This town needs an enema: town-cleansing novels

by Patrick J. Lambe

"I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better."

Dashiel Hammett, Red Harvest

There’s a type of noir story that I’m particularly fond of; the basic plot is simple: one man cleans out a corrupt town. Although developed in the pulps as far back as the 1870s and 1880s, this motif was more often seen in the western than the crime novel until Hammett's Red Harvest.

Perhaps I’m drawn to this type of story because I grew up in New Jersey, a vulture’s flight away from Tammany Hall, the words synonymous with corruption on a community-wide scale. My state is the home of Asbury Park, made famous by Springsteen songs and the Sopranos. It was once a thriving shore destination, now a crime-ridden, scary place, populated by the skeletons of abandoned convention halls and resorts half-built before they were bankrupted by the actions of a long line of corrupt city officials. The Mayor was recently convicted for trying to bribe a former councilwoman for her vote about waterfront development projects. The town looks too gritty to serve as a location for a sequel to the movie Blade Runner.

The current governor’s last name is listed on the state literature as McGreevy, but pronounced McGreedy by a population who, in addition to not being able to pronounce their r’s seems to have a hard time with their v’s. His recent resignation—supposedly because of his homosexuality—follows a litany of allegations of corruption; from sticking the taxpayers with the bill for a ‘trade mission’ to his ancestral home in Ireland, to a string of scandalous political appointments and associations with a number of campaign supporters whose defining characteristic seems to be the disregard for political contribution laws.

One Lonely NightMickey Spillane uses this theme of cleaning up a town to mirror the political situation of the time he was writing about. The communist party was America’s post WWII enemy and Spillane’s Mike Hammer takes them on when they corrupt New York with their foul red stench in One Lonely Night, first published in 1951. This was the time of the McCarthy commie witch hunts, a time when artists could be blacklisted for even the accusation of communist tendencies or associations with known or suspected communists. Dashiel Hammett, blacklisted and hounded by the IRS, was a victim of this dark period in American Politics. He served six months in jail for refusing to cooperate with the House of Un-American Committee in 1951.

Mike Hammer takes a more direct approach than innuendo and accusation in the way he dealt with the red menace: he killed them in huge numbers and seemed to get a small amount of enjoyment in the work: ‘I killed more people tonight than I have fingers on my hand. I shot them in cold blood and enjoyed every minute of it. I pumped slugs in the nastiest bunch of bastards you ever saw and here I am calmer than I’ve ever been, and happy too. They were Communists, Lee. They were red sons-of-bitches who should have died long ago…"

The corrupt east coast doesn’t have a monopoly on towns ruined by avarice, run by the criminals. Our ancestors packed bibles when they mounted their covered wagons and headed out west to fulfill their manifest destiny in the Promised Land (already bought and paid for by politically connected speculators who steered them to less arable lands so they could get better prices from expanding railroad companies). They also found room in their baggage for patronage jobs, fixed voting machines, and the ward political system. Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest is the classic story of corruption out of control in the west.

Mining magnate Elihu Wilsson called in some tough characters to break a strike a few years back and now they’re basically running the town. Old Elihu Wilsson (1) ‘was seen as a version of George Hearst, the Montana mine owner whose son William controlled California newspapers and politics in Hammett’s day.’

Red HarvestThe Continental Op’s initial client, the magnate’s son, Donald, is murdered before their first meeting, and a grief stricken Elihu foolishly gives the OP a large amount of money and free reign to ‘investigate corruption in the city of Personville.’ It’s a big job, and the Op takes to it with an enthusiasm bordering on insanity. He winds up going ‘blood simple like the natives." The Op doesn’t have much of a plan, he decides to ‘stir it up’. During the course of stirring it up the Op shoots a cop, fixes a fight, arranges a few murders, blows up a warehouse, and possibly kills a woman with an ice pick.

Personville was partially based on Butte, Montana, and the labor problems the town was experiencing with the Anaconda Copper Company. IWW labor organizer Frank Little was lynched from a railroad trestle on August 1, 1917. A note that said "First and last warning" was attached to his chest. The police never really pursued the crime, and there is speculation about the cause of the lynching: his anti-war stance or his trade union activities. Rumors that the Pinkertons were involved in the hit was one of the reasons that Hammett left the agency and took up the cause of communist policies that were to cause him so much trouble later on in his life. Rumor has it that Hammett was personally offered $5,000 to kill Little.

The Op cleaned up the town but returned control to its initial corruptor, old Elihu, leaving the populace in the situation faced by many voters the morning after Election Day in the United States: the lesser of two evils. This is another feature of this type of story: although the protagonist is changed by the conflict—generally for the worse—the corrupt nature of the town doesn’t change one bit; just the names of the crooks running it.

Perhaps in Mike Hammer’s case this isn’t entirely true; he was a violent man before the conclusion of the story. Hammer is under no delusions about his true nature and his relationship to the communists he has brought down: ‘I was evil. I was evil for the good. I was evil and he knew it. I was worse than they were, so much worse that they couldn’t stand the comparison. I had one, good, efficient, enjoyable way of getting rid of cancerous Commies. I killed them."

Hammett used this motif of one man against a corrupt government several times in his Continental Op Stories. In ‘This King Business’ the Op cleans up a Balkan country and in ‘Corkscrew’, a small Arizona town.

The cause of corruption in each of Spillane’s and Hammet’s books mirror their own politics. Right wing Spillane’s Mike Hammer takes on Communists and Hammet’s Continental Op takes on the Capitalists. Interestingly though, the two protagonists use the same method to clean up their respective town—excessive violence—an American trait that transcends political affiliation

This theme is particularly well represented in the movies with High Plains Drifter being an example from the western roots of the story, Chinatown dealing with the control of water rights, incest and other noir themes, and Copland about the shady dealings in my own beloved Garden State.

Americans didn’t invent corruption on a citywide scale. That trait came over on the very first trip, enriched by succeeding generations of each new wave of immigrants, each of whom changed the accent, but not the essential methods used to subvert our political system. Graft was used as the founding stone to our first permanent settlement: Jamestown Virginia. Bacons Rebellion was largely a fight between two factions over patronage jobs and trading rights with the local Indians.

There aren’t as many stories of this type among the English line of noir books because it seems to have risen out of the traditions of the American West, although its germination can be seen right at the beginnings of English literature in Beowulf’s efforts to clean up Hrothgar’s mead hall.

My family comes from Jersey City, New Jersey, an Irish lineage with two sides: firemen and policemen. I’ll be the first to admit that perhaps not all of my ancestors studied (or even bothered to show up) for the civil service exams. Jersey City was the home of Frank Hauge, a political boss of the 1920s who (2)"delivered on public services such as street cleaning, police and fire response to calls. Hague himself used to go for walks at night and call in emergency calls to the police and fire department and time the response. If the police or firemen were slow in responding they would be punished by Hague, usually verbally but occasionally physically with a punch in the face." Hague had political rival John Longo arrested, twice, on trumped-up charges, and he somehow managed to amass millions of dollars in property on a salary of $8,000.

Journal Square, the transportation hub of Jersey City, was once quite swank— especially for a place like Jersey City. (3) ‘It went rotten pretty fast. I don’t know when or why, but I’m sure it had a lot to do with the fact that the Square was the terminus for both the commuter trains from Newark and the Hudson Tubes from NYC (in the days before the modern Port Authority), thus assuring a constant flow of the lowest and meanest specimens of society. Plus, this place was always an overstock room for the loser who couldn’t make in NYC, or were too afraid to try.’

I like the name Journal Square, the connotation to writing inferred by ‘journal’. My dad used to say, "if God wanted to give the world an enema, he’d put the tube right down in the center of Journal Square." This may make an interesting visual, but I’d rather read about a stubborn hard-headed tough guy who doesn’t know when to quit, and really isn’t doing the town all that much good. I guess it’s the sentimentalist in me.

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Copyright © 2004 Patrick J. Lambe

1) Marling, William. Hard-Boiled Fiction. Case Western Reserve University. Updated 2 August 2001.

2) Jersey City Online, Frank Hauge

3) Todd Barmann: Unpublished article about Jersey City.
Contact Todd

Further Reading/Sources/Viewing

Atlantic City: Pictures (not for the squeamish). This web site has some excellent pictures.

Bacon’s Rebellion

Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States, Harper and Row Publishers, 1980.

Read an extract from Patrick J. Lambe's Carlisle's Marker

PATRICK J. LAMBE lives in the wonderfully corrupt state of New Jersey where he works as a telephone technician and writes crime fiction. He is also an artist whose work has appeared in numerous art shows. He just had an innovative idea: if you can have a casting couch for the movies, why not books? Like most of his innovative ideas he’ll probably forget about this one when he sobers up.
Contact Patrick

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