The global crime novel: Worldwide corruption and chiseling
James Cagney and Joan Blondell in ‘Blonde Crazy’

In a 1931 Warner Brothers film Blonde Crazy, in the pre-code period when expression was raunchier and more truthful before the era of middle-class censorship, as the Depression reaches its peak, conniving bellhop James Cagney is trying to convince new hotel hire Joan Blondell to go on the road with him and work a hustle together. Leaning into the ingenue and laying his cards on the table, he makes his pitch, explaining that “The age of chivalry is over. This is the age of chiselry.”

In the evidence of this year’s Quais du Polar in Lyon, France, one of the largest conventions in the world of global crime writers, the “age of chiselry” is, as the current recession/inflation/austerity continues, back with us, bigger and badder than ever. And that age is not only perpetrated from below but also from on top as the very rich, with the global pie shrinking, take whatever steps are necessary, lawful or not, to hold onto and even enhance what they’ve got, whether acquired lawfully or not.

Perhaps the star of the conference was India’s Deepti Kapoor, whose Age of Vice is now being adapted for series TV by Disney+ and FX. Age of Vice takes place in the early 2000s, a time, the author explained, when India was making a transition from socialism to capitalism. It was also, as she describes it in the novel, a time when gangsters and organized crime entered the government, melding with regional authorities in a level of corruption that exceeded even Russia in the 1990s under its alcoholic “czar” Boris Yeltsin. In that period, as Nick Harkaway pointed out, a crime author himself and John Le Carré’s son who was in Russia at the time, gangsters profited from but stayed out of the government.

Age of Vice is also about developers profiting in this new “modern” India as whole settlements of the poorest are removed from the Yamuna riverbank in Delhi with everyone’s conscience eased because they are offered resettlement housing. However, the gangster-developer quickly sends his representatives into this area to buy back the resettlement land, tear down the cheap housing, and build on that.

The gangster’s son, who gallivants across the globe with his father’s money, has the vision of making the riverbank look like the Thames, with museums and upscale developments replacing encampments inhabited by the poor. But his father cuts that vision short and opts instead for the pure profit of high-rises for the rich.

As Kapoor observed, India, with now the largest population in the world, according to the latest Oxfam survey, has reached, in the wake of the corruption she describes in the first decade of this century, new levels of inequality. The top 1% own 40% of the wealth while the bottom 50% own 3%.

In an opposite way, in a panel that included Kapoor, Jake Adelstein, the author of Tokyo Vice, which Michael Mann has adapted into a series now renewed for a second season, described the overreach of Japanese gangsters, the Yakuza, whose power has recently been curtailed in Japan because they attempted to aggressively challenge the police and the government, disrupting a truce that saw each existing side by side. Adelstein, who was a reporter working on the crime beat in Tokyo, also explained that like Roberto Saviano, whose investigative work on the Naples Mafia, the Camorra, has entailed him living in constant police protection, he himself, because of his extensive inside reporting on the Yakuza, now needs police protection when he visits Japan.

Volker Kutscher, author of ten books on which the German series Babylon Berlin is based, with the first five translated into English, described the schlumpy hero of the series Gereon Rath as a “mensch.” Rath is the sometimes less-than-decisive protagonist of the series. He is, though, a staunch defender of the Weimar Republic which, as we watch as the series that starts in 1928, progresses or regresses through the years of Hitler’s coming to power. In The Fatherland Files, set in 1932, Rath is sent to a remote corner of Germany near the Polish/German border as he tracks a wily killer who operates in Berlin. The still unresolved tensions in the border region, which a plebiscite had claimed for Germany, and the nationalist fervor of the Germans in the region, now further deepened by the ominous presence of the brown-shirted SA as well as the supposed patriotic fervor of a prosperous brewer, are the seeds from which this violence in Berlin has irrupted.

Elsewhere, Dennis Lehane, author of among others Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River, addressed the conference remotely from the U.S. and explained how his latest novel Small Mercies, set in Boston in 1974 at the time of forced busing to desegregate the public school system, dealt with a racial hatred, not so dissimilar to Kutcher’s borderland Germans, that resulted in the tragic death of a little girl.

Melvina Mestre took the audience on a journey of both time and space as she described her latest novel Twilight in Casablanca, set in the early 1950s, where the city was abuzz with spies, including a huge presence of American intelligence, trying to influence the African continent. Jurica Pavičić, whose novel Red Water won the European prize for Best Crime Novel two years ago, returned to the conference with the soon-to-be-translated The Woman on the Second Floor. Red Water described with a sprawling depth the breakup of Yugoslavia, the subsequent years of war, and the modern Dalmatian coast now turned into a high-end Western investment haven and tourist paradise, changes that left the populace gasping as they tried to keep up. Woman on the Second Floor covers similar territory but this time in microcosm as a wife looks back on the events and rapid-fire transformations that led her to murder her mother-in-law. As such the novel in its intricate description of the consciousness of a single character and its explanation of what led her to violence, has something in common with David E. Kelley’s masterful Love and Death with Elizabeth Olson in a true-crime recounting of how repression in a Texas suburb led her, as she made a valiant effort to escape that repression, to commit a violent act.

Also in attendance at the conference was Thomas Mullen whose trilogy Darktown, which takes the name of the first novel, follows the first African-American cops on the Atlanta police force as they deal with violence, corruption, and racial prejudice in the pre-Civil Rights South. The final novel, Midnight Atlanta, stands on the cusp of that movement and features a cameo by Martin Luther King.

Finally, from Marseilles came the winner of the French prize for Crime Novel of the Year, Gérard Lecas’s Blood of Our Enemies, a “policier,” as the French call it, set in that city in 1962, on the eve of the ending of the war for Algerian independence, in a novel that may well soon become a television series. Two cops of different political persuasions, one communist, one conservative, must investigate the death of an Arab man whose body is drained of blood. The city is filled with representatives of the right-wing terrorist group OAS, the Algerian independence movement the FLN, “pieds noirs,” refugees from Algeria who supported and gained from colonial rule, and Harkis, Algerians who served on the side of the French in the war. The two contrary officers must navigate these various groups as they search for the killer in a novel that has intonations of Dominique Manotti’s Marseille 73, where 11 years later the same tensions still erupt in a far-right plan to retake Algeria.

Thus, across the globe and through history, writers of crime fiction, as seen in this year’s Quais du Polar, are tracing an increasingly more malevolent turn toward violence as global conditions break down in the face of worsening poverty and inequality.

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Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe, a film, television and art critic, is also the author of the Harry Palmer LA Mysteries, the latest volume of which, The House That Buff Built, is about the real estate industry, dispossession, and appropriation in the shaping of “modern” Los Angeles.