Mark Twain wrote that,”Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” I would claim that novels can play a similar role. On the other hand, Cecil B. DeMille, when asked about the message contained in his latest picture commented that, “If I wanted to send a message, I’d use Western Union.” Our primary duty as mystery writers is to entertain, but many of us feel that even genre fiction can also contain profound ethical insights and illuminate social and political issues in all their rich complexity. The authors I enjoy have a distinctive world view that permeates their work. They are presenting a philosophy whether they intend to do so or not. Wayne Booth, in his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, argues that the astute reader has a duty to critically engage the ethics of a work of fiction. Reading the wrong works can undermine our character just as surely as hanging around with friends who are a bad influence. Reading truly ethical works can help us expand our moral vision, undermine our parochial viewpoints, and illuminate the possibility of individuals heroically transcending the everyday morality of their parents and society that is the essence of all ethical progress and reform.
We in detective fiction have the added burden that any didactic functions we wish to explore in our writing must be buried within a suspense- and plot-heavy, all-too-often formulaic medium. But the ethical message is always there, for good or bad, naïve or profound, conscious or unconscious. Noël Carroll argues, in The Philosophy of Horror, that both detective and horror fiction are fundamentally about morality. Each begins with a violent suspension of the norm. The monster metaphorically or the murderer literally represent aberrations in the ethical norm that cannot be tolerated. They hearken back to the ancient Greek belief that a horrible sin, unless found out and rectified, can infect the entire community. Marlowe or Van Helsing must engage the aberration and re-knit the torn fabric of ethical normality. On this view the detective or horror hero is a modern Oedipus engaged on a fundamentally conservative mission. But if the source of the horror or corruption is society itself as in the science fiction horror films of the 50’s commenting on McCarthyism or the Bomb, or in the racism encountered by Chester Himes Harlem detectives Coffin Johnson and Gravedigger Jones or by James Sallis’ New Orleans detective Lew Griffin, then the hero must transcend the norm or even rip the fabric of ethical normality himself to reweave it into a more just pattern. The variations are endless, including undermining or openly violating the audience’s expectations. In the film Chinatown (Roman Polanski (dir.)/Robert Towne (wr.)), the detective Jake Gittes pursues corruption to its deepest extreme, but there is no happy restoration of morality—the corruption is both endemic to his society and stained into the fabric of human nature, beyond redemption. It is a near perfect illustration of the nihilism that permeated American fiction in the early ‘70s.
The really interesting moral dilemmas are the ones where there are no easy answers, with seemingly valid perspectives seeing the same thing from contradictory viewpoints. One of Batman’s nemeses is Ra’s al Gulh (forget the portrayal and motivations of that character in Batman Beyond—I’m speaking of the Ra’s al Gulh as created in DC comics by writer Dennis O’Neil and others) who strives to protect the environment from human devastation even if it means eliminating the vast bulk of humans. In his own mind, Ra’s is the hero and Batman a noble but misguided opponent. Ra’s even attempts to convince Batman to join his crusade as his heir. William B. Davis, the actor who played the Cigarette Smoking Man on the X-Files, explained how he found a way to play the “villain” so convincingly—he simply imagined that he was the real hero of the series constantly trying to foil the misguided efforts of Fox Mulder which threatened to ruin plans necessary for both national security and the survival of our species.
But most of us write of moral ambiguity and complexity on a less apocalyptic and more personal scale. In our first novel Hacksaw and in a subsequent short story entitled Death on the Bayou (soon to be published in the anthology A Death in Texas) my brilliant coauthor Charlotte Phillips and I explore the complexities of Houston’s homeless population. One of our colleagues in the Houston writer’s group The Final Twist Society, Laura Elvebak, also expertly explores the plight of the homeless in her novel Less Dead. My interest in the moral ambiguities surrounding homelessness began with a book called The Mole People by Jennifer Toth. She admirably documents the diversity and particularity of the mad, the unlucky, the addicted, and the alienated who inhabit the tunnels beneath New York City. She also describes the wide variety of reactions to the homeless from the socially integrated above.
My own reactions to encounters with the homeless, beggars, and the wandering mad have always been ambiguous and confusing. I am agoraphobic and always try to avoid contact with strangers that might be unpredictable or confrontational. Beggars at stoplights, especially aggressive ones, make me intensely uncomfortable. But I was also raised on ancient Greek mythology. Zeus is the protector of the supplicant at the door of the rich and powerful, and often appears in the guise of a beggar to test the generosity of those who have tasted of the draught of good fortune. A Greek was well aware that the wheel of fate turns for all men. The high and mighty of today may be the fallen of tomorrow and vice versa. And the Greeks well understood the sin of hubris. To shun the unlucky and to deny them a meal and a place to sleep in their wanderings, to despise them because they were supposedly not as smart, or industrious, or simply less powerful than oneself, would be to invite the gods to indulge in divine poetic justice. No man could ever tell whether or not some ragged beggar might turn out to be a hero in disguise ready to string the bow that only brave Odysseus could bend and wreak a terrible vengeance. I’m not a religious man, but in every encounter with the homeless, I remember the stories and pause.
One day on the commute home from work I saw a homeless man standing on the lawn of a church. It was raining and, seeing the silver lining in every cloud, the man had stripped naked and was busy lathering up for a good shower. I mentioned this incident to a colleague of mine. I quickly realized that we were on completely different wavelengths. She assumed that I was as offended by the homeless man’s shower as she would have been and launched into a diatribe against the aggressive, predatory, offensive, unseemly, and often fraudulent behavior of Houston’s vast homeless population. I explained that I was not in fact offended by nudity; that the church setting suggesting both sanctuary and charity was entirely appropriate, that for all I knew some god had arranged that warm summer shower that day for the express sole purpose of providing the man with a refreshing wash, and all other things being equal I preferred the desperately poor to be well groomed. She proceeded to mention how children might have seen the incident and how horrible that would be. I naturally responded that I doubted any children would be scarred for life by the mere sight of a penis and that American attitudes towards the human body seem to wildly and inconsistently oscillate somewhere between Cotton Mather’s and Caligula’s. Every four years I write the International Olympic Committee in my so far futile quest to have the Games held clothing-free as were the Games in ancient days. Besides, wouldn’t it be more positive to teach children not just to tolerate the eccentric and the harmlessly mad but, as many other cultures do, to provide the mad and the eccentric with a special cachet, to see them as touched by the gods, their vision of reality altered for some divinely mysterious purpose.
Needless to say she was not convinced. My degree is in philosophy and I’ve found that almost no one, including other philosophers, is ever convinced by reasoned argument (or at least my reasoned arguments). Fiction can be so much more effective (Frighteningly effective. Please remember Uncle Ben’s line from Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”) . Getting to know the homeless, desperately poor, and mad as fleshed out, believable characters slips the reader across a prejudicial barrier. By seeing the homeless through the eyes of a sympathetic character that they have come to identify with, readers are gently asked to reevaluate their own reactions and to temporarily suspend their unquestioned judgments. I believe that fiction, even, and perhaps especially, genre fiction is the modern democratic forum for ethical discussion. We can and should be conscious contributors to that ongoing dialogue.
Mark Phillips weaves social themes throughout is fictional works which include:
Hacksaw, First in the Eva Baum Detective Series
The Resqueth Revolution (Jan. 2009 release)
Death on the Bayou (A Death in Texas anthology)