Thursday, November 22, 2007

Kickback (Garry Disher), crime, westerns, etc.

I finally got my hands on some of Gary Disher's Wyatt novels, which are very different from his more recent police procedurals. Wyatt is on the other side of the law, but the novels are also on the other side of a border we might draw between "noir" as a traditional form (going back through Jim Thompson to the pulp detective novels of the 30s and 40s) and the contemporary crime novel. Plus Kickback, the first of the Wyatt novels, makes an explicit comparison between cowboy fiction and crime fiction (perhaps in part a nod to the early career of crime great Elmore Leonard, but certainly a link to the Western genre in fiction and film). First of all, names: Wyatt and the Younger brothers; plus the solitary quality of Wyatt's life, and the fact that (like so many classic Westerns) the story exploits a changing social pattern (Wyatt complains of changes from cash to electronic and plastic money, a change that is cutting into his business as a burglar/thief--in the same way that modernization provides the background to a host of cowboy stories about the "end of an era" as the cowboy lifestyle came to and end, or even the land wars in the Western U.S. that caused that change). Even the businesslike thief versus the "cowboy" recklessness of Wyatt's antagonist, Sugarfoot (another Western reference, explicit in the novel--if anyone remembers the TV series of that title). The novel, though overlaid with the cowboy metaphor, is a classic caper-plus-the-mob story, with even a bit of Mike Hammer (revised for modern audiences--though I won't go into that parallel too much, since it would give too much of the story away). Wyatt is doing small jobs leading up to a moderately large one, while being pursued by that Sugarfoot character, who feels Wyatt wronged him on one of the small jobs. The key figure in the big job is Anna, who engages Wyatt emotionally as well as professionally and sexually. That emotional attachment suggests for a moment Disher's later work, when the more stylized world of pulp-noir will give way to the more complex milieu of the contemporary crime novel. Disher, a prolific writer across a number of genres, has something in common with Ed McBain, who under several names produced detective stories, the template of all modern police procedurals, and gritty literary novels about life in the modern city. As with the later books of McBain (or, for that matter Graham Greene) the genre fiction and the literary fiction come together in Disher's more recent books. While the Wyatt books are tersely written in a very effective way, and are leavened by humor and emotion, they're basically (on the evidence of the first one, and I'll revisit this theme when I've had a chance to read some of the later ones) caper stories of a high order, comparable to the "Richard Starke" novels featuring the master thief Parker (as detectiveswithoutborders has pointed out in some detail). With the Challis/Destry books, Disher enters the realm of those crime novels that satisfy fully in the terms of both the genre and the larger literary world (though there's still a bias against crime fiction, especially series fiction, in certain quarters of the literary world). It's unfortunate that the Wyatt books are so inaccessible to readers outside Australia, but if serious readers haven't discovered the widely available Challis/Destry books, they have only themselves to blame.

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