In a series of articles about the trial of Adolph Eichmann written for The New Yorker in 1961, and later turned into a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt addressed the nature of evil. Arendt argued that evil deeds are not exclusively the work of monsters, mad men and psychopaths; to the contrary, evil is most often perpetrated by ordinary people acting out of their own unenlightened self-interest and with no consideration of the general good. Her case in point was Eichmann, a thin, bespectacled, middle-aged man with bad teeth and a receding hairline who organized the mass deportation of Jews and other “undesirables” to extermination camps in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, but maintained that he was simply following orders. Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the provincial mindset that allows seemingly “normal” individuals like Adolph Eichmann to kill.
The literary critic Stephen Knight has used the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe a species of crime fiction, one typified by the crime novels of Patricia Highsmith, most particularly The Talented Mr. Ripley and the four succeeding novels featuring Ripley as criminal hero. For Knight, Highsmith’s Ripley novels invite readers to recognize themselves in the action and behavior of the engagingly likable but completely amoral Tom Ripley, and stand in sharp contrast to the Agatha Christie-esque notion that murderers are essentially evil.
As Knight observes, Highsmith’s reputation in America is far outstripped by her fame in Europe, despite that fact that her novels “bring to a head two important variant traditions of crime fiction whose strongest examples are distinctly American, the crime novel and the psychothriller.” In Highsmith’s hands, the crime novel offers a withering critique of the everyday conventions of morality and social order; her psychothrillers, as Highsmith scholar Kathleen Gregory Klein once put it, challenge “readers’ self-image of safe innocence and protective, benign behavior.”
While Highsmith has many admirers, she would seem to have few disciples in contemporary American fiction. Last year, I had the opportunity to peruse nearly 200 crime fiction novels while serving on the reading committee charged with short-listing books for the 2016 Hammett Award of the North American branch of the International Association of Crime Writers. (Domenic Stansberry won the prize for his deliciously amoral novel, The White Devil, based on the John Webster revenge tragedy of the same name.) Judging from this experience, I can venture to say that we like our killers to be dark, completely venal and cold-blooded.
Take Derek Skotadi, a dirty cop and the villain in Thomas Laird’s Black Widower. Skotaki strangles his wife, Jennifer, after having sex with her in the shower, a murder he planned to commit before initiating intimate contact. Later, Skotadi dismembers the body with a chainsaw and feeds the pieces to an alligator in a Louisiana bayou. The perfect murder – no body, no crime – comes undone when a grizzly Vietnam veteran who lives in the swamp catches an alligator for food and slices it open – revealing Jennifer Skotadi’s head and evidence of the crime.
Or, consider the telekinetic Brady Hartsfield in Stephen King’s End of Watch, the third volume in his Detective Bill Hodges series, following Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers. Readers of the series will recall that Hartsfield is the psychopathic title character of the Edgar-award-winning Mr. Mercedes, so named for driving his Mercedes car into a crowd queuing up for a job fair, killing eight and crippling many others. Here, he is using his newly developed power of mental domination to persuade his victims to commit suicide.
Then there’s Saladin, the terroristic mastermind who detonates a massive bomb in the Marais district of Paris in Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow. Saladin returned as the foil for Silva’s hero, Gabriel Allon, in the 2017 House of Spies. The Black Widow ends with a devastating terror attack on Washington, D.C., and its sequel, 17th in the Allon series, picks up where The Black Widow left off. Silva’s Saladin is as black as they come, a bloodthirsty ISIS chief, dreaming of an Islamic caliphate while he funds attacks with the profits he receives from narcotics sales.
And so it goes. Superheroes like Gabriel Allon, or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, require supervillains. Jo Nesbo, who isn’t an American writer but is wildly popular here, also follows the trend of situating evil in aberrant individuals.
We like evil serialized – performed by villains, like Hannibal Lechter, who barely pause after committing one murder before committing a second or a third, and chased by heroes, who appear in one book after another. Even debut novels, like Nicholas Petrie’s The Drifter, published in 2016, announce their intention of launching a series. Petrie’s second Peter Ash novel, Burning Bright, was published last year, and his third, Light it Up, arrived in early January.
Contemporary American crime fiction typically situates evil outside history, devoid of any social or political context. To be sure, Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels often allude to real people, places and events, but you will learn nothing about the Israeli occupation or Palestinian grievances by reading them. The ahistorical character of contemporary crime fiction may be due, in part, to the suspicion, noted by David Bromwich in his preface to the 2002 edition of Irving Howe’s Politics and the Novel, that “any novel is compromised to the extent that it registers effects from so extrinsic a cause as political doctrine and passion.” We distrust social realism, associating it with socialist realism or Marxist propaganda masquerading as narrative fiction, and ignoring the fact that a realistic aesthetic, epitomized by the works of John Steinbeck, Stephen Crane, William Dean Howells, Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, among others, is indigenously American.
When I wrote my crime novel, Death Sentences, published by Crime Wave Press, I wanted to get inside the mind of someone whose crimes were motivated by ideology, and, in particular, the ideology of the alt.right. My novel was based on a shootout between a 22-year-old man named Richard Poplawski and police in the Stanton Heights section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2009. Poplawski was a white supremacist who despised race-mixing, hated Jews, and posted extremist views on the neo-Nazi website, Stormfront. He had also had drunk deeply from the Kool-Aid dispensed by Alex Jones on Infowars that then-President Obama wanted to nullify the Second Amendment. Matters came to a head and he exploded with violence when police responded to a 911 call from his mother, who wanted him removed from her house after his dog crapped on her rug. When police arrived at his door, Poplawski assumed they were coming to take away his guns, and opened fire. In the aftermath, three police officers were dead, and two more were wounded.
Many in local media declined to view Poplawski’s actions as political. To them, his views were neither left nor right; he was just confused. But one need not have a systematically coherent view of the world to be ideologically motivated. As Hannah Arendt wrote of Eichmann, he was both “genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché” and totally unable “to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view.” He lived in the bubble of Nordic supremacy, breathing its stale air and mouthing its stupid hateful slogans. Like Eichmann, Poplawski lived in that bubble, too. To me, he was less a monster than a clown, a dangerous one, to be sure, and I wanted to humanize his fictional equivalent in my novel.
Today, many in the national media decline to connect the dots between the political leanings of a Dylann Roof or a James Alex Fields Jr. and the crimes they perpetrate, and thus have no answers to the American whydunit of gun violence and mass murder.
In his Berlin noir triology, the late detective writer Philip Kerr invited readers to enter the dank and fetid world of pre-war Nazi Germany. Kerr connected ordinary crime with political crime, putting the banality of evil on display. (We know, from the hindsight of history, where this banal badness led.) Today, we need writers to follow Kerr’s example and do the same thing with our country and our culture, to take on the suffocating stench of Trumpism and the festering corruption it has produced. We need them to do it urgently and desperately. Now. Before it is too late.
© 2018, Michael W. Zimecki. All rights reserved.