I don't read very much hard-boiled detective fiction, but I have read enough to know that the genre is a type of horror fiction, and like all horror, is based on goodness and order being attacked by evil and chaos.
A fine example of this is John D. MacDonald's 1979 novel, The Green Ripper, a book I read only because Stephen King praised it. A horror writer praising a detective novel about MacDonald's famous anti-hero, Travis McGee? It made me curious.
It turns out King was right in his assessment. Like all good writers, MacDonald has acute insight into human nature, a nature that sometimes is not such a great thing. In the case of The Green Ripper the human nature that McDonald writes about is the mind of the political terrorist. If you want to understand that mind, this is the novel to read.
How does a good writer have such insight? MacDonald describes McGee, underneath his hard exterior, as "unusually sensitive, intelligent and imaginative." McGee is obviously a part of MacDonald. Perhaps those traits are absolutely necessary to truly understand people.
I had not read anything by MacDonald before, although I have heard of McGee. McGee is one in a long line of those loners/heroes who do what little they can to put things right. McGee calls it "doing my little knight-like thing." Such a character is brother to Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, and, currently, F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack.
I'm not giving anything away here, since it's on the cover of the book, but the plot concerns the murder of the only love of McGee's life. McGee, just like every one of his kind from Edward Dantes to Gully Foyle, hunts down those responsible for his loss.
The question, as it always is in cases like these, is if McGee seeks vengeance or justice. Men like McGee, and those like him, have a moral code they are actually willing to enforce. They don't make their own laws; indeed, although it's always unstated, they believe in Natural Law, most especially the one about "do not murder." And they are willing to personally deal out a great deal of violence, death and destruction to the guilty parties (and they are always very guilty of terrible crimes).
Are people like McGee what happens when they seek justice (or revenge) instead of allowing the government to do it? Or are they created because the government fails in its responsibility to enforce justice? Every one of these characters is outside the law because the law does not function. Obviously these characters touch a nerve in people, and have for hundreds of years, ever since the modern novel was created. Clearly, there is a need for them. My view is these are the characters who do justice when the government fails in its job.
I at first used to read a great deal of science fiction, a genre about what is called "the sense of wonder." In a sentence, it can be described as "I want to live like that." It's partly a combination of admiration and envy. Horror fiction is just the opposite: "I do not want to live like that. Maybe I don't have the perfect life, but at least I don't have vampires or some Lovecraftian monster trying to suck me up in its maw."
Hard-boiled detective fiction, being horror fiction, is also about "I don't want to live like that." But there is more to it than that. Certainly readers don't want to have the life described, but there is a part of them that says, "I sympathize with what he is doing, indeed support him fully in it." Even though it involves all kinds of mayhem and multiple deaths (of the guilty), there is a part of the reader saying, "Go! Go!" People want to see justice done and the guilty punished.
And "go" is exactly what McGee does. And in his search for the killers he discovers exactly what makes political terrorists tick.
Potential terrorists are often marginal, ostracized people, or better yet, they think they are, which is essentially the same thing. Sometimes they have no community to which they belong, or any meaning or purpose to their lives, or love. People need these things, even if they are used for a bad purpose. They can't live without them. No one can live as an atom disconnected from everyone else.
McGee describes people as "herd animals, social and imitative." That is true, and anyone who underestimates the power of a cohesive group, whose members feel loved and who are united by what they consider a great, meaningful purpose, is making a very grave mistake. Eric Hoffer, in his book, The True Believer, understood as much as McDonald the terrible trouble that can be caused by a fanatical group that wants to change the world.
"Saving the world" is always an excuse for destroying and conquering it. Both Jesus and Aesop understood this, when both commented that all tyrants call themselves benefactors.
Here is probably the most important point: all terrorists see things as either good or bad, black or white, with nothing in-between. Of course, they see themselves as good, which is why they are paranoid about people whom they define as "evil" wanting to destroy them. Their defining themselves as purely good makes them utopians and idealists. As such, they believe in projecting "evil" onto others (the "scapegoating" of which I write so much), then attempting to destroy this evil, so from the ashes of what they consider a degraded society a new, better one can arise. Whom they destroy in the process is irrelevant; they are merely things, necessary sacrifices (one potential terrorist tells McGee they're aren't going to "waste" their munitions on military targets; women and children are much more "productive"). Ultimately, all terrorists are utopians. Perhaps all utopians and idealists are in some degree terrorists.
One thing these people always do is blame their problems on others. That's one of the lessons of the story of the Garden of Eden, one of the oldest and most perceptive myths that exists. These "others" are devalued into being evil and/or insane. Once these people are eradicated, terrorists believe only the good will be left.
MacDonald understands the relationship between utopianism, idealism and the perversion of religion (I define any perversion of religion as one in which everyone inside the religion is good and everyone outside is evil).
MacDonald's political terrorists belong to a religious cult called "the Church of the Apocrypha," one that believes in a self-created Armageddon. I'd go so far as to say that any religion that promotes Armageddon and the destruction of this world - and the people in it - is idealistic, utopian and therefore murderous, destructive and perverted. It appears to be MacDonald's view, too.
Art imitates life and human nature. Neither life nor human nature change. That's why The Green Ripper is applicable today. It's about a very small group of dedicated people who want to use violence, death and destruction to tear down a society so a new, better one can be built. If many innocent people are killed, they're necessary sacrifices. Such people are utopians and idealists. They have the mind of terrorists, even if they claim they are benefactors, a title they nearly always claim.
Ultimately, their sin is the worst one of all - the hubristic, satanic "monstrous ego" of which Russell Kirk wrote, the sin that is the source of all evil. When people think and act like earthly gods, they invariably turn into devils.
MacDonald opens the book with a quote from Santayana that is always relevant, most especially today: "Fanaticism is described as redoubling your effort when you've forgotten your aim." Idealists and utopians, being fanatics, are always redoubling their efforts because they, too, always forget their aims. These days, perhaps "fanaticism" should be spelled with a capital "F."