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Pluto Crime: Pluto Press and the thriller genre May 31, 2008

Posted 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?


1. theblahstory - May 31, 2008

Sorry, but I don’t know anything about it.


2. WorldbyStorm - May 31, 2008

Someone will I hope…


3. harpymarx - May 31, 2008

I dunno either though I do remember “Murder in the Central Committee. Again, unsure why but all this reminds me of Ernest Mandel’s bk, Delightful Murder.
Oh, interestingly, during the late 80s/early 90s, there was an increase in feminist crime thrillers published by Women’s Press mainly (The Dog Collar Murders, for example, caused some controversy)


4. WorldbyStorm - May 31, 2008

Never read the Mandel book. Must do. I remember the Women’s Press books as well.


5. harpymarx - May 31, 2008

Well, it is an interesting bk and devotes quite a bit to Crichton’s Coma. I’d lend you my copy (think it is out of print) but my flat acts a bit like the Bermuda Triangle bks go missing…….


6. Phil - May 31, 2008

The Rathbones were terrific; he gets round the individual/collective problem by using as his hero an honourable but socially & politically conservative police officer, who tries to unmask some dodgy political machinations and gets crushed (see also Chinatown, Heatwave). I think he actually gets killed at the end of Watching the Detectives.

I only know those two and “Peter Durant”‘s Exterminating Angels, which is about an urban guerrilla group and the baby milk scandal; it didn’t impress me hugely, despite the intriguing subject matter, & I don’t remember much about it. “Peter Durant” (like “Nicci French”) was two people, Sarah Dunant and Peter Busby.

One other point: a quick google tells me that the series was launched by Pete Ayrton, an old Big Flame-r who later founded Serpent’s Tail. I either didn’t know or had forgotten he’d been at Pluto; I guess that would explain the diversification into genre fiction.


7. WorldbyStorm - May 31, 2008

Phil, I thought the detective did as well in Watching the Detectives, but I seem to recall he came back in a subsequent one. Rathbone is a deceptively great writer.

I kind of liked Exterminating Angel’s, like yourself not so much for the way it was written but for the concepts.

Cheers for that reference. Do you know whether they sold in any volume? The series was pretty extensive, at least a dozen titles…


8. WorldbyStorm - May 31, 2008

harpymarx, I thought Robin whathis/hername wrote Coma, but if it was Crichton I guess that puts it up perhaps half a notch! I’m no fan of Crichton. Bar the Andromeda Strain.


9. harpymarx - May 31, 2008

Indeed it was Robin Cook (not that Robin Cook but another) and Crichton did direct Coma. Though Andromeda Strain was good. Finally found me Mandel bk and he does compare Crichton’s film version and Cook’s book. Opps sorry. Get my facts straight next time. 🙂


10. WorldbyStorm - May 31, 2008

No, I have a file in my head where I actually know this stuff. I sort of wish I didn’t. Next up “Flowers in the Attic”…


11. harpymarx - June 1, 2008

Well, I have a file of useless information stored in my head usually about crap telly and film, which goes down well in pub quizzes etc. At least yours is of a literary value while mine is more kitch.


12. D.J.P. O'Kane - June 1, 2008

Does anyone remember ‘Kaddish Dublin’ about the investigation of the murder of an Irish Jewish judge. At first it’s assumed to be work of Palestinians, but transpires to be a crime perpetrated by Youth Defence types.

An intriguing premise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Unfortunately the book (which I didn’t bother finishing) was unbelievably dull.


13. CL - June 1, 2008

‘Kaddish in Dublin’-by John Brady. I liked it.


14. WorldbyStorm - June 1, 2008

DJP, I don’t, anyone know who published it?


15. ejh - June 1, 2008

Constable (1990) 0094700702
Arrow (1991) 0099847507

You have just been assisted by a qualified librarian. Please show your gratitude by making a contribution.


16. Mick Hall - June 1, 2008

How about’ The man who killed Durruti by Pedro De Paz, published by a Christie Books offshoot Read and Noir.[I kid you not]

I really enjoyed it, I cannot remember how i came across it, it is about the death of the great Spanish libertarian’s death. Stuart also has a pretty good site for documentaries and films


17. WorldbyStorm - June 1, 2008

Cheers ejh. Nice one.

Mick, never read it. Durruti. Now there’s a name to conjure with… cracking band too…


18. Judy Baton - June 21, 2008

It’s great to find a discussion of Pluto Crime fiction!

I’ve been trying to remember the name and author of a book published by Pluto Crime (and which I bought in San Francisco), which starts out with a turn-of-the-last century murder of a Russian immigrant who may or may not have been an anarchist, and then jumps to the then-present time with a coverup of that earlier crime.

It could have been “Days Like These” by Nigel Fountain. Does that book start with an early murder? The cover looks familiar. If not, do you possibly remember that book — title and author; I’d like to read it again.

Current-day Pluto, which began in 1987, wrote me that the folks who ran the earlier publishing house went broke. The new outfit publishes left wing stuff but no fiction.


19. WorldbyStorm - June 21, 2008

Hi Judy, thanks a million for that. A terrible pity it went broke.

Yeah, it is Days Like These. As it happens the one I like best from the series…


20. Judy Baton - June 21, 2008

Thanks so much…

I checked last night on abebooks.com and found that a dealer who specializes in left wing books in San Francisco, Bolerium Books, has a copy and I’ll go this afternoon to pick it up.

Without the thread you started on Pluto Crime fiction (which I picked up by Googling “Pluto Crime”, it might have taken me a lot longer to figure this out.

What put me in mind of that book is that I’m currently reading “The Lazarus Project” by Aleksandar Hemon, a fictionalized account of the murder of Lazarus Averbuch in 1908 in Chicago by the Chicago Chief of Police. It was claimed that Averbuch was an anarchist and the novel,features a present day investigation of the murder by a Bosnian-born writer who lives in Chicago.



21. WorldbyStorm - June 21, 2008

You’re very welcome. It’s a weird era we live in. It’s so easy to buy up stuff relatively cheaply online. I bought a couple of PP Crime titles a few years back for next to nothing.

I’ll check out that book. Sounds intriguingly parallel to Days Like These.


22. Judy Baton - June 23, 2008

Probably closer in approach to “Days Like These” was “The Penny Ferry” by Rick Boyer. It involves someone in the current day being attacked and hounded because he has found photographs that would expose a frameup that took place decades before in a world famous case (No mention of which one in case you want to read it and be surprised.). Not published by Pluto.

From time to time I’ve had the feeling that some relatively well known mystery writers had been “around” the left in their day — perhaps not even fellow travelers, but, “around.” One was Kenneth Millar, who wrote as Ross McDonald. His protagonist Lew Archer once remarked when he couldn’t get information from what we call “Directory Assistance” here in the States, that it was “the telephone operators’ Internationale.” There were a few other references that made me think he was not hostile, anyway.


23. WorldbyStorm - June 23, 2008

I’ll try to source Boyer, thanks. That’s very true about writers. Jonathan Kellerman wrote a book at the turn of the 90s which was v. leftist in tone, far too much to have been merely a dip in and out. I’ve mentioned Len Deighton before who early on was clearly influenced by Marxism, and of course there’s Eric Ambler further back who was initially v. left wing but never quite lost it.


24. Judy Baton - June 23, 2008

There were also a few writers for the left wing press here in the US who wrote mysteries under a different name, back in the 1940s..

Robert Finnegan wrote under the name Mike Quin for the Daily People’s World and also published a few books — one was “The Big Strike” about the 1934 San Francisco General Strike; others were collections of his essays and columns. But Mike Quin was his pen name and he wrote a few mysteries under his own name. They reflected a sense of class injustice but I don’t recall any specific references to the left.


MARTIN Roger - March 4, 2011

Robert Finnegan was an alias. His true name was Paul W. Ryan. I have devoted a complete issue of my fanzine Hard-Boiled Dicks to him.
Sincerely yours,
Roger Martin ( France)


25. WorldbyStorm - June 23, 2008

Interesting. Any other suggestions from others to add to these lists?


26. Mototom - October 8, 2008

I read “Days Like These” and “Murder in the Cetral Commitee” but I recall (possibly wrongly) that it was mid 80’s. What was clear though was that Nigel Fountain accurately described the left wing underbelly of London at that time. I remeber being impressed with “Murder in the Central Committe” (which I thought was an awful title). My main memory of it now was that running through it was a discussion/argument of the comparable merits of the food in Madrid versus that in Barcelona. As it happens I am currently reading the Pluto Crime novel written by Peter Dunant, “Exterminating Angels”. Peter Dunant is the pen name of Peter Busby and Sarah Dunant. Don’t know about him, but Sarah dunant is an arts broadcaster. The book is about a bunch of well heeled terorists with a sense of the ironic – not so topical then.


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