In recent years the growth of oral history projects in many countries testifies to the importance now given to popular experience, memory and activity recoverable through personal interviews.footnote Many of these projects have concentrated on experiences of working life, family life, women’s work and political activity, the struggle against Fascism and the experience of war, trade-union and socialist politics, childhood recollections, and other kinds of direct, lived experience. Less attention has been paid to people’s popular cultural experiences: the books they read, the films they saw, the music they listened to, the paintings and posters they remember, and the way in which these cultural–aesthetic experiences affected their lives. One’s intuition has been that in earlier periods of working-class political activity, reading played an important part in widening people’s understanding of the world, and poetry and fiction were often used as a form of moral confirmation that the world-view implied by socialist internationalism was one shared by many writers. In an earlier nlr essay I examined the work of some British working-class writers in the 1930s who looked to aesthetic traditions—like expressionism—which were not to hand in British literary culture at the time.footnote1 In this essay I want to look at the way, in much the same period, that many working-class people in Britain, particularly those active on the left, looked to writers in other countries for forms of literature which addressed themselves more directly to the emotional and political experiences which their class position had brought to bear upon their lives.

The initial impulse for this essay arose out of a conversation some years ago with an elderly working-class political activist which has stayed in my mind, although the exact circumstances of the discussion have been forgotten. I had asked him about popular reading amongst his friends when he was younger, and he answered in words to the effect that: ‘Of course, you must realize, a lot of men were very keen on American paperbacks—detective stories particularly; you wouldn’t get them reading novels out of the library’. More recently I have made a point of asking about early reading patterns and preferences when interviewing older labour movement activists, and have had this assertion confirmed: that the interest in American writing of various kinds was significant and had important implications for the development of a popular vernacular style of writing in Britain. For instance, in an interview with Jack Dash, the retired rank-and-file dockers’ leader, the first writer whom he mentioned as an important influence was Theodore Dreiser, the founding author of American naturalism. A list of other American writers quickly followed—John Dos Passos, James Farrell, Upton Sinclair; and this register of preferences has been repeatedly invoked, with additions, by other working-class readers and writers whom I have interviewed.

If the broader ‘American connection’ is obvious, in this essay I want to concentrate on one particular genre within the body of twentieth-century American writing: the detective novel or ‘thriller’. The study of this genre, it seems to me, most centrally raises the important question of a symbiotic link between genre writing and mainstream fiction in which, often, the genre writing is actually in the vanguard of exploring new narrative techniques, using vernacular styles of language democratically and unselfconsciously, and taking fiction into new geographical and social areas of life where the conventional novel is disinclined to venture. Moreover, against critics who wash their hands of popular literature,footnote2 I would cite the understanding of Gramsci, who insisted that one had to engage with and find a way of ‘framing the question of what is called popular literature, that is of the success, among the masses of the people, of the feuilleton (adventure stories, thrillers, crime fiction, etc.), a success which owes a good deal too to the cinema and the newspapers. And it is this question which constitutes the greater part of the problem of the new literature as the expression of intellectual and moral renewal: for it is only among the readers of popular fiction that we shall find a sufficient and necessary public to create the cultural base for a new literature.’footnote3 And this is why the key role of American fiction in the development of British vernacular writing has to be understood, and why in particular it was within the genre of the American detective novel that certain writers were able to develop this popular form of literature into a sustained literary critique of urban capitalism, portraying human alienation in much more specific ways than conventional literature was at that point able to do.

The genre of the detective novel established itself from the First World War onwards as the most popular fictional form in European and American culture.footnote4 Significantly, historians of the genre, such as Julian Symons, point to William Godwin’s The Adventures of Caleb Williams or Things As They Are as the first novel to use a murder mystery as the central incident. As Godwin’s sub-title indicates quite directly, the murder itself and its attendant ramifications were very much a device around which a political critique of prevailing economic and social relationships could be assembled. The false imprisonment of the main character is used by Godwin as the excuse for a lengthy and bitter attack on despotism, and reads even today as an admirable anarchist text. Caleb Williams was published just one year after the dangerously radical Inquiry into the Principles of Political Justice and might fairly, though not exclusively, be accounted for as expressing in fictional form some of Godwin’s more direct political sentiments, as well as emotionally displacing genuine fears concerning his own personal safety, having sown the wind of political rights. The novel is also a story of arbitrary persecution and the adoption of a fugitive life, published in the decade which was to see the establishment of the first working-class political organization, the London Corresponding Society, and its rapid suppression.

Such radical origins were in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries partially displaced as the crime novel increasingly became a vehicle for the celebration of the property rights which wilful murder threatened to overturn or usurp. Thus in Godwin’s novel the reader is made well aware that ‘the law was better adapted for a weapon or tyranny in the hands of the rich, than for a shield to protect the humbler part of the community against their usurpations’. By the time of the era of the great gentlemen-detectives, however, the genre had become the perfect fictional form for the sacramentality of the executive institutions of the state. Audacious plots to steal the Crown Jewels, rob the Bank of England, poison cabinet ministers, counterfeit the legal tender of the realm, supplant false wills and thus break the ideological continuity of inheritance and primogeniture, issue false share certificates in a deliberate attempt to bankrupt the major companies; all these insidious projects were foiled by the superior minds of gentlemen close to the heart of the Establishment (meeting usually in one of the better London Clubs), whose principal task was to ensure the continuity and extension of the English ruling class, at home or abroad.

Yet even these novels could not but reveal (as do all genre discourses) some of the major ideological moods and apprehensions of their times. Walter Benjamin in One Way Street thought that such novels in their descriptions of the ornate settings of the country houses and apartments, rich with tapestries, crowded with heavy dark wooden furniture, exotic ornaments and potted plants, revealed in a way other novels did not, ‘part of the bourgeois pandemonium’.footnote5 Carlo Ginzburg more recently has outlined a detailed analogy between principles of crime detection as exemplified by Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and the near contemporaneous principles of art detection as formulated by Giovanni Morelli and the observations of Freud in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.footnote6 All three ‘detectives’ were developing theories based on the belief that it was in the seemingly insignificant gestures and details of human behaviour that the real clues to the personality were to be found.

The more exotic of the British novels of the period after Sherlock Holmes have been scrutinized by Claud Cockburn in his study, Bestseller.footnote7 Apart from a general glorification of British imperialism, many of these novels contained a strong vein of anti-semitism, often linked with the menace of Bolshevism, together with a portrayal of the working class as an atavistic mob battering down the park railings. ‘Consols are down to sixty-five!’ is the newspaper headline which marks the full moment of horror in Guy Thorne’s When It Was Dark (1903). Towards the end of Cockburn’s period of study comes Warwick Deeping’s immensely popular Sorrell and Son, a novel about middle-class failure partly compensated by the determination to hand something on and thus keep the continuity of inheritance intact: ‘Sorrell found his poetry in figures. He was enjoying the romance of hard cash. These glittering sixpences, shillings, florins and half-crowns, they were the stars above his immediate world, and of far more significance and import than the stars. His means to an end, material plunder for immaterial needs. For with his savings he was going to arm his son against a world that babbled of socialism but still clutched a knife or a club . . . Only the indispensable and the individual few would be able to rise above the scramble of the industrial masses. It is the few who matter and who will always matter. So Sorrell thought.’footnote8