Unwilling Executioner: Crime Fiction and the State – Accessible, insightful and even-handed
Andrew Pepper convincingly argues for the benefits of seeing the elements of modernity in older texts and the precedents behind contemporary crime fiction
Dashiell Hammett’s ‘Red Harvest’ (1929), is perhaps the central case study here
Unwilling Executioner: Crime Fiction and the State
Oxford University Press
Andrew Pepper, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast and author of the well-regarded Pyke Mysteries historical crime novels, set in 18th-century London, has now written the deeply researched, sharply intelligent Unwilling Executioner: Crime Fiction and the State. Accessible, insightful, and even-handed, this book reflects all the strengths of Pepper’s earlier scholarly work.
Examining an impressively broad series of texts, Pepper argues that crime fiction has been shaped by the conflict between believing “that the state is necessary for the creation and maintenance of public life” and, at the same time, seeing the state as “central to the reproduction of the socio-economic inequalities that lead to crime in the first place”. This conflict, he argues, results in works of crime fiction that at once “buttress and undermine the state’s authority”, displaying in the process a “marked self-consciousness and ambivalence” about their relationship to that authority.
Pepper’s careful attention to this ambivalence allows him to explore both “new ways of understanding the crime novel’s capacities for imaginatively intervening in the world” and, crucially, “the limits of those interventions”. By taking such a balanced approach, he scrupulously avoids the two extreme views of crime fiction’s competing political impulses: that it is a fundamentally conservative genre that reaffirms existing social structures (crime fiction as oppressor), or that it is fundamentally progressive in its critiques of those same structures (crime fiction as the resistance). To Unwilling Executioner’s great advantage, Pepper focuses on the tension between these impulses, a tension he sees as central to much crime fiction.
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Although Pepper builds this argument through his book’s chronological structure, he doesn’t claim to offer a comprehensive history of the genre. Instead, he maps the shifting connections between “the emergence of the crime story” and “the consolidation of the modern state”, following those connections as they change over time. Taking crime fiction as “a resolutely transnational phenomenon”, Pepper draws on texts from British, Irish, American, French, Italian, Japanese, and South African authors. This historical and national breadth lets him address a wide range of work, from some of the genre’s most well-known authors (like Georges Simenon) to others less known (like Arthur Morrison), and from very early precedents (like Daniel Defoe) to contemporary novelists (like Natsuo Kirino).
The discussion of canonical texts – like Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929), perhaps the central case study here – pays clear dividends throughout Unwilling Executioner. Among this book’s many strengths, however, are the insights Pepper uncovers in less widely familiar texts, including both the 18th-century crime writing on which the first chapter focuses, and the significant amount of translated fiction that, to his credit, Pepper considers. (Not for nothing is the book dedicated to “the translators, the unacknowledged heroes of the global book trade”). These close readings of crime writing are in turn supported by Pepper’s accounts of varied political philosophies, ranging from those published in tandem with the emerging modern state, up to the most recent studies of conflicts between sovereignty and transnational capitalism.
In moving across nations and centuries, Pepper reminds his reader that the development of crime writing’s relationship to the state is not strictly linear. On the contrary, some of the energies most likely to seem radical in recent crime fiction such as Broken Monsters (2014), by the South African writer Lauren Beukes, can be traced in part to the earlier works discussed here. Through such connections, Pepper convincingly argues for the benefits of seeing both the elements of modernity in older texts and the precedents behind contemporary crime fiction.
Although the entire book is engaging, readers of Irish crime fiction may find the most immediate rewards in the concluding chapter, with its discussion of “capitalist noir” and the “interchangeability of crime and business” experienced in the “deregulated world of the neoliberal economy”, experiences familiar to many in Ireland over recent years. This chapter’s thoughtful analysis works well for Eoin McNamee’s fiction, examined in some detail, and can also shed productive light on the work of other Irish crime writers not addressed here, not least Jane Casey, Alan Glynn, Gene Kerrigan and Adrian McKinty.
Pepper is careful to avoid overstating his own claims, working rather with nuance, detail, and texture. Unwilling Executioner shows how these smaller details can add up to a powerful and persuasive reading of the relationship between crime fiction and its varied societies. With uncertain paths forward for many of the longest-standing states, and with almost daily news about the difficulties at the heart of state-controlled policing, in Ireland as elsewhere, few critics could better show crime fiction’s ability to contribute a meaningful understanding of the crises and conflicts that have shaped and will continue to shape those paths.
Dr Brian Cliff, Assistant Prof of Irish Studies in the School of English at TCD (currently on leave), is completing his book ‘Irish Crime Fiction’ for Palgrave