Somewhere between Kubrick’s The Killing and Peckinpah’s The Getaway, something happened to American culture. Crime novelist Jim Thompson wrote The Getaway and helped Kubrick spice up the dialogue of The Killing. But while Sterling Hayden can’t outthink fate in The Killing, Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw make it over the border to Mexico and freedom in The Getaway, escaping the nightmarish end their characters meet in Thompson’s novel. You could attribute the difference between novel and movie to the fact that Thompson was fired from The Getaway, part and parcel of his years of Hollywood failure. Thompson, variously a Catholic and a Communist, had a decidedly grim view of human morality and a rough sense of justice. You could attribute it to the decline in the Hays code. But I’ll attribute it to James M. Cain. Cain wrote a number of books, but he is remembered today for writing The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity (and, to a lesser extent, Mildred Pierce). The two classic hardboiled novels of the ‘30s helped usher in the age of the pulp antihero; in Thompson’s world, you can search for a moral center (as in Recoil, in which the protagonist is a paroled stick-up man who has genuinely reformed and is trying to do the right thing). In Cain’s, the moral center is every bit as repugnant as the rest of the world. The films based on Cain’s three great novels are the foundation of film noir, and the protagonist of the American crime novel — from Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley to James Ellroy’s Ed Exley — would be unimaginably different without Cain. Consider, as an example, Donald Westlake‘s Parker series.
Parker is the star of a series of novels Westlake started in 1962 and revived in 1998. Brought to the screen repeatedly, most notably in Boorman’s Point Blank and most recently in the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback, he is a man of ruthless efficiency. The genius of the character Parker is the sheer singleminded focus he brings to his work. In the The Hunter, Parker survives a double-cross through sheer luck, and spends the rest of the novel fixated on two things: revenge and reclaiming the money. If necessary, he’ll skip the revenge. The formula of the early books is simple enough: Parker goes out to do a job. Something goes wrong. Parker is left behind or left for dead. A few chapters later, he catches up, his story is told in flashback, and there’s hell to pay. Westlake’s 1990s Parker has acquired more of a social life — he’s clearly capable of emotions, or at least faking them — but when he’s working, everything else shuts off. Honor among thieves is useful to Parker only in that it makes for a more reliable business proposition. Killing civilians is objectionable to Parker only in that it’s likely to bring more police attention. And almost everyone Parker works with is a consumate professional, which means that they follow the same code — it’s a nihilistic and brutal world Parker lives in.
Where did the pulp notion of morality go? In the Parker novels, the question of right and wrong is no longer even worth asking; instead, you get a much more existentialist question: are you going to do your job correctly, screw up and endanger your friends, or screw your friends and take the cash? Cain’s antiheroes are puppets, controlled by inscrutable women and a fate they can’t control. Westlake has written Parker as a character without morals but with ethics, a strictly professional ethos based on competence. After the rise of this sort of totalizing professionalism in crime novels, the detective series I’m most familiar with that feature essentially decent human beings — Spenser, say, or Travis McGee — require them to be aware of their behavior; they needed to explain it, rationalize it, discuss it. For them to be naturally good people was no longer sufficient or believable as a character trait. The simple explanation of decency was no longer enough.
I’ve basically just written a thesis to a paper I’m never going to write, triggered by a conversation with my friend Tracy about why Ripley was such a nasty piece of work. But it raises the question of why Cain’s antihumanist work was so darn popular (other than sex and violence, which helped propel many a bestseller then and now, and quality, which hasn’t propel nearly as many) and why the trend took hold. I wish I knew. More digging in used bookstores and more reading of dusty paperbacks is called for.