James Lee Burke hits the nail on the head when he talks about how good crime stories have become the last refuge of the sociological novel. I like to point out that Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, came out in 1929, the same year as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and which novel do you think had more real observations to make about contemporary life? Hammett showed his readers a grimy industrial city where the wealthy and the criminal class had come together to destroy a labor union, and in the aftermath continued in a state of dangerous balance, corrupt from top to bottom and ready to collapse at a touch. As Burke himself notes, James T. Farrell’s 1930s novels about Studs Lonigan were, at heart, crime stories. John D. MacDonald never enjoyed much critical esteem for most of his career, but a book like Bright Orange for the Shroud, centered on a semi-legal real estate scam in mid-1960s Florida, will tell you more about what was turning sour and mean in mid-twentieth-century America than most other novels of its time.
This will no doubt come as a shock to Tom Wolfe, who wore out the shoulders of his ice-cream suits while patting himself on the back for paying attention to American society in The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and his other notebook-dump novels. Those novels had their virtues, but Wolfe didn’t seem to grasp that someone like MacDonald could pack just as much sociological observation into a slender paperback original, all without getting into pissing matches with John Irving.