A Story I Love : Batman's Helpers (Guest Post)
Today, I am happy to welcome the author of Invisible Dead and the recently reviewed Cut You Down Sam Wiebe, for a guest post. This will be a two-parter, with the sequel coming on February 13, the day of Cut You Down's official release. Have you pre-ordered it yet? What are you waiting for?
by Sam Wiebe
I’ve been a fan of Lawrence Block since I was about thirteen. First of his writing advice books, then his Burglar series, and most lastingly, of his novels featuring PI Matthew Scudder.
Scudder was one of the first private detectives to show actual weakness and frailty. In the eighties, when every PI writer was out to convince you how many laps their heroine could run, or how much weight he could press, Scudder was drying out from alcoholism, taking tentative steps to reclaim his life.
Batman’s Helpers is a Scudder story, and unlike anything else by Block or his contemporaries. It’s more ingenious than any subversive-lite riff on detective fiction, while still being satisfying on the level of a crime story.
And it takes place during the Summer of Batman.
The 1989 Tim Burton Batman movie was a pop culture juggernaut. Between the logo, the Danny Elfman theme, the Prince soundtrack, and Jack Nicholson’s Joker, the iconography of that film, the first “dark” take on superheroes, ruled the imagination of every kid and adult who saw it.
And it sold shit-tons of merch. Which is what Block’s story is about.
On a summer day in New York City, Scudder and a group of moonlighting cops are hired to round up bootleg Batman merchandise being sold by street vendors. The group starts out drunk and racist and gets progressively more so. The vendors, mostly immigrants, are so far down the societal ladder that they have no recourse but to hand over their trademark-infringing swag in surrender.
Scudder watches this. And while he’s sober, and not a bigot, he takes part. He is complicit in this system, even though his role of day laborer/muscle is only a few rungs up the ladder from the vendors he’s dealing with.
All of which makes for an ugly, funny, sad, honest and sometimes brutal story.
And then the kicker: when Scudder refuses to come back tomorrow, he runs the numbers and realizes the company is losing money on the venture. They’d make more simply buying the off-brand Batman merch from the vendors.
Not only is what he’s done unethical, it’s a waste.
The attorney tells him they have to show that they’ve taken steps to protect their copyright. Which gives the story even more of an ironic backspin. Often fictional PIs break the law in pursuit of justice; Scudder upholds the law, to his own disgust.
What Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time did for history, Batman’s Helpers does for class economics. And in 2018, in a cultural landscape choking on corporate committee-made superhero films, it’s a relevant look at how much cowardice lurks behind our depictions of bravery.
The original private detectives, the Pinkertons, were often used as hired thugs and strikebreakers: as Ian McShane in Deadwood says, they’re “muscle for the bosses, as if the bosses ain’t got enough edge.” Block connects his fictional PI back to that heritage, making a social commentary on a system that pits guys like Scudder against those weaker than him.
A lot of mainstream or “literary” stories don’t accomplish half as much.
I put “literary” in quotes because it’s a term with as many competing definitions as noir. Is literary an adjective of quality, an intellectual style, or a genre of its own?
I don’t know or give a shit, really. The first review of my novel Last of the Independents (starred, from Booklist, and I’ll humblebrag if I fucking feel like it) called the novel “a literary achievement.” It also cautioned that it was “not a beach read.” The underlying assumption being, those things are at odds.
I love mainstream “literary” fiction almost as much as I love crime novels, and I don’t see any problem with cross-pollination… except when it’s done condescendingly.
Canada especially has a real problem with genre condescension. Other than Louise Penny, we hate our crime writers. ‘CanLit’ has a very hard time with storytelling in general—with following an interesting character in the pursuit of an interesting goal. They love “meditations on the nature of storytelling.” Hate stories. In a similar vein, they hate crime fiction, but LOVE mainstream writers “trying their hand” at crime fiction.