The State of Contemporary Crime Fiction
“Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic”— Raymond Chandler
In an essay for The Atlantic Monthly, Raymond Chandler expressed his opinion on the state of contemporary crime fiction, circa 1944. He looked with admiration upon Dashiell Hammett. Of his contemporaries, he praised some and took others to task with biting sarcasm and sharp wit. His cri de coeur was against crime fiction from the point of view of the criminal. He seethed at stories in which justice was not achieved by the end of the story. In short, Chandler restated the old argument that artists are morally responsible for the work of art they produce.
Organized crime – whether it is ethnic, corporate, or political – interests me. Violence does not. There is violence in my books, but I do not dwell on it, nor do I embroider it. I’d rather leave the details to the reader’s imagination; it makes for effective writing. A coroner’s report on a murder victim conveys the physical damage, and the reader’s horror is derived from imagining the sequence of the violent acts, the victim’s last moments, and the clinical portrait of a body, the object and not the person.
Can a writer write about crime in Italy without mentioning the mafia? The answer: probably not. To complicate matters: which mafia are we talking about? Naples has the Camorra. Sicily has Cosa Nostra. Calabria has the ’Ndràngheta. Lesser-known criminal groups are Puglia’s Sacra Corona Unita, and the Basilichi in the Basilicata region.
Americans associate mafia with Sicilians, with glamor and omertà, the ‘code of silence,’ thanks to movie The Godfather, whereas Italians perceive it as a resilient and unfortunate tapeworm attached to their society. No matter which mafia we discuss, no matter how sophisticated their criminal enterprise has become through money laundering, the foundation is intimidation and violence. No amount of education, finesse, or sartorial elegance will ever transform Tony Soprano beyond what he is: a thug.
Chandler was not beyond ambiguity. Marlowe did do dicey things; Hammett’s Spade was certainly even darker at times, but both detectives stood for something and their word and handshake meant something. They got justice. Writers have to stand for something is what Chandler was saying. I agree with him. My characters in the Roma Series care about and love other as they navigate a morally corrupt world. Their cases are important, but how their relationships deepen or come into conflict is more important to me as the writer.
I’d like to conclude on an upbeat note. Italians are fighting back. Many shops throughout Sicily have the Addiopizzo (Bye-bye bribe) sticker in their windows to let their customers know that they are not a mafia-owned business. The sticker is a combination of anti-corruption and grassroots activism. Germany has the same concept with Nein dankel (No thanks) to combat the ’Ndràngheta. Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who lost their lives fighting the Sicilian mafia, would smile at their legacy.
Gabriel lives in Boston, Massachusetts. He is the author of the Roma Series, available from Winter Goose Publishing. Gabriel has also written numerous short stories and essays found online and in print.