Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 5-6.

Burke, James Lee.  A Morning for Flamingoes.  Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.

In James Lee Burke’s novels featuring Dave Robicheaux, the Louisiana setting is a character as vividly drawn as the protagonist himself. The bayou country is, at once, a lush paradise and the dismal swamp. The plantation architecture harks back to an ante-bellum splendor or stands as a rotting, peeling monument to the South’s “lost cause.” The natives embody an anachronistic gentility or a folk simplicity. Thrown into the mix are the extensive petrochemical facilities and the almost ungovernable slums that are the most conspicuous evidence of the increasingly industrial and increasingly urban “New South.” The fusion of these elements makes for an often volatile and violent environment in which a hardboiled romantic like Dave Robicheaux can operate with fewer constraints than he might find in other milieus.

Especially in the first few novels in the series, Robicheaux’s life history is laid out chronologically for the reader. A Vietnam veteran, Robicheaux has worked for 14 years as a detective with the New Orleans police force. Disgusted by the pervasive corruption, he leaves the police force and becomes a part-time sheriff’s deputy and private investigator. Personal tragedies, including the murder of his wife, send him into an alcohol-fueled depression. He is saved only by his relationship with the girl whom he and his wife had adopted from a Central American orphanage.

In A Morning for Flamingoes, Robicheaux is almost killed when a murderer whom he is transporting escapes. For the rest of the novel, Robicheaux is stalking this killer and is being stalked by him. In between, he becomes involved again with his former partner and a former lover, while tangling with the mob and a ju-ju woman.

 

Cain, James M.  The Postman Always Rings Twice.  New York: Knopf, 1934.

Most commonly linked to Nelson Algren, James M. Cain was one of the most prominent hardboiled realists of the 1930s. Like Algren, Cain brought a lyric sensibility to his treatment of materials that the naturalistic novelists had catalogued with an almost brutal directness. But, during the Jazz Age and the early years of the Great Depression, prohibition and the resurgence of the outlaw gangs had blurred the distinctions between criminality and entertainment. A great many people frequented speakeasies and almost everyone followed the exploits of John Dilllinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Baby Face” Nelson, “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Bonnie and Clyde in the newspapers and the newsreels.  So criminality and other sordid behavior was no longer viewed as solely an aberration of the frontier or the urban underclass.

Cain, Algren, and others brought the conventions of the hardboiled mystery-detective genre into the literary mainstream by producing novels that are almost psychological case studies or criminal and other degenerate behavior. Like the hardboiled mystery-detective novelists, in particular Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Cain, Algren, and the other “noir” novelists of the 1930s and 1940s were classified in the Hemingwayesque school. Like Hemingway’s anti-heroes, their characters were presented with such immediacy that the reader could not help but identify with them, at least in part.  And in contrast to the constrained routines of most ordinary lives, the characters’ misadventures held a strangely romanticized interest.

Although Double Indemnity (1936) and Mildred Pierce (1941) are still widely remembered, The Postman Always Rings Twice will probably stand as Cain’s most enduring work. It depicts the passionate adulterous affair between the younger wife of a Greek diner owner and the handsome drifter whom he has hired to help out in the diner and as a general handyman. Beyond their passion for each other, the adulterers are bound by a mutual yearning for something less drab than what they now see ahead of them. They begin to see the murder of the husband as the key to their futures, and, ironically, that crime causes everything to begin to spiral almost inexorably in the other direction.

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Previous Posts in This Series:

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 1-2: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/24/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-1-2/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 3-4: https://academeblog.org/2015/07/02/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-3-4/

Previous Series:

The final post in each series is followed by links to all of the previous posts in that series.

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/02/13370/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-49-50/

 

 

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