Saturday, August 7, 2010

And The Beat Goes On*

An excellent post by Michele at Southern City Mysteries got me thinking about some of the remarkable changes in literature in the last five or six decades. One of the important movements in writing during the early 1950’s was the Beat movement. Writers such as Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs stretched the limits of what “counted” as writing and as appropriate topics, and in doing so, changed literature. Beat writers broke the conventional “rules” for creating stories, and if you look at crime fiction, you can see the influence of the Beat generation even now.

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.


  1. Confession time (appropriate in a way given the title of this excellent blog)...I have never read a Beat generation book. Mostly I think this is due to the fact they are just not as 'big' in Australia as in the US - I never encountered a single one on a school or University syllabus (1980's) and when I did finally run track down a Jack Kerouac novel to see what all the fuss was about I was so underwhelmed I left it, unfinished, on a train. So having no first hand knowledge of the Beat writers I don't really feel able to comment on their influence on crime fiction.

  2. Bernadette - It's funny; a lot of people have been left underwhelmed by Beat generation writing. One of its hallmarks is that it's spontaneous and not always as pre-planned as other kinds of literature. So people who like their novels to have a plan, a central plot, and so on, don't enjoy Beat writing. It certainly isn't the kind of writing people generally feel neutral about; they either really like or they really are left cold. If you're in the latter category, you're not alone. And thanks for the kind words about my blog : ).

  3. This is another one of your wonderful post where I find myself at a loss to recall a book title. I'm always amazed at the different outlooks you give to a novel. This is one approach I would have never thought about, but is quite interesting. You do lead a person to ponder. :)

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Caroline Graham, a writer that, I think, writes cozy-ish mysteries does often delve into dark waters. I think in A Place of Safety, she has scenes between two gay men and in Written in Blood cross dressing is touch on. I doubt that this type of writing could have been done before the beat generation. However, I'm not sure it's only the beat generation that influences books. I think what's allowed on TV is a big indicator as to what writers are allowed to touch on in books. Thought-provoking blog, as usual.


  5. In Bernadette's defense, I think a lot of people now are put off by Kerouac's and Ginsberg's styles. Today, we expect our books to be straight forward--who has time for anything else? And we expect award-winning and groundbreaking works to experiment with plot and theme rather than style.

    But that's a bit off topic...I love how you took this Beat Gen theme further than I did. It really was quite revolutionary for the BG to talk about drugs and sex. Hard to believe now, but I love the examples from pre-BG that you pulled. I had never examined Christie's use of illicit themes before, and I'm reading my Conan Doyles right now, so I'm looking forward to seeing what you pointed out!

    Thanks for mentioning me here, Margot. I've really appreciated your responses on this series. More on Tuesday, when I take on 'The Lost Generation.'


  6. Mason - Why, thank you : ). How very nice of you! I wouldn't have originally thought of the connection between the Beat Generation and other literature, either, but for Michele's terrific post : ).

    Clarissa - Thanks : ). I agree completely that crime fiction's been influenced by much more than just the Beat Generation. There have been huge social changes in lots of different areas that have changed crime fiction. I really think a genre (or even sub-genre) is affected by a whole constellation of factors.

    And I agree; sometimes Graham goes into very dark places. It's interesting that a lot of people think of her work as cosy (or cosy-ish), but it isn't always...

    Michele - Oh, I agree about BG writing. It isn't straightforward, and that can be off-putting. That's why I think BG writing isn't for everyone.

    That said, though, I've found it very interesting to look for threads of its influence in crime fiction. I'll be interested to see if you found what I did.

    And it's my pleasure to mention your excellent blog here (and your lit. movement series!). You've given me lots to think about : ), and I truly appreciate the inspiration.

  7. Your musical titles often crack me up, but Sonny and Cher take the cake. :D

  8. Karen - LOL! Yeah, I couldn't resist that one ; ).

  9. I too was underwhelmed by beat writing when I tried it as a young woman. Existentialism, now, I loved that when I encountered it (eg Nausea by Satre, there's a crime novel for you!). What does that say about me?!

    I just read a book called American Visa that is very much on the topic of this post - it is all in there. Also Havana Red, first vol in the Havana Quartet, is similarly, er, up front.

  10. Maxine - I agree; Beat literature is not for everyone. Funny you'd mention existentialism; I read Sartre, too, and enjoyed it. Hmm....that might be something I ought to think about... ; ).

    I've actually heard that American Visa is good; I really look forward to reading what you think of it. Havana Red, too. With books like that, I'm sure that one has to have no problem with that "out there" style in order to enjoy those books.