Several years ago, at a wonderful, now gone bookstore called Outerlands, I found a collection called The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Hugh Greene (one-time Director-General of the BBC, journalist, and Graham Greene’s brother). The book is one of a series of “Rivals of Sherlock Holmes” anthologies Greene edited in the 1970s. Most of the stories, as you would expect, are of the whodunit or puzzle variety.
What’s especially interesting is the difference in subject matter between typical stories in the Holmesian style and these contemporaneous American offerings. British mystery stories from this period tend to be about interpersonal crime: crimes of passion, crimes over money or jewels, or jealousy. There is the occasional case of international espionage, but the criminals are almost always individual actors. Many of the stories in this collection are American transpositions of these classic themes, but others go beyond the personal to corporate or political crime.
Sometimes one realizes with a sense of shock how modern these differences make them appear. We find a brutal and corrupt police force, corrupt politicians, bugging, big and wealthy corporations using their power to cheat the Federal Government or to put small competitors out of business, methods used by political parties in elections which are extraordinarily reminiscent of Nixon’s CREEP.
Rereading these stories this past month, I found a particularly interesting theme running through several of these now century-old stories.
- Big business routinely engage in corrupt practices for the sake of the bottom line.
- When caught, only the little guys (those who implemented the crimes) get punished. The corporate officers, who instigated, or at least encouraged the crimes, get off lightly, or perhaps even completely.
- That the big guys get off is wrong. But there are members of the Government — Senators, Federal Agents, and others — who are intent on making the big guys pay.
The first two points still sound awfully familiar, and far too topical, a century later. The last point, I fear, we no longer believe. Do these stories mean that we once trusted more in the State to protect the public’s interest against big business? Or does it mean the opposite: were these stories escapist fantasy about the world we wished that we lived in?
It is the strong hope of the country that there is justice and fairness and sane commonsense at the American bottom of us, if you can only get at it.
— Francis Lynde, “The Cloud-Bursters” Continue reading