Saturday, March 16, 2013
Crime and Compassion
A dear friend gave me a great Christmas present: the entire Danger Man/Secret Agent series, starring Patrick McGoohan. I'm working my way through it, disc by disc, and having a great time with it.
In the first season, which was a half-hour show, American agent John Drake works for NATO and is called all over the world to attend to various affairs, ranging from rescues to murder investigations that have touchy international aspects. Danger Man was created by the same team responsible for The Avengers, but has a radically different feel from it and from the James Bond films. Danger Man is gritty and down-to-earth; plots revolve more around intrigue and realistic situations, rather than outlandish attempts to take over the world. And a lot is in the character himself.
Patrick McGoohan reportedly refused the roles of James Bond and Simon Templar (aka The Saint), largely because he objected to how both characters were sexually promiscuous. A devout Catholic, McGoohan had certain ideas of how a hero should be, and when offered Danger Man he had a number of demands that writers were happy to work with.
As a result of McGoohan's input, John Drake was not a womanizer; in fact, he remained emotionally remote, viewing sex and romance as an unnecessary entanglement, and anyway many women he met were treacherous themselves. Drake is rarely armed; in only one episode of the entire series does he actually shoot a man dead. He uses gadgets, but they're generally very grounded ones that were easily available to consumers, like folding binoculars and Minox cameras. Drake uses his wits and charm to outsmart or trick his enemies, rather than overpower them. Still, he makes mistakes, plans fail and go awry, and the unexpected happens, and he always deals as best he can.
But remarkable for the time and genre is how compassionate Drake is; he's aware that he's dealing with human beings and is aware that everyone has some good and bad in them. In one episode, "The Traitor," Drake tracks down an Englishman in India who's selling secrets to the East; however, he comes to realize the man is desperately ill and the only way he can afford medication is to sell information. He still turns him in; he HAS to. But it's clear he hates himself for doing it.
"Find and Return" has him tracking down a lady spy...but in the end, realizing she is more sinned against than sinning, he secretly destroys an incriminating forged passport that would have led to more severe punishment for her. And in "The Gallows Tree" he tracks down a master spy, long thought dead, suspecting the man is responsible for secrets being passed. However, he finds the man enjoying a quiet retirement, and it's really his daughter who is spying, and Drake shares in the father's horror and sadness. In some episodes good people suffer unfair consequences, and you can tell it pains Drake.
While I was watching these, I was suddenly reminded of another compassionate crimefighter, Father Brown. I'd recently watched the ITV series featuring Kenneth More as G. K. Chesterton's sleuth, and the padre is an epitome of the caring detective. He's usually more interested in saving souls than avenging wrongs, and when he spots the killer will often seek to have the person seek redemption and turn themselves in. His best friend is the detective Flambeau, whom Brown convinced to give up a life of crime and seek honest employment. And when a crime occurs, Brown is usually more saddened then horrified or outraged.
Of course, these were all examples of the evolution of the hero. Father Brown dates from a century ago, and was an expression of Chesterton's worldview, and later his own Catholicism. Brown utilizes reason but works on philosophical points rather than scientific truths. Chesterton admired Sherlock Holmes but sought to do his own spin on the genre.
But also, Father Brown is in a unique position as a societal outsider, which gives him perspective and compassion. Too many heroes of pulp fiction of the era were jingoistic Establishment types like Bulldog Drummond and Tiger Standish and Nayland Smith who battled various outsiders who were Not Like Us. They saved compassion usually for those who were Like Them, and to hell with everyone else. Or you had folks like A. J. Raffles, the gentleman burglar, who viewed his own escapades as sporting exploits, and held his victims in contempt. Compassion wasn't a big feature in British thriller fiction until another outsider came along.
Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin was a half-Chinese, half-British author who achieved international fame under the pen name of Leslie Charteris. An outsider himself, Charteris emigrated to the US in the 30s but couldn't become a full citizen for years because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented anyone "50% or more Asian" from immigrating to the US. Eventually an act of Congress allowed him to become a citizen.
But Charteris' most famous character was Simon Templar, the Saint, who was rather unusual for his time in also being somewhat compassionate, in a sea of 30's pulp fiction hardboiled heroes. In books like The Last Hero and Knight Templar, the Saint has an odd role of being a sort of violent pacifist. When faced with villains who want to start a new world war, Templar feels it's worth killing some evil people to prevent the horrors of war from being felt again, and countless millions dying to enrich a few plutocrats. Simon himself was something of an outsider, a career criminal who had a ring of criminal-fringe associates, an orphan of unknown parentage who carved out his own place, showing respect for the lower classes and puncturing the pretensions of the upper crust. And he had a girlfriend, Patricia Holm, with whom he had one of the earliest literary examples of an open relationship.
As the series progressed, Templar could be surprising. In the 50's, Charteris published The Saint in Europe, a short story collection featuring one called "The Spanish Cow." In it, Templar is lounging on the beach at Juan-les-Pins with a shallow socialite when they spot a fat ugly widow, the "Spanish Cow" of the title, who owns a ton of jewelry. The Saint initially feels that such lovely jewels are wasted on such an unattractive woman, and sets out to steal them. However, he's taken aback when he sneaks up to her room at night, and finds her singing sadly to herself, looking at her jewels. He realizes that the fat ugly woman he mocked was young and beautiful once, and her seeming vulgarity is more due to loneliness and a desire to hold on to her youth. Moved, he turns and leaves empty-handed.
Compassion in detection was a rarity through the 50s, the reign of hardboiled pulps and semiheroes like Mike Hammer. It came along in the 60s, though. Author Thomas B. Dewey created a new private eye, "Mack," who often operated out of a sense of compassion and sentimentality, rather than just for money or a desire for revenge. James Bond, who is simultaneously Establishment and an Outsider, mellowed a bit in his later years; in the short story "Octopussy" he allows a murderer a chance to commit suicide before being dragged through a lengthy trial. In "The Hildebrand Rarity" he ignores evidence of a battered wife murdering her husband, and in "The Living Daylights" he shoots a sniper's hand rather than killing her, figuring that would end her career anyway.
In the 80s and 90s, there was a surge in publications of softboiled mysteries, by authors of both sexes. Private eyes still were paid but also often had a conscience and often would go above and beyond in their duty. Amateurs would seek to help those in need, protect loved ones, or look into things out of a sense of compassion for the deceased. One of Susan Wittig Albert's China Bayles novels, I think it was Rosemary Remembered, had a scene where China finds a murdered body of a friend, and there's a lengthy passage describing her grief, sorrow, anger, and outrage at the crime, which was a great moral and ethical view of why so many read mysteries and want justice served and crimes solved.
Compassion is now a regular component of mystery fiction; the Vicious hardboiled stuff seems to be a thing of the past, at least from what I've seen. Compassion reigns even in Historicals; Anne Perry's detectives are often emotionally involved in their cases. You don't have to be an outsider to show compassion, although there's still quite a few detectives who are societal outsiders. And those who do want to restore the status quo do so for noble reasons, usually.
We'll see how it continues to evolve in the genre, and I'll certainly be keeping an eye open for it as I read more in the future. I also might work on an article about societal outsiders at some point; it's an aspect of mystery fiction that doesn't get explored sufficiently.
Hope this makes up for my lack of reviews lately....