(Copyleft Indymedia.ie Robert Looby.)
We are no stranger to the detective whose private life is a mess. “The Job” is summarised on one website as follows: “Denis Leary … stars as Mike McNeil, an unorthodox New York detective who's trying to juggle work along with his complicated personal life,” (1) and in a review of In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson, Maria Parker tells us of its hero's “increasingly complicated personal life, which includes actual or potential relationships with his estranged wife, almost estranged son, and several attractive women…” (2) Then of course there are the drinkers and the smokers, like Robbie Coltrane in “Cracker,” to say nothing of “unorthodox cops,” who outnumber their orthodox partners by three to one. Or take “Fish,” whose hero, by its script editor's own admission, “has the requisite complicated personal life in the form of a wife who has deserted him to try to turn him into a better father, and a demanding young son.” (3) A personal favourite, though, is the TV series “Detective Monk,” starring Tony Shalhoub as a neurotic detective capable of amazing feats of deduction from the evidence at the scene of the crime, but pathologically afraid of bacteria and frequently unable to overcome his fear of blood and get close to the evidence. His assistant and therapist is his nurse – how complicated a personal life is that? This man cannot even wear a shirt unless it is check.
The good guy with the tortured personal life is old hat, old fedora hat – but not all that old. Hammett's Continental Op has no such ostentatious hang-ups and while Philip Marlowe is as lonely as he is a loner and appears sometimes to flirt with alcoholism, he is married by the opening pages of Poodle Springs. It was later that detectives started going to work with their baggage. The following book review comes from the 1970s: “There are various ways of livening up positive characters in … crime novels. A cold is excellent. It is enough to give Lieutenant Zieliński or Major Grabowski a strong dose of catarrh and the investigation is made more difficult and the novel more lively. Another well known method is to have the hero give up smoking or, alternatively, to have him smoke too much. Another good trick is the … 'neglected wife' … who from time to time complains about the irregular life of her industrious husband, immediately giving the novel a powerful jolt of living warmth and authenticity.”(4)
As you might have guessed from the surnames of the hapless detectives, this is not a discussion of the American hard-boiled detective novel. It refers to its Polish version, created and published – and this is my point – under the watchful eye of the censor. Elsewhere its author, Stanisław Barańczak, wonders why the (positive, communist) heroes of socialist realist “production novels” so often have complicated personal lives. These novels typically featured a young working class hero battling against the elements (both natural and bourgeois) to bring to fruition some heavy industrial project with a similarly heavy handed moral message. A variant of this formula was to have a flawed hero who matures into a sense of socialist responsibility, but generally speaking these Stakhanovs “had no personal life, dividing their time between production and social work.”(5) Barańczak's conclusions are interesting and by no means – sadly – limited in scope to communist bloc countries. At a certain point, he claims, the makers of these socialist realist novels realised the formula was worn out. In a vain attempt to combat the schematism of socialist realist novels they gave the protagonists complicated personal lives, made them smokers, drinkers, divorcees, irascible, or gave them wives who still had some petty bourgeois traits…(6) But the formula remained essentially the same. No matter how heavily the hero smokes or how badly he neglects his wife, in the end the black marketeer is punished, the factory saved and the forces of socialist good triumph.
Tinkering around with popular culture formulas without ever really changing them is not limited to writers attempting to operate within the constraints of an official, imposed ideology. Today the nasty corporate lawyer is punished, the Mom and Pop business saved and the forces of capitalist good triumph, even if the hero or heroine is head of a one-parent family. In short, the observations made by Stanisław Barańczak some thirty years ago about popular culture in communist Poland are disturbingly relevant to modern day, globalised popular culture. Essentially the same mechanisms are at work now as then. When Barańczak refers to sensational elements being added to stories out of a sense of obligation the parallel with modern, uncensored popular film and literature is unmistakeable: just try typing the phrase “tacked on love interest” into an Internet search engine.