James Lee Burke states a truth that remains obscure to far too many critics: crime stories have taken the place of the Thirties-era social novel as chronicles of daily life, particularly its underside. No doubt about it. I think George Pelecanos is worth a dozen Don DeLillos when it comes to diagnosing society’s ills. Burke’s own recent novel The Tin Roof Blowdown had a lot of hard, angry things to say about the racism, greed, incompetence and social collapse that followed in the train of Hurricane Katrina. While Tom Wolfe talked about stalking the billion-footed beast, crime writers yawned — they didn’t simply stalk that beast, they had its address and cellphone number.
It’s been that way for decades. As the Roaring Twenties reached its dying fall, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms soaked up most of the critical ink, but Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, which took collusion between cops, gangsters and business leaders as a given, had a lot more to say about the way life worked. I’m a Steinbeck man to my last drop of heart’s blood, but if you were looking for a novel that addressed the moral decay of America at the start of the Sixties, the book to get would have been John D. McDonald’s A Flash of Green rather than Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent. That one was a paperback original while the other was a prestigious hardcover release only underscores the fact that art is where you find it, and insight turns up where you least expect it. (Burke interview via GalleyCat.)