Crime Fiction and Political Activism: Where They Meet and How

2014 1004 crim st(Image: Marcelo Duarte)Crime fiction is in many ways a perfect lens through which to view contemporary society. From the crime novel’s mainstream inception in the early 20th century in the United States, numerous authors have explored a wide range of politically charged themes, including class distinctions, government corruption and the oppression of women and people of color.

The tradition carries on, and award-winning novelist Ken Wishnia is one of the best and most perceptive practitioners today. His series, featuring the irrepressible, tough-talking and street smart Latina private investigator Filomena Buscarsela, tackles a range of social injustices including environmental crime, corporate greed and revolutionary upheaval over the course of five books, the latest of which, Blood Lake, is currently being reissued by PM Press as a trade paperback with a new introduction.

Peter Handel for Truthout: You have an academic background – you’re a professor of English at Suffolk Community College with a doctorate in Comparative Literature. You also write crime novels. Can you connect the dots for us?

Ken Wishnia: Yeah – I needed a day job. Next question.

Oh, you want more, eh? OK. A couple of years in soulless office cubicles convinced me to go back to graduate school while I did my writing on the side. So I wasn’t that moderately pathetic cliché – the graduate student in English who wants to write a novel. I was a novelist who went to graduate school.

I’ve learned a great deal about writing from teaching literature in college. A lot of contemporary literature depends on ambiguity to create dramatic tension: If a married couple are having a disagreement that gradually escalates in intensity, the best authors will skillfully embed details that show the audience that she’s part right and part wrong, and he’s part right and part wrong, too. In the best crime novels, the line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” is similarly blurry.

Why is it that crime novels, which take on myriad guises including detective stories, police procedurals and studies of serial killers, often reflect deeper subtexts such as class-consciousness, racism in everyday life and general alienation from society at large?

As far as I’m concerned, contemporary American crime literature begins with Dashiell Hammett in the 1920s, not just because of his brilliant style, but because his experience as a detective for the Pinkerton agency forced him to confront the rampant corruption of the Prohibition era and the inequalities of our justice system. Aside from some of the great SF novels, crime fiction is the popular genre with the longest history of this awareness of the “mitigating circumstances” that lead to so much crime. It’s embedded in the DNA of the American crime novel from the very beginning.

There are plenty of bestselling thrillers that deliver escapism – that spine-tingling “rollercoaster ride” that harried readers crave, but they never really engage with terribly serious issues. (When was the last time anyone thought about a serious issue while plunging six stories at 50 mph?)

A lot of serial killer novels are like that: You’re supposed to just keep turning the pages while thinking, “Oh my God, they’ve got to catch this sicko before he kidnaps another victim!” And there’s nothing wrong with that. But I’d love to read a thriller that actually dares to probe the issue of why the US happens to lead the world in serial killers. Surely there are some underlying social, historical and even economic reasons for this. But don’t try selling that idea to a commercial publisher looking for the next blockbuster beach read.

In the context of the question above, how does the work of an author who writes detective novels compare to the writer of police procedurals? Isn’t the detective a classic “loner” while a cop is part of the power structure?

That is broadly true: Sherlock Holmes is certainly a classic “loner.” Although he often works with others (Watson, Lestrade, etc.), he frequently asks not to be disturbed so he can solve the puzzle in his head. And police procedurals like Ed McBain’s classic 87th Precinct series stress the group dynamics involved in solving a crime.

The individualistic crime fighter has a long, strange history, going back to such romantic figures as Robin Hood in England and the six-gun-toting stranger who’s just passing through town in the American Wild West, who are, paradoxically, forerunners of the modern PI. Many westerns take place at the limits of the frontier, in a land where the justice system is fragile or lacking, and it’s up to the hero to make his own justice.

Even an iconic figure like Hamlet fits this tradition: He is simultaneously an insider and an outsider, viewing the “official story” with considerable skepticism, even though he is part of the power structure that perpetrated the story in the first place. A lot of today’s police procedurals combine these elements as well: The protagonist is a member of a more-or-less trusted official institution, but often functions as an “outsider on the inside,” reporting back to us that there is no reason to trust the “official” version of events. Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh Police Inspector John Rebus is a perfect example of this.

Give us a few examples of your favorites, or authors who particularly excel in this key aspect of the genre,

Let me cite an unusual example: Thomas Harris. There’s a great scene fairly late in the action of Silence of the Lambs when Clarice Starling is closing in on the killer, and the whole audience is on her side, and she stops into a high-tech crime lab to get some crucial information – and the male scientists are snotty and dismissive of her. It’s a total gut punch. She’s trying to save lives, and these morons are treating her – and therefore us as well -with complete contempt. This scene isn’t in the movie, and yet it was so emotionally powerful that I still remember it years after I read it. Harris doesn’t come right out and say, “Gee, men shouldn’t treat female investigators badly because that’s male chauvinism.” He puts us in her shoes and makes us feel the helpless outrage at the way they’re treating her. He makes us want to strangle those idiots.

Lee Child, author of the hugely popular Jack Reacher series, is brilliant at this type of emotional manipulation as well. For example, in Gone Tomorrow (2009), a bunch of gung-ho NYPD cops and federal agents deprive Reacher of his basic rights, detaining him in an underground cell and treating him so badly (“No ID, no names, no Miranda, no charges, no lawyer. Brave new world, right?”) that we can’t wait for him to let loose and kick their collective asses – and these are supposed to be the good guys who are charged with protecting us! (Lee told me he got tons of nasty emails for merely depicting the awful conditions at a VA clinic in Nothing to Lose [2008]).

Do you think there’s been a “golden era” of crime fiction addressing social ills and issues, or is it an ongoing aspect of the genre?

It’s an ongoing aspect, but it seems like writers who explore such issues have always been in the minority.

Are there any crime writers outside of the US that you also read or are aware of who critique their own social realities?

My broadest experience is with Latin American authors (I’ve translated numerous crime stories from Spanish for publication in the US), so I’ll just say that when I told an Ecuadorian literary scholar that I’ve been criticized for being a “political” writer, she said that “there’s no other kind of writer” in Latin America. “Every writer here is political.”

You’ve said that many of the great works of literature in the Western canon are in fact murder mysteries. Can you elaborate on this theme?

I’ve read widely (though never widely enough) in world literature from all epochs, and it’s clear that some of the greatest works of the Western canon are in fact murder mysteries. Oedipus Rex is about a man trying to solve a terrible crime through a series of interrogations of witnesses who are brought before him. It even has a “surprise” ending: The detective discovers that he is the guilty one. Hamlet is also about a man trying to solve a murder, which has been revealed to him through supernatural means. Poor Hamlet is often described as a world-class ditherer who can’t make up his mind. But the problem he confronts is quite practical: He can’t very well assassinate the current king of Denmark based on testimony from a ghost, now, can he? So he has to find a way to uncover the truth in a manner consistent with at least some of the basic laws of evidence – not an easy thing to do in the days of absolute monarchy.

How does your series protagonist, Filomena Buscarsela and the cases she gets involved in reflect your own analysis of political and social realities in the country today?

Every one of the novels in the Filomena series deals with the challenges of being a woman in a man’s world – or more specifically, a Latina immigrant in a white man’s world. But there are always major subthemes taken straight from the headlines: environmental crime, the poor treatment of immigrant workers, the lack of affordable housing (and of corporate accountability), unjust drug laws, and the fact that the law often applies to the poor and marginalized, but not to the rich and well-connected. I guess you could say she’s a modern Robin Hood.

Is it fair to say there’s a bit of Ken Wishnia in Filomena Buscarsela?

My parents belong to that well-known demographic, Marxist atheist Jewish academics. (My mom is one of the founders of the Women’s Studies Program at SUNY Stony Brook.) So naturally, even as a third generation American, at times I felt somewhat alienated from mainstream US culture when I was growing up. Example: even back in 7th grade, I found the idea of mandatory attendance at pep rallies rather fascistic (this was during the Nixon Administration, after all). When I got married to a Latina Catholic (and first generation immigrant), we spent our first two years together living in Ecuador; I decided that writing from the point of view of a Latina immigrant would be the perfect way of plausibly using my own sense of alienation and emotional vulnerability in a way that readers would accept more easily than if I modeled the character more closely on myself. In other words, when confronted with the prospect of writing in the voice of a wimpy man or a strong woman, the choice was obvious. So yeah – you could say that, in many ways, Filomena is just me in drag (except that she gets to do some of the stuff I’d like to do, but can’t get away with).