Undercover: The Thriller Memorandum, Part VI (03/23/78)

the+whisper+of+the+axeI read thrillers for kicks, for escape; but I also read thrillers to heighten my sense of a world in which violence is so commonplace it seems to have come loose from motive and purpose. It has its own rules and its own domain, but no one knows what they are. I read to focus this sense of violence, to gain the illusion that it all makes some sense.

This may be little more than escapism by roundabout; still, what’s so surprising is how rarely the spy story or the murder mystery can satisfy even this small wish—how rarely, in fact, such tales do more than trivialize it. Take three recent attempts to exploit contemporary terrorism. Warren Adler’s The Casanova Embrace (Putnam) is based on the assassination of Orlando Letelier, who along with a coworker was blown up in Washington D.C., in the fall of 1976. Chile’s ambassador to the U.S. under Allende, Letelier was one of the most effective opponents of the current junta; though the Justice Department has yet to do anything about the case, leaks suggest the junta had Letelier killed by anti-Castro Cubans, most of whom got their start in terrorism with U.S. backing, and some of whom may still work with the CIA. You might think such a story has good possibilities, but you’d be wrong, at least where Adler is concerned; in his version, Letelier (called “Palmero”) is murdered, not by political enemies but by his lovers and his jealous wife. As you might imagine, the investigators in The Casanova Embrace are very surprised by this turn of events.

Such reactionary nonsense pales next to Richard Condon’s The Whisper of the Axe (Ballantine), which, like all of Condon’s books (he wrote The Manchurian Candidate), takes place on a much greater scale. This time around Condon is promoting a black woman who, working with the Chinese and having taken over the entire American heroin market, plans a revolution in the U.S. that is utterly fail-safe, except that 60 million people will have to die in it. Why is she doing all this? Because she’s mad as hell and she’s not gonna take it anymore. In Condon’s hands, the whole world is a conspiracy (everyone is corrupt; Watergate really was a third-rate burglary in this context), and every evil has its direct cause, just as every prejudice is played to. Of course, you don’t believe a word of it, not for a second, but then, neither does Condon.

Then there is Richard Owen’s The Eye of the Gods. Here, the head of a Middle Eastern oil kingdom is to be done in by a conspiracy headed by the king’s nephew. He hires superterrorist Carlos—a real-life figure, still on the loose, who appears in the book under his own name—to pull off the job. But you know what happens? Carlos gets eaten by a dinosaur.

In the hard-boiled American detective story, the conceit is that people kill for real reasons, and they die real deaths: no dinosaurs allowed. One purpose of the hard-boiled detective story, as Pauline Kael once wrote of Bonnie and Clyde, is to “put the sting back into death,” just as spy stories are supposed to put the sting back into the violence of international politics. Again, it doesn’t happen often. Following Raymond Chandler’s lead, the hard-boiled writers have shifted their emphasis from murder to, as their publishers like to say, “the novel of character.” They downgrade plotting in favor of working out the limits of the persona of the private eye, which has to do with self-pity, blind determination, and, usually, booze. He’s always getting taken off the case; nobody helps him; nobody pays him; nobody even thanks him. Why does he keep on, he keeps asking himself (and us)? Because he has to know who did it, or, rather, why.

The reason no one thanks the detective is because no one else really wants to know who did it, let alone why; in the world posited by the hard-boiled novel, life is a conspiracy of silence and everyone has something to hide. In books like James Crumley’s astonishingly sordid The Wrong Case (Random House, but out of print) or Michael Z. Lewin’s new The Silent Salesman (Knopf), the detective is the last honest man: the one who owns up to his own weaknesses, his own corruptibility. Indeed, self-pity has turned back on itself: the detective has become so pathetic the idea of his trying to hide a dirty secret is ridiculous.

Lewin has been working on his detective—Albert Samson, based in Indianapolis, middle-aged, divorced, broke, plodding, doesn’t carry a gun—for some time, and he has finally got him right: as The Silent Salesman opens Samson is so down-and-out self-pity is a joke even he’s tired of. Fatigue and pointlessness slog across the pages and the killers and closed-mouths are much less interesting than Samson’s attitude toward them. In an odd, perhaps unintentional way, he becomes the focus of violence: you want to know what sort of revenge he’s going to take on all the people who are fucking him over—or if he cares enough to rake revenge at all. The one great moment of Lewin’s low-keyed good book comes when Samson slugs a friend of his, a cop who’s been trying to get Samson off the case; the act is a shock, because you just didn’t know he had it in him, and neither did Samson.

There is the suggestion of great conspiracy in The Silent Salesman—organized crime, an all-Midwest heroin ring—but it’s treated as something not only out of reach of the law but of the detective story: as the way things are, like the weather. To Lewin, the part of the realm of violence that’s accessible to the thriller writer—or the detective—is small, amateurish, petty, stupid, ugly, and ordinary. Lewin might be suggesting that, in this genre, it’s only here that a writer can, today, give violence the tinge of reality—can make death close to real. It’s not much, but it’s better than dinosaurs.


Rolling Stone, March 23, 1978


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