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“I DO not write about good cops for the same reason I do not write about unicorns,” US noir novelist Benjamin Whitmer recently declared. Neither exists and “if the police do their work correctly, that work is violence against the poor and working class for the protection of the upper class.”
The author of Cry Father and Pike criticises a genre in which “the daily violence of the police is totally ignored” and his sentiments find an echo in hard-boiled writers such as journalist Matt Taibbi, whose The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing transcribes the account of an anonymous marijuana dealer.
Whitmer claims that the police, far from being the expert sleuths of crime fiction and crime TV series such as CSI, in fact operate mainly by grabbing informers off the street and beating them until they give up names and testimony which are often inaccurate because obtained under duress.
Greek author Minos Efstathiadis, whose The Diver is about the relation between Germany and Greece — with the latter subservient to the former during the 2008 government debt crisis — has suggested that the police, far from battling crime, are part of a worldwide network that supports the worst elements of criminal activity.
It exploits the weakest members of society through underage trafficking, drug dealers, child pornography and female slavery. Without that support, Efstathiadis claims, these activities would never be allowed to flourish.
Beginning as an inspector in the Mussolini fascist period, Carlo Lucarelli's book An Italian Affair follows Commissioner De Luca's career into the 1950s when the US-backed Christian Democrats were in power. In order to pursue justice, he must join a secret service so secret it was never given a name. There he finds his former fascist police colleagues restored to power.
The narrative is reminiscent of the continual interplay in the US between the Ku Klux Klan and other right-wing groups and the police, evidenced in the way right-wing violence is tolerated and condoned while any street violence is brutally repressed. As is the case in Germany, with the connection between the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland and the police widely reported.
Another use of the noir novel to illuminate social ills is award-winning Jurica Pavicic’s Red Water, in which the Croatian writer uses the 30-year investigation of the disappearance of a 17-year-old girl to recount three different eras in his native tourist town of Split on the popular Dalmatian Coast.
Pavicic has never left Split and according to the author his experience has been like watching three different towns develop. During the socialist era in the 1980s, Split was a mining town, which he compares to the north of England, and it boasted a well-known football team sponsored by the mine.
With the fall of socialism, as in Russia and many of the countries in the east, the go-go 1990s “where everything collapsed” saw the deindustrialisation of the town as industry moved farther east or to Asia and as corruption ruled and fortunes were quickly seized.
In the 2000s, Split has remade itself again, this time as part of the global tourist boom in which the Dalmatian Coast has thrived, with The Guardian calling the nearby city of Zadar “the hippest place in the world.” Red Water charts these changes with the jaundiced eye of a world-weary observer.
At the heart of the roman noir’s ability to shed light on forgotten periods of history is Thomas Cantaloube’s Frakas, set in France and Cameroon in 1962.
Cantaloube, an ex-journalist for investigative French website Mediapart, tells how France, after losing Indochina and Algeria, had settled on Cameroon as its new colony of choice. The French government went so far as to commission a study by a team of geologists to determine what raw materials were available to be looted.
The book details how the French, in the period after Cameroon achieved independence and while it was attempting to achieve financial sovereignty, acted with the government to punish and eliminate those freedom fighters who wanted to continue the struggle.
Cantaloube’s work, both in Frakas and his previous Requiem for a Republic, which details the merger of gangsters and government in the Marseille of 1936, illustrates how the noir novel can illuminate social and political issues and Lucarelli provides a three-day plan for how he hopes readers will react to his fiction.
“The first night they would be up all night reading,” he writes. “The second night they would be so troubled by what they read they’d be up all night disturbed.
“The third night,” he hopes, “they would be up all night trying to figure out how things could be different.”
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