if I'm wrong. This takes place in Pennsylvania, and is told in London, afterwards, to Holmes.


The second I can remember because I just recently read it is Dashiell Hammett's _The Red Harvest_ which related the aftermath of the efforts of a town's leading citizen to break a strike led by the Wobblies (IWW) by using several gangs of thugs. The union organizer is still in town and plays a minor role, mostly that of informing the Continental Op of the true state of affairs in the town.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Good answers. It's interesting that a union group would have been the subject of a story as long ago as Conan Doyle's time, even under such a lurid title. I can't correct you, since I had not heard of the story. I read Red Harvest years ago. It might be time to read it again in light of this discussion and in light of a theory I read some time ago about Hammett's life. This theory suggested that Hammett's politics took the leftist turn that they did as atonement for his past as an employee of Pinkerton's, with its notorious history of strikebreaking.

What is immediately interesting about Manotti's character is that he's not a mere embodiment of his class, at least in his first appearance. Manotti, by the way, is a professor of economic history. How this comes to bear on her fiction, I don't know yet.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

In _Red Harvest_, several gangs are imported to break a strike. After breaking it, they refuse to leave and decide to take over the town. The Continental Op arrives and decides to rid the town by fostering animosity among the various gangs. The strikebreakers are clearly a group of thugs here. The IWW rep/organizer comes across very sympathetically, or so it seemed to me.

According to some comments I had read, _Red Harvest_ was an inspiration for Akira Kurosawa's film _Yojimbo_, about a wandering samurai who rids a town of two gangs by getting them to wipe each other out.

This was later remade and appeared as _A Fistful of Dollars_ with Clint Eastwood, and remade once again with Bruce Willis in _Last Man Standing_.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Damn me, I know I have Red Harvest around somewhere, I think in an omnibus edition ...

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

That might be the same one I have: _International Collectors Library--The Novels of Dashiell Hammett_ which includes all five of his novels.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

May well be. My edition is on the xheesy side, but the contents are what counts, and the contents are just fine.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Brian said...

The most recent one that I read (that I can remember anyway) is Any Given Day by Dennis Lehane. Which is about, in part, the rise and formation of a union.

And also on the TV front the entire second season of The Wire. Whicj is about, in part, a union in decline.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Dana King said...

Brian nailed both of my examples. What I like about both is tha union people do explore moral dilemmas, and aren't just there to be oppressed.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Brian. The fifth season of The Wire was about a newspaper in decline, the second about a union in decline. That's all I need.

Any Given Day sounds worth a look the next time a take a busman's holiday and read some American crime fiction. Perhaps it's no accident that Dennis Lehane wrote for The Wire as well.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, it sounds as if the show and the novel have some of what I noticed in Lorraine Connection's opening chapter.

Fred mentioned the sympathetic IWW organizer in Red Harvest. I wonder why corrupt unions loom large in the American popular imagination, probably larger than non-corrupt ones. Possibly for the old reason that good news is not news.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I have the general impression that other than the Teamsters, most American labor unions are perceived by the public as quietly going about their declining business, fighting to keep their members' jobs from disappearing. Hoffa could be depicted as a villain, Walter Reuther or George Meany, not so much (unless, of course, you're writing from the bloated plutocrat's perspective).

Valley of Fear was one of the four Holmes novels, Peter, along with A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. From what I've seen, it's probably the least-cited of the four. That may be because half of it was an as-told-to-Holmes story.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're probably right about unions -- quiet victims of the American shift of power from labor to capital, except when some mayor blames them for refusing to make concessions for the public good.

I read one Conan Doyle story, a considerable part of which takes place in the U.S., but not in Pennsylvania. This discussion has piqued my interest about Valley of Fear.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

I agree with Linkmeister. Half of _Vally of Fear_ novel is told to Holmes, and the "union story" is that part.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

The other Doyle story that takes place in the US--is that the one about the Mormons--_A Study in Scarlet_?

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I believe A Study in Scarlet is the story I have in mind, though I think Conan Doyle may have written at least one non-Holmes story set in America. I'm now Conan Doylean scholar, obviously.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I think of A. Phillip Randolph whenever I take the train to visit friends in Boston. Back Bay station has a little monument to Randolph and a display about his life. There's another admirable figure in labor history.

I am bourgeois to my roots, but it does not take a radical to recognize that labor gets the short end of the stick in the American popular mind in mahy ways. As for unions' getting little consideration in American crime fiction, that could be because the lone private eye is America's distinctive contribution to the genre, and loners might not mesh easily with unions in fiction.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

A non-Holmes story set in US? Interesting, I hadn't heard of that. I'm not a Doyle expert either--just read all of his Holmes stories.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, look, I could be confusing A Study in Scarlet with a a book of non-Holmes stories by Conan Doyle that I had once been given. But, through my confusion, I do remember enjoying the part of the story set in the American West, whatever story it was in.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Oh, that's Scarlet. From Wikipedia's entry:

"The second half of the story is called The Country of the Saints and jumps to the United States of America and the Mormon community, and incorporating a depiction of the Danites, including an appearance by Brigham Young in a somewhat villainous context. It is told in a third person narrative style, with an omniscient narrator, before returning in the last two chapters to Watson's account of Holmes' investigation, and then Holmes' own explanation of his solution."

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's my story, I think. I recall vaguely associating it with Mark Twain's Roughing It, which contains astonished passages about Mormons.

July 08, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

That could be _A Study in Scarlet_. Half of the story was told to Holmes and was set in Utah among the Mormons, and that definitely was a Western setting.

July 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If that was it, the novelty of the American setting drove Holmes right out of my mind. I suspect I'll be able to find that book more easily than I'll find my Red Harvest, so I could check tomorrow.

July 09, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Gasp! You don't have a copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes?

Mine had that dust jacket, but it wasn't the 1930 edition. It's inscribed to me from my parents on the occasion of my 14th birthday.

July 09, 2009  
Blogger Brian said...

Also McFetridge's new show, The Bridge, deals with a police union doesn't it?

July 09, 2009  
Anonymous Chris O'Grady said...

Peter Jirovsky is correct about Hammett's conversion leftward in his references to RED HARVEST. Hammett was offered X-hundreds of dollars if he would whack one of the union leaders. Dash quit on the spot, and from then on had a dim view of capitalism and all its works.

July 09, 2009  
Anonymous Bob Cornwell said...

Hey guys, let’s get back on track here. Trade unionists in crime fiction, right? Surprised no-one’s mentioned thriller writer Ross Thomas, ex-reporter, once a PR man (Director, no less) for the National Farmer’s Union, Washington DC insider (he worked for the Lyndon Johnson administration), not to mention Edgar winner (for his first novel The Cold War Swap in 1967, and, later, for Briarpatch in 1985). But read his 1972 The Porkchoppers (‘pork chops’: union slang for economic benefits; ‘porkchopper’: union official motivated largely by self-interest) for a savage, sharply satirical picture of the forces, political, amoral, cynical and criminal, ranged against each other in a no-holds-barred union election. “Frighteningly true to life” said the New York Times.
And all in style once described as “somewhere between Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler” by Julian Rathbone, a British thriller writer (who also knew a thing or two about style).

July 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, no Complete Sherlock Holmes here. My enduring gift from a relative was an introduction to the work of P.G. Wodehouse. I have various smaller volumes of Holmes around the house, though, and one book of Conan Doyle stories at work.

July 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, you're right about The Bridge, and from what McFetridge says about the show, its central character seems audacious, calculating and bold -- a fine protagonist with perhaps a bit of a dark edge but one who happens to be head of a police union. It will be interesting to see how labor issues figure in the show.

July 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And is Observations from the Balcony still a going concern? I miss my kipple.

July 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Chris Brady. I had not heard that Hammett's political conversion had that stark an origin.

July 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Trade unionists in crime fiction it is. Thanks, Bob.

The Porkchoppers sounds like a fine answer to my question, and it's a fine title as well. I was not a fan of the one Ross Thomas title I'd tired, but this certainly seems worth a look.

July 09, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

By coincidence I am reading a hardboiled novel, "The Viewless Winds," Murray Morgan, 1949, the plot of which centers around the murder of a labor leader's wife in a logging-and-fishing town on the Oregon coast. The husband's leftist union activism is enough to indict him as far as half the townsfolk are concerned. Good yarn, well-written, captures the drizzly Oregon setting.
Re Hammett's "Red Harvest"... The only source we have for Hammett's leftist convictions resulting from events that occurred during his stint as a Pinkerton is a single anecdote provided by Hammett's on again-off again lover, Lillian Hellman. She knew how to tell a good story but is notoriously unreliable and sometime lied outright. Yet this anecdote has been repeated so often it is now thought to be gospel by many of Hammett's readers. Hammett's major biographer, Richard Layman, notes that "there are no masses of politically dispossessed people in 'Red Harvest'--only a detective and a group of crooks. Hammett never used his fiction as a forum for his political beliefs. Indeed, he kept whatever political convictions he had in 1929 to himself." There is no primary evidence from Hammett himself claiming he experienced a political "conversion" as a result of firsthand experience while a Pinkerton so this claim must remain moot unless new documentation comes to light.

July 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for your exceedingly illuminated comment. Your reading is quite a coincidence, yes. I had not heard of Murray Morgan or of that book, but suspicion centering on the husband for his political activities does not sound at all out of place for its time. Perhaps you could suggest the novel for Patti Abbott's Forgotten Books on her pattinase blog.

Thanks, too, for the reminder of Lillian Hellman's unreliability as a historical source. That citation from Richard Layman is pregnant with meaning. I wonder if a genre as rooted in solitary individualism as the American hard-boiled story can co-exist easily with concern for the masses.

July 09, 2009  
OpenID kuro said...

James Ellroy's LA Quartet deals a lot with (cinema) unions and their respective link either to the political left or to the mob.

The Teamsters also have a prominent role in American Tabloid.

July 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, kuro. I've read only L.A. Confidential. I don't remember a union aspect to that book, but it's been years since I read it. Makes sense that Ellroy should deal with such matters in more recent books, too, since I've read that he says he now writes social history rather than crime.

July 24, 2009  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home