Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Grifters, or Mother Knows Best and other crime-fiction family matters

I wrote a few years ago about some of the ways crime writers portray families. The writers I cited were Swedish, Welsh, Dutch, and French, and their characters struggle to build or hold together families or family substitutes not always nuclear.

How do American crime writers take up the theme?  In the Father Knows Best/My Three Sons/Leave It to Beaver era of American popular culture, noir writers said nope!, there are scarier things in life than crotchety but lovable old Uncle Charlie.

I'm reading Jim Thompson's The Grifters (1963) now, and the last American noir novel I read from about the same era was David Goodis' 1954 Black Friday (which means I should be putting up this post tomorrow instead of today, American Thanksgiving).  Mid-century American noir is not my main area of reading, so I don't know how typical each book is of its author's work or of its period. But each thrusts its lone-wolf protagonist into an odd, criminal echo of a traditional family (more like a clan in the Goodis and Mother Knows Best in the Thompson), and that has to mean something.

It would be easy to read such books as protests against or twisted echoes of the cheerful picture of suburban family life presented elsewhere in popular culture of the time, but they're more than that. The Goodis especially betrays a longing for family.

So, what did family mean in post-war American noir writing, and why?
Happy Thanksgiving, whether or not you're spending it with your family.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Stands to reason, the family situation would be an unhappy one in noir novels.

November 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think the feeling for family is stronger in these novels than in many others. A typical hard-boiled author (if there is such a thing) may write a character who is alone and without family without ever taking note of families or the lack thereof. Goodis and Thompson, on the other hand, don't so much create unhappy families ad they yearn for family, whether traditional or not.

November 25, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Hmm. It's just a matter of layering on some more unhappiness.

November 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Unhappiness has its place.

November 26, 2011  

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