Pluto Crime: Pluto Press and the thriller genre May 31, 2008Posted by WorldbyStorm in Books, Culture.
Is this familiar to anyone? [click on the image to enlarge] If not, to jog memories, it’s from this…
Some of you may recall from the late 1980s a series of books issued by Pluto Press under the Pluto Crime imprint. Chapters Bookshop in Dublin, then just off Henry Street, had a box load of them and sometime around 1989 I bought about eight of them at a discounted price.
The imprint had a cute logo with the PP of Pluto Press rendered as a bloody red fingerprint. Clever.
Characterised for the most part by unrelenting gloom the books were fairly throwaway. But not entirely. There were three or four which I thought were able to operate as thrillers and left-wing books. I don’t find that entirely unsurprising. Previously the issue of dissidence against the establishment in the Len Deighton thrillers has been discussed.
But this was different insofar as they were explicitly left wing. Now this ranged from a sort of cynical approach to international affairs to Manuel Vazquez Montalban’s novel “Murder in the Central Committee”. Central Committee of the… well if you haven’t guessed the party, let’s just say it has Communist and Spanish in its name.
I’m not sure that the quote from the Times:
“Is there anything inherently illogical with the concept of socialist – or, at least, politically and socially aware – crime fiction? Pluto Press publishers of serious left wing books, have inaugurated a crime list to prove that the two can mix… the first batch of pinko whodunits augurs well for the genre…
…is correct. And I’m almost entirely certain that the Guardian was simply wrong when it called it the ‘most innovative publishing experiment of the crime-story year!’, but at the same time it was much broader than one might imagine in terms of topic. For example, Nancy Milton’s “The China Option” was a geo-political thriller dealing with a left opposition developing inside the PRC. Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman was a vaguely leftist crime novel dealing with a Navajo police detective in the US. The Dark Red Star by Ivan Ruff was a pretty good thriller touching on a former British PM who might or might not be a Soviet spy. Here is the opening page…
October Heat by Gordon DeMarco dealt with a hard-boiled leftwing PI in San Francisco in the 1940s (unions, Red Scares, and suchlike were the backdrop) while Junk on the Hill by Jeremy Pikser took a fairly cynical look at therapy and ‘new age’ tropes in the US.
Unsurprisingly, to me at least, Julian Rathbone, a very fine writer with a decidedly left wing approach contributed two books to the series, The Euro-Killers and Watching the Detectives. Both were quite excellent (and those who followed his career both before and after may know that he has subsequently written some brilliantly sardonic novels rooted in English history).
So, did it work? Well, not entirely. Many of the books were a bit slight, perhaps rushed from first or second draft to publication. Some were trying too hard to be left-wing. Nor did the blurbs help. For example, the Anvil Agreement dealt with big pharma, and was described as ‘…a medical thriller of Coma standards…’ (Coma being a popular medical thriller and later film…).
Well. Coma standards, you say? That low? Alright then.
For my money, while no classic, the best was arguably Days Like These by Nigel Fountain, as far as I can make out an SWP member. It had a party member coming across a fascist conspiracy, of sorts. Somehow it did convincingly convey something of the tone of London in the late 1980s and the nature of the politics too. Drug taking, gloomy sexual politics, an old Communist of the CPGB persuasion who was written about in a much more admiring way than one might imagine, and the Establishment and the real Establishment all made appearances. And enjoyably murky and cynical it all was.
That said, I can imagine many publishers resiling from the idea that they would promote ‘left’ or indeed ‘right’ books, simply because that might limit their readership. And, of course, while it is always nice to find a book which perhaps shares aspects of ones world view, there are many authors whose beliefs are quite different and distinct who nonetheless establish themselves as favourites. And in part that was perhaps a crucial problem with the idea. Crime and political thrillers have often tended to work from the basis of opposition, whether to the establishment, social structures or even states, they tend to pitch an individual against a system. I can, and I’m sure you as well, list off scores of leftish political thrillers from that time and afterwards.
They work, or fail, not because of their political stance, but in large part because of the sense of the individual against greater forces, be they wealth, corrupt police forces or whatever. Now, that of course is a political stance, but somehow to rope the collective, or aspects of collective action into such works is more difficult.
I’d love to know how the series fared, how long it lasted and did the books sell? Anyone know?