‘The Gods will not save you.’
My favourite line from the Wire, and one that floats in and around my head on a more than regular basis. It’s grown to mean something applicable to more than just the characters in the show, I find it applies to most of the crime fiction that I love, and serves as a useful barometer for the crime fiction I don’t.
It refers to the powers in the universe outside the control of any one individual, or individuals. What we’re really talking about here is fate. Not the kind of fate ordained by the gods, or by karma, nor do I mean something allotted to a mere mortal by a capricious God. In fact it’s something that exists in a world where God, or Gods do not. What I mean here by fate is the struggle by a character, or characters, against forces that are far too strong for them, and always will be. In the world of the Wire this included poverty, drugs, crime, politics, big business and corruption in all its guises. In each of the seasons of the Wire the various characters come up against these forces, some were beaten, some cow-towed and surrendered, and occasionally one or two might prevail. But we were never left in any doubt that these victories were only temporary, the game remains. The names may change but the game is still the game.
I always find it useful to be mindful of what has been with us from the world of the ancient Greeks, that the gods interfere in the lives of men at a whim and will destroy them, or raise them up, if and when they see fit. The modern forces have replaced the cast of celestial beings sounding like Laurence Olivier or Liam Neeson and sitting on clouded mountain tops, but their impact on our lives remain.
A lot of crime fiction seems to take a different approach, whether consciously or not. To me it seems like they adopt the superhero approach, namely their hero is imbued with some special faculty that lifts them above the world of mere mortals. This can be the supreme intellect of a Sherlock Holmes or the more physical abilities to out-drink, out-fight and out-shoot as seems to be the lot of many heroes. Instead of dressing them in a mask and a cape the writer dresses them like one of us but the super powers are always close to being unleashed, usually bringing death and destruction in their wake, saving the damsel and returning the world to one of law and order. Whether the hero actually wears a badge is usually immaterial, their code has been imposed and the evil vanquished. Until that is they reappear in the next episode, the world has reset and the eternal fight against evil resumes. If I was anything more than a dilettante when it comes to philosophy I might be able to describe this in post-Nietzschean language, in a world where God is dead the Superman reigns, but I think you get my drift.
I’ve never been interested in a superman as a hero, even as a kid I was never that interested in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, it was obvious from early on that as Superman was invulnerable and couldn’t be beaten he was never in anything more than temporary peril, nothing bad would ever happen to him. And if nothing bad could ever happen to him then why was I watching, there was never anything at stake. This basic premise applies to crime fiction. If I pick up a book and the hero appears to be a version of the superman it will take something special for me to keep reading, why would I?
No, I want to read about somewhere where things really are at stake, not just a scratch here and there, where their lives are at stake, and the lives of others, and some part of the characters are aware of this from the beginning, and also aware that people will probably die no matter what they do. In fact failure is always part of the story, but it’s when the characters essentially embrace that failure and continue that I am interested. Chandler created his Marlowe, his knight errant roaming the streets of LA, a sucker for a damsel in distress but always aware that he had probably been dealt a losing hand, yet he continued, the quest more important than the outcome, only in that could he live according to his code, like the knights of the grail quests on which he’d been based. From Chandler, and Hammett, arose the hard-boiled hero, but my main problem with many of the later derivations is that they, whether by accident or design, evolve into the superhero, at which point I don’t care. (Incidentally, anyone bothering to read this with a knowledge of graphic novels can probably shoot down my superhero analogy based on work being produced now, I don’t know enough of the medium to argue but even they would agree that the basic superhero idea gets pretty stale, no doubt why many modern graphic novel authors seek to subvert the clichés).
The twin pillars of my own love of crime fiction are David Goodis and Derek Raymond. In each of their work I can see the presence of the Gods, and their complete indifference to man, and the struggles of the characters become infinitely more interesting as a result.
Goodis peopled his stories from amongst the drunks and the losers of the slums of Philadelphia, all trapped in their world, occasionally getting a glimpse of the riches of the world outside but returning home, as poor as it may be. The idea of getting out, getting away may flicker into his or her consciousness but that flame is quickly extinguished by the ‘Gods’ and they fall back to where they began, or worse. I would have loved to see Goodis attempt a serial character in his books, I have only read a couple of attempts at a detective from his days writing from pulp magazines, to no great effect to be honest, but I would have loved to see what he could have tried to do with a recurring character in the world of his novels.
Derek Raymond’s great achievement is the series of Factory novels, based around the investigations of a nameless Detective Sergeant in a division outside the interest of the rest of the force. Here the fight against the ‘Gods’ is carried out to full effect. Raymond’s hero knows he is unwanted, knows he asks awkward questions and knows that in the end he can achieve no real justice for the victims of the crimes he investigates, that idea that the hero would achieve justice for the victim I’ve always found flawed, so what, the culprit is arrested, big deal, the victim is still dead. Raymond’s Detective Sergeant knows his efforts will be paltry but believes that his own efforts will at least serve as recognition that someone cared. In his masterpiece I was Dora Suarez he says a prayer to the dead Dora hoping that by confronting her killer she can go to her rest, though realising how futile his efforts are.
Stories set in a world where the Gods, in whatever form, do not care are not automatically ‘gloomy’ or ‘depressing’, and how I fucking hate when these words are used to describe a story, I’ve never felt a story has to have a happy ending, why should it? Futility is no reason not to do anything, a lot of what we all do every day is futile, yet we do it, and do it again the next day. In many cases it is the struggle of the characters that is interesting, how they confront the forces pitted against them knowing that the Gods are deaf to their pleas. It’s not really strange that the works of writers like Goodis and Raymond survived in French translations as their English-speaking readership largely dried up, those that lived with the cultural legacy of existentialism were more attuned to the struggles of the protagonists in an uncaring world. Who else could define the world of Noir for us?
The Gods will not save you, so fucking what, don’t go looking for help from them when you know that help will never arrive. Accept that all you will attempt will be futile; the best that can be achieved is some sort of small victory, temporarily delaying the inevitable. But a small victory achieved in circumstances where immense forces are weighed against you, where the Gods will not, nor will they ever, help you is worth more than some generic piece of shite where the hero stands staring off into the sunset with a cartoon woman by his side, ready to save the world again in his next adventure.