I read lots of murder mysteries (“brain candy” as Tom Wolfe would say) and over time (and across rivers of blood) I’ve come to understand my need. All I want is righteousness, a private investigator or tormented cop (yes, the cops especially must be tormented) who’ll break a few rules (or many) to punish—wait for it—to punish the rich. The tortured PI can be a woman or man, black or white, gay or straight, able bodied or crippled, I’ll inevitably love them as long as they take it to the 1%.
My Trotskyite infatuation explains why I’ve never liked Sherlock Holmes who was a factotum for the gentry or captains of industry. (Yes I know he saved Renata Adler, but by golly she was plenty loaded. All Holmes’ clients are notable but wayward Victorians who want to choose their brand of notoriety and preserve their fortunes.)
No. Give me class warfare and lots of it. BTW rich characters who get their just desserts must be absolute cliches—being rich they give up all claims to decency. Consider this representative scene from James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novel “Sunset Limited.” If you haven’t read Burke’s Robicheaux books, let’s be clear, everyone’s tortured, cops, criminals, and bystanders. In effect persecution takes the place of nostalgic civic virtues in Burke’s version of New Orleans. Dave Robicheaux, Cajun cop, Viet Nam veteran, alcoholic, a sufferer, who has PTSD, experiences racial discrimination, well, he has his limits. Sadists for instance. He especially hates rich sadists.
“It was an hour later. Terrebonne had not been at his home, but a maid had told us where to find him. I parked the cruiser under the oaks in front of the restaurant up the highway and cut the engine. The water dripping out of the trees steamed on the hood.
“Dave, don’t do this,” Helen said.
“He’s in Iberia Parish now. I’m not going to have these pictures lost in a St. Mary Parish evidence locker.”
“We get them copied, then do it by the numbers.”
“You know a lot of rich guys working soybeans in Angola? That’s the way it is.”
“Not this time.”
I went inside the foyer, where people waited in leather chairs for an available table. I opened my badge on the maître d’.
“Archer Terrebonne is here with a party,” I said.
The maître d’s eyes locked on mine, then shifted to Helen, who stood behind me.
“Is there a problem?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I said.
“I see. Follow me, please.”
We walked through the main dining room to a long table at the rear, where Terrebonne was seated with a dozen other people. The waiters had just taken away their shrimp cocktails and were now serving the gumbo off of a linen-covered cart.
Terrebonne wiped his mouth with a napkin, then waited for a woman in a robin’s-egg-blue suit to stop talking before he shifted his eyes to me.
“What burning issue do you bring us tonight, Mr. Robicheaux?” he asked.
“Harpo Scruggs pissed in your shoe,” I said.
“Sir, would you not—” the maître d’ began.
“You did your job. Beat it,” Helen said.
I lay the three photographs down on the tablecloth.
“That’s you in the middle, Mr. Terrebonne. You chain-whipped Jack Flynn and hammered nails through his wrists and ankles, then let your daughter carry your guilt. You truly turn my stomach, sir,” I said.
“And you’re way beyond anything I’ll tolerate,” he said.
“Get up,” I said.
“Better do what he says,” Helen said behind me.
Terrebonne turned to a silver-haired man on his right. “John, would you call the mayor’s home, please?” he said.
“You’re under arrest, Mr. Terrebonne. The mayor’s not going to help you,” I said.
“I’m not going anywhere with you, sir. You put your hand on my person again and I’ll sue you for battery,” he said, then calmly began talking to the woman in a robin’s-egg-blue suit on his left.
Maybe it was the long day, or the fact the photos had allowed me to actually see the ordeal of Jack Flynn, one that time had made an abstraction, or maybe I simply possessed a long-buried animus toward Archer Terrebonne and the imperious and self-satisfied arrogance that he and his kind represented. But long ago I had learned that anger, my old enemy, had many catalysts and they all led ultimately to one consequence, an eruption of torn red-and-black color behind the eyes, an alcoholic blackout without booze, then an adrenaline surge that left me trembling, out of control, and possessed of a destructive capability that later filled me with shame.
I grabbed him by the back of his belt and hoisted him out of the chair, pushed him facedown on the table, into his food, and cuffed his wrists behind him, hard, ratcheting the curved steel tongues deep into the locks, crimping the veins like green string. Then I walked him ahead of me, out the foyer, into the parking area, pushing past a group of people who stared at us openmouthed. Terrebonne tried to speak, but I got the back door of the cruiser open and shoved him inside, cutting his scalp on the jamb.
When I slammed the door I turned around and was looking into the face of the woman in the robin’s-egg-blue suit.
“You manhandle a sixty-three-year-old man like that? My, you must be proud. I’m so pleased we have policemen of your stature protecting us from ourselves,” she said.”
Excerpt From: James Lee Burke. “Sunset Limited.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/p38DB.l
Mr. Terrebonne. Imperious, self-satisfied, arrogant, and obscenely rich. Now that’s what I like.
Of course being still faintly Christian, I can only like the rage of working class schadenfreude because Robicheaux has enough irony to feel more than passing shame—which is of course a neat reflection of the reader’s discomfort. You can’t root for a psychopathic version of Robin Hood. I didn’t say kicking the rich was easy. In murder mysteries, or the ones I like, the post-industrial, criminal rich are good at hiding the ways and means of their ill begotten gains and this allows them to strut around in plain sight. The private investigator or detective has to be a liminal person, anti-social, and if not vaguely misanthropic he or she must be possessed like a berserk Viking, wholly able to confront mendacity, corporatized lingo, the smug manners of the board room.
If the detectives I like must have irony I must have it to. Like plenty of disabled people I’ve had my share of discriminatory conversations, oppression on the job, ableism on the street. Haven’t I heard the sanitized neoliberal language of “sustainability” from the man in a suit who’s cheerfully explaining why state services for the blind can’t fully help their clients anymore? Don’t I know implicitly what it feels like to be an outsider in the vast gated community that’s taken the place of Main Street? I like my vengeance fantasies to have a splash of morality.
I like Easy Rollins, V.I Warshawski, Lincoln Rhyme, Dave Brandstetter—the outsider investigators. They don’t all kick the rich. But all of them face vast machineries of racism, misogyny, ableism, homophobia. They suffer according to their virtues and bravery.
But I love it when a sleuth takes down the running dogs of the bourgeoisie.