Book Review | A reckless man for nasty times

In a new series of three so far, the comic book duo of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips explore the pulp fiction detective as a hero who confronts class, power and injustice.

Since their first collaborations in the early 2000s, American writer Ed Brubaker and British comic book artist Sean Phillips have produced a phenomenal run of crime-centric comics in which lush illustration is perfectly combined with sharp characterisation and vivid, seedy dialogue. Works such as The Fade Out, set during the Hollywood Red Scare, and the continuing series Criminal offer immersive, noirstyle visions of the recent past while throwing a light on the injustices and absurdities of the present.

Their new series, which to date includes Reckless (2020), Friend of The Devil (2021) and the forthcoming Destroy All Monsters (2021), marks a shift in character focus. Though their work has included plenty of tormented anti-heroes and outright villains, Brubaker has told interviewers that in a time of Covid-19 and “actual fascists marching in the streets” he wanted to offer audiences a (relatively) more optimistic, affirmative central protagonist.

Enter Ethan Reckless, the title character and narrator of the new series. In 1980s Los Angeles, Reckless is a freelance trouble solver, sometimes doing it for the money but more often for a personal code of honour. He pursues justice when someone will not or cannot go to the authorities. This could involve finding a kidnapped dog or a husband who has callously discarded his family. But it might also entail running into sinister conspiracies involving CIA involvement in cocaine trafficking or far-right occultists with links to decadent Hollywood studio producers. 

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Reckless has a strong ethical code, but he is not morally spotless. He is haunted by a dark past involving the FBI and its political repression of the anti-Vietnam War movement, which he tries to soothe with weed, pills and surfing. And despite his noble ideals, he doesn’t “mind stealing from crooks”.

The series is set in the past but narrated from the vantage of the present. We see the progression from 1981, a time of hardcore punk rock and the invovement of elements of the United States security state in smuggling drugs to support the right-wing Contra movement in Nicaragua, to 1985, when crack cocaine is causing social havoc against a backdrop of Reaganomics and vacuous new-wave bands like Duran Duran. 

The contemporary narration subtly connects that decade to 2021, suggesting that our world of hyper-inequality and growing environmental collapse was prefigured by this era of financial and social excess.

In the steps of pulp heroes 

Brubaker explicitly situates the work in a popular literary tradition of pulp heroes and street avengers working outside the law to find truth and challenge injustice. The series contains direct allusions to the works of private eye fiction authors like Raymond Chandler, creator of Phillip Marlowe, and Ross MacDonald, author of the Lew Archer books.

An archetypal scene in these works is of the investigator being called into the palatial homes of the super-rich, which triggers a series of events that reveals that their fortunes are founded on crime, abuse and hypocrisy. As one character observes in Reckless, “rich people are like an alien species sometimes”.

In an interview with New Frame last year, novelist Lauren Beukes said the overlaps between class and crime are inseparable from detective fiction. Crime fiction shows “the fracture points of the city”, Beukes explained. “And that’s often where rich and poor meet and where the rich suppress the poor.” Despite often focusing on loner characters such as private eyes, detective fiction is profoundly social as the protagonists travel throughout the high, low and grey areas of cities, suburbs and beyond.

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As literary scholar Susanna Lee writes in Detectives in the Shadows – A Hard-Boiled History, the fictional archetype of the private investigator was created a century ago. In the aftermath of World War I, a time of an influenza pandemic and crushing economic depression, American pulp writers of the 1920s and 1930s offered a new type of hero. 

In contrast to posh detectives like Sherlock Holmes, these characters were proletarian, gritty and unafraid to break the law in pursuit of a higher justice. They often had law enforcement backgrounds, but had become outsiders to a police system they saw as broken or crooked. This directly reflected the cavernous inequalities of the Great Depression, where millions went from employment to finding themselves on breadlines – which Brubaker and Phillips recently explored in Pulp (2020). 

Figures such as author Dashiell Hammett’s the Continental Op and Sam Spade emerged. Hammett had worked as an investigator for the infamous Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which was known for violently breaking strikes and union activities. He even claimed that he was once asked to assassinate a local organiser. 

This experience left him with both a deep knowledge of the criminal underworld and a profound scepticism about the social order itself. “In Hammett,” wrote literary critic Steven Marcus, “society and social relations are dominated by the principle of basic mistrust … the representation of respectable American society is as much of a fiction and a fraud as the phony respectable society fabricated by the criminals. Indeed, he unwaveringly represents the world of crime as a reproduction in both structure and detail of the modern capitalist society that it depends on, preys off, and is part of.” 

Hammet’s later career would be marred by alcoholism and depression, while his political sympathies led him at one point to join the American Communist Party. During the anti-left “witch hunts” of the 1940s and 1950s he would refuse to offer testimony on other political activists and would be jailed for “un-American activities”. 

Rough, tough characters

Hammett’s example was developed by Chandler. Prior to creating the character of Phillip Marlowe, the author had been an oil executive fired for alcoholism while the US still had prohibition. In Marlowe, he created a detective that was at once gritty, urbane and suave – said to have been inspired by numerous real-life people, including Samuel Marlowe and Harry Raymond, who in 1938 survived a car-bombing attempt by corrupt Los Angeles Police Department officers. 

Marlowe is a mordant observer of the dangers of wealth and privilege. In The Long Goodbye (1953), the tycoon Harlan Potter lectures: “There’s a peculiar thing about money… In large quantities it tends to have a life of its own, even a conscience of its own. The power of money becomes very difficult to control … in our time we have seen a shocking decline in both public and private morals.” A fair point, Marlowe thinks, but ironic coming from someone who has “the political power of his newspapers and his bank accounts and the nine hundred guys who would trip over their chins trying to guess what he wanted done before he knew himself”. 

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But despite anti-elitists themes, much early detective fiction was shackled to an image of “tough white masculinity”, Lee writes in Detectives in the Shadows, with many of its prejudices and biases. This reached its reactionary nadir in the boorish figure of Mike Hammer, a Mickey Spillane-created private eye who is fanatically anti-communist and seems to revel in sadistic violence.

However, subsequent authors have reinvigorated detective fiction with diverse new perspectives on themes of not only class, but also race and gender. When creating her character Cassandra Raines, author Tracey Clark used the classic tropes while also recognising their limitations. 

Clark noted in a recent essay: “When I made her Black and female, I was also acutely aware that I had firmly locked her into a specific worldview and had rooted her in a rich community. I knew that she would come to the page much differently than Spade came to Hammett’s. She would have to be an outsider by virtue of her profession but also by virtue of her sex and race. She was a woman in a man’s world, a Black woman in a society that looked at her as ‘other’ everywhere but where she came from, regardless of how competent or intelligent I made her.” 

Modern-day criminals

In the Brubaker and Phillips series, Ethan comes across malevolent, powerful criminals who embody many of the most regressive and dangerous ideas of our time. Friend of The Devil, for instance, involves a mystery linked to a sinister 1970s cult called the Church of the Fallen, which seems to be inspired by the infamous real-world The Process Church of The Final Judgement. The Fallen’s sinister leader, Magnus Epoch, preaches a creed of extreme personal libertarianism and brutal domination: “he took what he’d learned from Goebbels, swiped some Aleister   Crowley, added a lot of acid in the mix. And thus was born a new saviour for the Apocalypse”. 

As Brubaker demonstrates, this kind of toxic individualism invariably results in the abuse of other people. In the 21st century, the growing neo-fascist movement around political leaders like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi has weaponised this extreme narcissism. Such demagogues not only tell their followers to blame social problems on racial and ethnic “others”, but also offer a dark vision of a world in which they can exploit and subjugate without restraint. 

Reckless links this to a deeper nihilism in capitalism itself. We see Ethan reading scientific reports that predict catastrophic environmental collapse in the coming century against the ticking clock of the world’s end, as industry “wasn’t going to stop pulling gas and oil out of the ground”.

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This despairing sense hangs over today. While all our scientific data are telling us that consumer capitalism is killing the planet, governments continue to enable corporate abuses and take only token efforts to address an existential threat to all of humanity.  It is compounded by a cultural paralysis in which it seems impossible to envision a better world and it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, a quotation attributed to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek.

In the face of rising seas and apocalyptic fires “lasting for whole seasons”, what is there to prevent Ethan from giving into despair and letting the “rich bastards” and neo-Nazi skinheads getting away with it? His answer is action. “I figure if we’re all doomed, if we’re all suffering, then why not try help people? Making someone else’s life a little better, even just for a few days.”

In the Reckless series, Brubaker and Phillips have created a pulp hero who embodies the most humanistic and anti-authorititarian aspects of the private eye archetype. These characters resonate because they speak to our hopes that, no matter how brutal and unfair the world is, we still have a personal capacity to be not only braver and more tenacious, but kinder too. As Chandler wrote in his critical essay on detective fiction in 1944, The Simple Art of Murder, the private eye offers the idea that common people can survive the “mean streets” of modern life without themselves becoming “mean and afraid”.

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