Red Harvest: Crime Fiction and Gospel Conviction

Forgot how itchy this suit is.

Forgot how itchy this suit is.

Pop culture and theology mix fruitfully in pulp-crime fiction.

Here’s a four-part course from 2012: Red Harvest: Crime Fiction and Gospel Conviction          .

Here’s the blurb that went with the class:

Crime fiction, in its varied forms, both illuminates and counterpoints the Gospel.  Crime fiction correctly presents and analyzes the sinful human condition, even where its conclusions are horribly wrong.  And, in crime fiction as nowhere else, the law is most definitely the Law: God did not get after Cain for shoplifting.

Second-hand smoke.

Second-hand smoke.

So: four classes’ worth of dark human hearts and blazing Gospel light, interspersed with mayhem, Augustine, detectives, 1930s pulp novels and the overlooked theological punch from the opening line of The Postman Always Rings Twice: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”

These are complete classes, so prepare a stiff drink before hitting “Play.”

As an example of what not to drink, consider this assault on civilization from that Pravda of sentimentality, Parade magazine: Girl Scouts Cookie Thin Mints Martini

Ingredients

  • 3 parts chocolate vodka
  • ½ shot creme de menthe
  • 1 shot chocolate milk liquor
  • Chocolate syrup (as needed)
  • 1 Thin Mint, crushed

Directions

  1. In a martini shaker, mix together chocolate vodka, creme de menthe, and chocolate milk liquor. Shake well. If you don’t have a martini shaker, use a glass filled with ice and mix well.
  2. Coat a martini glass with chocolate syrup. Crush the Thin Mint cookie and coat the brim of the martini glass with the cookie. Then, pour your martini drink mixture into the glass.
Thin Mints Martini: ready for Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and Red Lobster.

Thin Mints Martini: ready for Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and Red Lobster.

 

The mind, as well as the bowel, races.  One might add:

3.  Insert Luger under tongue to minimize the aftertaste

 

 

 

The Seelbach.

The Seelbach.

Here is something more appropriate: Garden & Gun magazine’s Guide to Southern Cocktails.

 

 

 

 

We have, of course, written on crime fiction and how it relates to business crime, cocktails and theology before.

 

 


Criminals In Ties: Contract Law and Reservoir Dogs

Mephibosheth and David.

Mephibosheth and David.

The interplay between law — especially criminal law — and theology is more subterranean and nuanced than many give it credit for.  The same is true of civil law, as here:  Contract Law and Reservoir Dogs

A contract is an exchange of promises: “I promise to do x if you promise to do y.”  Each party must undertake an obligation—called “consideration”—for the contract to be binding.  A simple unilateral promise with no consideration (“I will give you my car on Monday”) is not usually binding.  These law-rules about obligations in our daily lives provide a contrast to the covenant that the Lord makes with David and to the way that David treats Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son.

Off to compliance training.

Off to compliance training.

Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), of course, shaped an entire generation of criminals-in-ties on film.  We have discussed crime and theology before, at Spare the King and Seize the Spareribs, in what may be the only paragraph in English to discuss both King Saul and John D. MacDonald’s fictional private eye, Travis McGee.


St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the Cocktails That Go With It

We avoid sentimentality, but the culture is awash in it on Valentine’s Day.  This “holiday” is not traditionally associated with business crime, but we will do our best.  The day is sometimes associated with alcohol, and this year happens to fall on a Friday.  We acquit ourselves well in this latter regard.

A contentious meeting of the Audit Committee

A contentious meeting of the Audit Committee

Here’s a story about the February 14, 1929 slaughter from the Chicago Tribunethe St. Valentine’s Day Massacre:

On this frigid morning, in an unheated brick garage at 2122 N. Clark St., seven men were lined up against a whitewashed wall and pumped with 90 bullets from submachine guns, shotguns and a revolver. It was the most infamous of all gangland slayings in America, and it savagely achieved its purpose–the elimination of the last challenge to Al Capone for the mantle of crime boss in Chicago. By 1929, Capone’s only real threat was George “Bugs” Moran, who headed his own gang and what was left of Dion O’Banion’s band of bootleggers. Moran had long despised Capone, mockingly referring to him as “The Beast.”

At about 10:30 a.m., four men burst into the SMC Cartage Co. garage that Moran used for his illegal business. Two of the men were dressed as police officers. The quartet presumably announced a raid and ordered the seven men inside the garage to line up against a wall. Then they opened fire. Witnesses, alerted by the rat-a-tat staccato of submachine guns, watched as the gunmen sped off in a black Cadillac touring car that looked like the kind police used, complete with siren, gong and rifle rack.The victims, killed outright or left dying in the garage, included Frank “Hock” Gusenberg, Moran’s enforcer, and his brother, Peter “Goosy” Gusenberg. Four of the other victims were Moran gangsters, but the seventh dead man was Dr. Reinhardt Schwimmer, an optician who cavorted with criminals for thrills. Missing that morning was Capone’s prize, Moran, who slept in.

Capone missed the excitement too. Vacationing at his retreat at Palm Island, Fla., he had an alibi for his whereabouts and disclaimed knowledge of the coldblooded killings. Few believed him. No one ever went to jail for pulling a trigger in the Clark Street garage, which was demolished in 1967.

We’ve seen internal investigations that look worse.  As in the white-collar context, do not give the Government an unrelated reason to investigate you:

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on February 14, 1929, might be regarded as the culminating violence of the Chicago gang era, as seven members or associates of the “Bugs” Moran mob were machine-gunned against a garage wall by rivals posing as police. The massacre was generally ascribed to the Capone mob, although Al himself was in Florida.

The investigative jurisdiction of the Bureau of Investigation during the 1920s and early 1930s was more limited than it is now, and the gang warfare and depredations of the period were not within the Bureau’s investigative authority.

The Bureau’s investigation of Al Capone arose from his reluctance to appear before a federal grand jury on March 12, 1929 in response to a subpoena. On March 11, his lawyers formally filed for postponement of his appearance, submitting a physician’s affidavit dated March 5, which attested that Capone had been suffering from bronchial pneumonia in Miami, had been confined to bed from January 13 to February 23, and that it would be dangerous to Capone’s health to travel to Chicago. His appearance date before the grand jury was re-set for March 20.

On request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Bureau of Investigation agents obtained statements to the effect that Capone had attended race tracks in the Miami area, that he had made a plane trip to Bimini

Hemingway learns from Capone: submachine gun, cocktail and sun hat

Hemingway learns from Capone: submachine gun, cocktail and sun hat

and a cruise to Nassau, that he had been interviewed at the office of the Dade County Solicitor, and that he had appeared in good health on each of those occasions.

As we know, Capone was ultimately convicted of tax evasion.

More urgently, and as Papa Hemingway and Al Capone would doubtless approve, here is a roundup of recent cocktail notes of interest.

The Dorothy Parker American Gin martini

The Dorothy Parker American Gin martini

From the Boston Herald, the Dorothy Parker American Gin martini (from Harding’s in Manhattan).

Despite this claim from the New York Times that the dirty martini cleans up well, I still loathe dirty martinis. They are too briny, and an affectation.

Keep the olives on the side.

Keep the olives on the side. 
A little too floral

A little too floral

 

 

The Boston Globe has ten cocktails you are not ordering but should be.  I am unconvinced, but a couple are worthwhile:

The Martinez: Consider it the grandfather to the martini, or at least its classy next door neighbor. Typically a combination of Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, Angostura bitters, but there are variations and improvements out there. Order if you love Manhattans, but would like to take a step to the left.

The Corpse Reviver #2: London gin, absinthe, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc, lemon juice: equal parts of everything to awaken your palate, drive conversation, and please your bartender. Order if you’ve seen your last lemon drop. Just make sure to ask if the bar carries absinthe first.

The former bears history, the latter anesthesia.

Mixing up an "Avenue" at Del Posto

Mixing up an “Avenue” at Del Posto

For a bar in a New York restaurant, I would love to try Del Posto, an elegant space with cocktails to match.  And, as a general drinking reference for grown-up cocktails, try A Quiet Drink, which presents “bars and restaurants where one can have grown-up conversation over a good drink.”

A Drink Before the War (1994)

A Drink Before the War (1994)

Finally, one cannot leave the subject of a quiet drink without thinking of the private-eye novel that made Dennis Lehane‘s name, A Drink Before the War (1994).  Lehane is superb, and Drink the best place to start.


John D. MacDonald and King Saul

The Quick Red Fox (1964).

The Quick Red Fox (1964).

We worked John D. MacDonald’s private eye, Travis McGee, into this discussion of King Saul and the young David:  Spare the King and Seize the Spareribs.  I most recently read The Quick Red Fox, which I was thinking about for the Saul and David post.

MacDonald had fine PI prose:

Darker Than Amber (1966).

Darker Than Amber (1966).

“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge” (Darker Than Amber (1966)).

 


George V. Higgins and the Archeology of White-Collar Crime

George V. Higgins

George V. Higgins

In popular culture, business-crime is presented cartoon-fashion. In movies, on television or in novels, businesspeople who are corporate targets of government investigations come across as Snidely Whiplashes with French cuffs.  This practice is predictable, its results boring.  Not so with the work of the late Boston-based novelist and one-time Assistant United States Attorney George V. Higgins (1939 – 1999).   From the George V. Higgins Collection at the University of South Carolina:

George V. Higgins (1939-1999) succeeded in nine distinct careers, all of which are documented in his archive.  Armed with two English degrees and a law degree, Higgins became a journalist for the Associated Press, The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal, as well as a federal prosecutor, district attorney and defense attorney, novelist, critic, historian and a creative writing professor at Boston University (1988-1999).  He was also a fierce Red Sox loyalist, so much so that he wrote a book on Boston baseball in 1989 titled The Progress of the Seasons: Forty Years of Baseball in Our Town.

 

Here’s a collection of articles about Higgins: the NYT on George v. Higgins

Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years (1988)

Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years (1988)

What distinguishes Higgins, above all else, is voice.  The term is “voice” is both over-used and under-used: over-used, when the critic means something like “tone.”  Under-used, when the meaning conveyed is “narrator.”  With the lawyers, crooks, businessmen and prosecutors of a Higgins novel, “voices” means actual “voices” — the sounds that one immediately recognizes as true, as here from Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years (1988), where a lawyer advises his client:

“‘You take your victim as you find him,'” Morse said.

“What?” Farley said.

“It’s a law thing,” Morse said.  “You run over an eighty-year-old derelict with your car, no living relatives, and kill him.  It’s not gonna cost you anywhere near as much, you hit a thirty-year-old brain surgeon with four kids and a wife and the only injury he suffers is the loss of his right hand.  You didn’t pick your victim right, and so it’s gonna cost you.  Sounds kind of mean, but that is the law.  And the law’s fuckin’ life — so they say.”

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1970)

Doubtless, Higgins can be difficult to read: a torrent of dialogue, and common, barely-linked events.  Higgins’s novels are not thrillers, nor mysteries.  Not only do they lack suspense, some barely have a plot.  The best two in my experience are The Friends of Eddie Coyle (his first one) and Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years.

Higgins was also adept at describing the dynamic of business-crime prosecution, politics and disloyalty.  Here, again from Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years, is a portion of a conversation between Saxon, a criminal-defense lawyer, and Farley, the owner of a Boston paving company and the target of a federal investigation.  (For our younger readers, “Bobby” is Robert F. Kennedy):

“Now,” he said, “you’re telling me, these federal guys might do that?  I must be getting old.  This used to be America.  What a rotten bunch of pricks.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” Saxon said.  “They are a bunch of pricks.  But they’re no worse’n the rotten bunch of pricks that Bobby’s men, and Ike’s appointments, FDR’s and Truman’s, all of those guys were.  They all did the same damned thing.  Suited them to crucify someone because the public’d like it, well, the next sound you hear’ll be the carpenters at work.  War is the extension of diplomacy by other means?  Justice is quite often the extension of politics by prosecution.”

“Well,” Farley said, “guess all I can do now’s hope she [his wife] keeps a good grip on her marbles, this whole shitty thing blows over.”

“That,” Saxon said, “and that nobody else in your little entourage gets cold feet and lets you down.”

“Never happen,” Farley said.  “My people are loyal.”

“Right,” Saxon said.  “That’s what Jesus thought.  ‘Have a piece of bread, Judas.  ‘Nother cup of wine?  Nothing like a little supper with your friends all by your side.'”

The lawyer has his theology wrong — Jesus knew exactly what Judas was about — but that conversation likely happens in law offices somewhere each and every day.


Why’d He Do It?

monopoly-banker

Here’s a note from Professor Ellen Podgor about an article on Sentencing the Why of White Collar Crime by Todd Haugh (Illinois Institute of Technology – Chicago-Kent College of Law)  in the Fordham Law Review.  From the abstract:

“So why did Mr. Gupta do it?” That question was at the heart of Judge Jed Rakoff’s recent sentencing of Rajat Gupta, a former Wall Street titan and the most high-profile insider trading defendant of the past 30 years. The answer, which the court actively sought by inquiring into Gupta’s psychological motivations, resulted in a two-year sentence, eight years less than the government requested. What was it that Judge Rakoff found in Gupta that warranted such a modest sentence? While it was ultimately unclear to the court exactly what motivated Gupta to commit such a “terrible breach of trust,” it is exceedingly clear that Judge Rakoff’s search for those motivations impacted the sentence imposed.

This search by judges sentencing white collar defendants — the search to understand the “why” motivating defendants’ actions — is what this article explores.

Suchet_Poirot

“Motive,” of course, is much more popular in detective fiction than in sentencing law, but motive in business-crime cases is more nuanced than in street-crime cases.  A better understanding of “why” not only yields better sentencing but would also yield greater public understanding of white-collar sentencing.

 


Browning: “the poet, not the automatic”

anton chekhov

Does reading literary fiction really increase your social intelligence?  Here: I Know How You’re Feeling, I Read Chekhov

Maybe.  But what about crime fiction?

 

 

 

 

A little Raymond Chandler increases the social intelligence you really need.  The best crime fiction illumines sin, salvation and manners as well as Chekhov.

See this 1977 essay on Chandler by Clive James:  The Country Behind The Hill

‘In the long run’, Raymond Chandler writes in Raymond Chandler Speaking, ‘however little you talk or even think about it, the most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.’ At a time when literary values inflate and dissipate almost as fast as the currency, it still looks as if Chandler invested wisely. His style has lasted. A case could be made for saying that nothing else about his books has, but even the most irascible critic or disillusioned fan (they are often the same person) would have to admit that Chandler at his most characteristic is just that – characteristic and not just quirky. Auden was right in wanting him to be regarded as an artist. In fact Auden’s tribute might well have been that of one poet to another. If style is the only thing about Chandler’s novels that can’t be forgotten, it could be because his style was poetic, rather than prosaic. Even at its most explicit, what he wrote was full of implication. He used to say that he wanted to give a feeling of the country behind the hill.

. . . .

Marlowe can be hired, but he can’t be bought. As a consequence, he is alone. Hence his lasting appeal. Not that he is without his repellent aspects. His race prejudice would amount to outright fascism if it were not so evident that he would never be able to bring himself to join a movement. His sexual imagination is deeply suspect and he gets hit on the skull far too often for someone who works largely with his head. His taste in socks is oddly vile for one who quotes so easily from Browning (‘the poet, not the automatic’). But finally you recognize his tone of voice.

It is your own, day-dreaming of being tough, of giving the rich bitch the kiss-off, of saying smart things, of defending the innocent, of being the hero. It is a silly day-dream because anyone who could really do such splendid things would probably not share it, but without it the rest of us would be even more lost than we are. Chandler incarnated this necessary fantasy by finding a style for it. His novels are exactly as good as they should be. In worse books, the heroes are too little like us: in better books, too much.

 


Crime and T.S. Eliot

Today (September 26th) is the birthday of American-born (but eventually British-subject) poet T.S. Eliot (1888-1965).  He wrote little about crime except Murder in the Cathedral (1935):

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
-Thomas, Part I

And here’s one about a criminal cat, Macavity:

Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw—
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air—
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity’s not there!

Macavity’s a ginger cat, he’s very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he’s half asleep, he’s always wide awake.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
For he’s a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square—
But when a crime’s discovered, then Macavity’s not there!

He’s outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard’s
And when the larder’s looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke’s been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair
Ay, there’s the wonder of the thing! Macavity’s not there!

And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty’s gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair—
But it’s useless to investigate—Macavity’s not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
It must have been Macavity!’—but he’s a mile away.
You’ll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumb;
Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare:
At whatever time the deed took place—MACAVITY WASN’T THERE !
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!

© T S Eliot. All rights reserved, 82 years ago

 


W.H. Auden: “Detective Story”

W. H. Auden

From  W.H. Auden (1907-1973), a poem about crime (fictional and real):

Detective Story

by W.H. Auden

For who is ever quite without his landscape,
The straggling village street, the house in trees,
All near the church, or else the gloomy town house,
The one with the Corinthian pillars, or
The tiny workmanlike flat: in any case
A home, the centre where the three or four things
that happen to a man do happen? Yes,
Who cannot draw the map of his life, shade in
The little station where he meets his loves
And says good-bye continually, and mark the spot
Where the body of his happiness was first discovered?
An unknown tramp? A rich man? An enigma always
And with a buried past but when the truth,
The truth about our happiness comes out
How much it owed to blackmail and philandering.
The rest’s traditional. All goes to plan:
The feud between the local common sense
And that exasperating brilliant intuition
That’s always on the spot by chance before us;
All goes to plan, both lying and confession,
Down to the thrilling final chase, the kill.
Yet on the last page just a lingering doubt:
That verdict, was it just? The judge’s nerves,
That clue, that protestation from the gallows,
And our own smile . . . why yes . . .
But time is always killed. Someone must pay for
Our loss of happiness, our happiness itself.

 [“Detective Story” was first published in Letters from Iceland, a 1937 account by W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice of their 1936 trip to Iceland.]