Sunday, December 22, 2013

Kevin Starr, film noir, crime fiction, and (California) history

Kevin Starr's California will make my books-of-the-year list if I prepare one, and I can hardly wait to finish this one-volume history so I can start on his seven-volume version, each book of which has the word dream in its title.

Starr is a passionate, engaging writer and a great lover of California, which he served as state librarian. Yet he is fair-minded in dealing with the violence that has attended the on-going birth of this strange piece of the planet. He is the sort who can give history a good name.

He's also savvy enough to tie the state's raucous, dream-filled history to the crime writing that arose there. (It's no accident that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler lived in California and set some of their most celebrated work there.) Starr makes the connection during a discussion of a period perhaps surprisingly early: the 1870's and 1880s, when promoters touted California as an El Dorado of health. After citing examples of recovery from consumption and other complaints, Starr notes that:
"Many. however, lost their struggle for health and succumbed, and this drama of hope and defeat conferred upon Southern California a certain interplay of healthfulness and morbidity that in various forms, including the hard-boiled detective story and film noir, would persist into the mid-twentieth century."
Elsewhere California history is filled with colorful episodes and characters: the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856. The settlement during California's American period of land claims dating from its Spanish and Mexican eras ("That meant that lawyers got rich.") Great engineering feats, but also environmental depredations. (Starr mentions Chinatown in a discussion of the mammoth problems that attended getting water to San Francisco and Los Angeles.) And that's just a few decades.   Some of California's prospectors and health seekers were doomed disappointment, but crime writers looking for material struck it rich.

What can match California as a location for crime stories, and why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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9 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

C'mon ... you cannot relegate England to second place below California. Yes, California has all sorts of variety, but England was the incubator for the Golden Age of crime fiction. Of course, I'm partial to those country estates, Cornish coastlines, mean streets of London, and windswept moors of the Lake District. Ah, those are crime locations!

December 23, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You answered one half of my question nicely; those are fine locations, and at least some of them remain fertile settings for crime writers today. But what about the why? What aspect of English life that would later prove central to crime stories first manifested itself fifty or more years before those stories appeared? The workhouse system, perhaps. Can you step down from the windswept moors for a moment and offer further examples?

December 23, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I take that back. Dickens wrote about the horrors of workhouses, but the creators of the English detective story tradition did not, as far as I know.

So, I repeat my question: What aspect of English life that would later prove central to crime stories first manifested itself fifty or more years before those stories appeared, the way the obsession with health did in California, according to Starr?

December 23, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I think the short answer to your question is hidden somewhere in England's preoccupation with class structure, the upstairs-downstairs, the them-and-us dichotomy, especially as it was beginning to fall apart in the early 20th century after the Great War. Americans did not have the fixed caste system--the sacred, uncrossed boundary between aristocrats and commoners. But in England, that boundary became a rich territory for transgression through crime fiction. Lords and ladies fell victim in their manor houses (i.e., the butler did it!); common criminals on the streets of London threatened the peace and quiet of the aristocrats in their upscale neighborhoods; aristocrats and eccentric amateurs did the jobs the police could not do (i.e., Lord Peter Wimsey et al); and as Yeats had pointed out, the center would not hold, and things were falling apart. This was a fertile, unstable environment for crime fiction.

Now, were I brighter I could perhaps present a better, more coherent thesis. However, off the cuff, that's all I have at the moment.

December 23, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...


Didn't the aristocrats always win? Wish fulfillment, perhaps. I once read the interesting statement that it was inevitable that the police procedural develop in the U.S. rather than in England because the English class system would not permit aristocrats to be bossed around by commoners on the force.

December 23, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I think you must be correct about the police procedurals and aristocrats. Of course, later 20th century British and Irish writers would revise that limitation.

There must be some psychological reason for readers (like me) who prefer Golden Age British to American police procedural tales. Perhaps I have some sort of peerage envy.

December 23, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The observation about police in British detective fiction may have been Colin Watson's. I suggested just now that you might enjoy Watson's acid-tongued social history of British crime writing, Snobbery With Violence, as well as his Flaxborough Chronicles novels. I will thus suggest again, if Blogger will let me.

Many Irish crime writers indeed acknowledge explicitly their debt to American hard-boiled crime writing, an export up there with jazz and baseball.

December 23, 2013  
Blogger James Chester said...

As a life-long resident of California, I'm flattered to have my state compared to a nation, but I don't think this is really fair. You can certainly compare the United States to England, Los Angelos to London, but not a state to a nation.

You've sold me on the book, by the way. I just ordered it.

December 24, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Funny you should mention that. Starr refers in his book to California's developing identity as a nation-state. I hope this does not put you off!

I'm pleased that I sold you on the book. Starr is an engaging, intelligent, but also critical writer. I finished reading California last. I'll for the first volume in his "California Dreams" series now.

December 24, 2013  

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