Beat writers wrote about topics that hadn’t previously been considered acceptable. One of those topics is drug use. Of course, drugs had been mentioned in crime fiction for quite a long time. Readers of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories know that Holmes was a user of both cocaine and morphine. But in the Holmes stories, we don’t really see the seamy side of drug use. In The Sign of the Four, for instance, Holmes says he finds cocaine,
“…transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind.”
And, while Watson remonstrates with Holmes about his drug use, the topic isn’t really a major theme of the Holmes adventures. In fact, you could even argue that it’s somewhat glossed-over.
Agatha Christie mentions drug use, too, but again, the topic is treated more or less superficially. For instance, in Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot investigates the strangling death of beautiful and notorious Arlena Stuart Marshall while she and her family are on holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel. One possible motive for Arlena’s murder is that she’s stumbled on a drugs ring and has been silenced. A packet of drugs is found not far from the murder scene, and there’s a connection between the drugs and another hotel guest. However, there is no real description of the drug use or the drug trade.
The same is true in Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, in which Poirot solves the murder of Louise Leidner, the wife of noted archeologist Eric Leidner. The murder takes place while the Liedners are at a dig site a few hours from Baghdad. In investigating the murder, Poirot finds that most of the members of the dig team are hiding secrets; one member’s secret is a drug habit. In this novel, too, although the drug use is mentioned, it’s certainly not a central theme in the book, and it’s discussed mostly in medical terms.
In some ways, you could say that writers such as Conan Doyle and Christie were ahead of their times, since they mentioned drug use long before it was considered an acceptable topic. And yet, their mentions of it are restrained and their novels don’t really take place in the drug world.
In the years since the Beat generation, drug use and the drug world have become much more common themes in crime fiction. Just as one example, Michael Connelly explores the topic in The Black Ice. In that novel, Harry Bosch investigates the apparent suicide of L.A.P.D. officer Calexico Moore. The top brass in the department aren’t interested in finding out the truth about Moore, because it looks as though he might have been a “dirty cop” mixed up with a Mexican drugs ring. Bosch determines to find out what happened to Moore, though, and pursues the case. To do this, he travels to Mexico, and we get to see the inner workings of the drugs trade, and the underside, so to speak, of modern drug use.
The Beat generation also opened up other previously taboo topics such as sexuality. Their interest in sexual exploration was considered obscene at the time. And in crime fiction, we don’t really see graphic sexuality of any kind portrayed before the “Beat years.” Certainly writers such as Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers alluded to intimate relationships. However, their references were usually oblique. For instance, Sayers’ Strong Poison centers on the murder trial of mystery writer Harriet Vane, who’s been charged with poisoning her former lover, Philip Boyes. It’s no secret in the novel that she and Boyes were intimate, but no graphic references are made to their relationship.
Today’s crime fiction is replete with all kinds of treatment of sexuality. Just a short time after the rise of the Beat writers, Mickey Spillane’s My Gun is Quick addressed the issue of prostitution. And Spillane’s Mike Hammer is hardly restrained in his pursuit of women. Since that time, crime fiction has addressed sexuality in a number of different ways. Some novels focus on prostitution rings, some on sex-based murders, and some in other ways. For instance, Caroline Graham’s Written in Blood is focused on the murder of Gerald Hadleigh, a member of the Midsomer Worthy Writers’ Circle, which is a group of local writers who meet regularly. Throughout the novel, there are several sexual themes; in one scene, for instance, we learn of Hadleigh’s attraction to a local teenager, and her sophisticated use of that attraction to make a fool of him. While Graham isn’t overly graphic, there’s an unmistakable difference between her treatment of the topic and the treatment of it in earlier novels.
Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels are also quite forthright about sexual themes. We see that, for instance, in The Remorseful Day, in which Morse and Lewis investigate the murder of Yvonne Harrison, a nurse whose sexual excesses and obsessions are a major theme in the novel. Dexter’s other novels also explore sexual themes quite often.
One of the other major changes that the Beat generation brought to writing is the kind of language used to tell stories. Before the advent of the Beat writers, the language used in crime fiction was mostly quite restrained. Agatha Christie’s characters, for instance, rarely use profanity and when they do, it’s mild. The same is true of Ellery Queen’s characters. If you read through the Ellery Queen stories, it’s difficult to find any language stronger than the occasional “Hell” or “damn/ed.”
Beat writing is full of what most of us consider profanity. In fact, that’s one reason for which both Alan Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs faced obscenity trials: the language that they used to tell their stories was quite graphic. Their use of language has arguably opened the door to the stretching of linguistic limits. In today’s world of crime fiction, the only limit to the language used is arguably what you might call niche. For example, cosy mysteries tend to use few, if any, obscenities. Noir and other kinds of darker crime fiction is often full of graphic language. Even novels that you wouldn’t think of as particularly bleak and dark often include quite a lot of graphic language. Just as a quick example, in Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief, Commissario Salvo Montalbano is investigating the death of a man in an elevator as well as the shooting death of a Tunisian sailor while he’s aboard an Italian fishing boat. The cases are related, and Montalbano finds the link between them. At one point, Montalbano is upset with his colleague Mimì Augello because Augello’s taken over the case of the shooting on the boat in a blatant attempt to gain favor. Montalbano asks Augello,
“How did you act with the commissioner?”
“What do you mean?”
“I just want to know if you licked his a** or his b****.”
Other profane language is also used liberally in this novel and others in the series. There are also many, many other examples of novels where the language used is, to say the least, unrestrained.
The Beat generation arguably had a profound effect on crime fiction. I’ve only mentioned a few connections that I’ve seen between Beat writers and the kind of crime fiction that’s been available since that time; there are others. What do you think, though? Do you see influences from Beat writing?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sonny and Cher’s The Beat Goes On.