John Perich, “Too Close To Miss” (2011) – Believe it or not, but once upon a time, crime fiction was a lefty genre. As the genre shifted in the 1920s and ’30s from the genteel amateur detectives of Doyle and Christie to the more hardboiled mode we’re familiar with, it was injected with social realism that used real-world class struggles and oppression for framing and dramatic tension. Figures like Dashiell Hammett (an ex-Pinkerton who went left so hard he wound up on the blacklist), Ray Chandler, James Cain, Chester Himes, and many more cranked out genuine classics that were highly popular and conveyed a hard-hitting social critique without sacrificing story by becoming didactic (even when they could have used some education- see their attitudes towards gender). It was honestly something of a miracle.
Of course, nothing that good could last. Mickey Spillane came along and hijacked the genre tropes for his (to use Mike Davis’s phrase) “sado-McCarthyite” potboilers. Joseph Wambaugh, Jack Webb, and their imitators colonized (and cross-fertilized, and saturated) TV and the paperback market with their fatuous good-cop fantasies. Eventually, the crime-fiction right got its own genius with James Ellroy, but that was much farther down the line, and by that point, crime fiction in general wasn’t what it was.
My friend and comrade John Perich is doing his bit to bring the tradition back with his Mara Cunningham stories. His first novel, “Too Close To Miss,” treads in familiar territory — gritty Boston crime-land, which Dennis Lehane and his various imitators have been dishing up to us for a good thirty years now — but finds some new paths. We have many of the familiar tropes- the flawed hero, Mara, a photographer who enters into the action because of an affair with a married man; the web of corruption in which the local gangsters are in many respects the least reprehensible element; sexualized danger; urban blight contrasted with hollow gentrified urban glitz. There’s some first-time-novelist hiccups but a good solid frame (and some tense, well-described mayhem).
But as the story picks up and the pieces fall together, we get something a little more, the same sort of thing which made Chandler something other than a dude with a clean prose style (and some bad stereotypical depictions of people outside his demographic). It’s not the “social consciousness” that delivers tedious lectures- it’s a way of looking at the violence and hierarchy undergirding the whole social structure, the grime and the glitz just the same. It’s not that the bad guys aren’t bad, aren’t just as grotesquely sociopathic as the Lehane model of crime fiction, based in individual psychopathology (aided by an uncaring social system) would have us believe. It’s that our system is built structurally to enable the petty, individual sadism of powerful men- gendered pronoun used advisedly. The mystery Mara finds herself in is all about money, but money isn’t just money. It’s power, and at its best, crime fiction can illuminate power — its manifestations, its abuses, what it does to all of us — with a higher intelligence-to-pedantry ratio than just about anything else. I’m excited to see what the next books in the series do with it. ****