Friday 13 March 2009

JOE GORES' INTERFACE A Forgotten Friday (the 13th) Entry

It's hard to call Joe Gores' Interface a 'forgotten' book, especially since it was re-issued in 2004, thirty years after it first appeared, in Orion's 'Crime Masterworks' series. But it's worth looking at again, especially because Gores followed it up in 1975 with Hammett, another great novel, which became a fine, if flawed film, and now of course has a new novel out in the US, Spade & Archer, a knowing prequel of sorts to The Maltese Falcon. It hasn't been announced in this country yet, so I haven't seen it, though I have seen some mixed reviews, which have led to me think it isn't perhaps as hard-boiled as one might've thought it might be.

I say that because I think Interface was, arguably along with George V Higgins' debut The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, the most important crime novel of the 1970s. Where Higgins was looking forward, in the sense he was working out a style that no one in the genre had used before, and which he would refine to the point of brilliance, Gores looked back, producing a novel that probably was the greatest take on the idea of hard-boiled detectives anyone had attempted to that point, and probably greater than any de-construction of the genre since. Apotheosis is a word often used without justification, but to me, Interface is the apotheosis of the hard-boiled novel.

Gores was breaking ground pretty consistently back then. His 1969 novel, A Time Of Predators, anticipated Death Wish by a few years, although it's closer to Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, one of his two most misunderstood movies (The Getaway being the other, and for many of the same reasons) although I haven't read The Siege Of Trencher's Farm, the source novel for the film, it came out the same year, so neither was presumably an influence on the other. His DKA series was, in essence, police procedural set in a detective agency, specializing in skip tracing: long before Alex Cox's film. He was one of, if not the first, writers to emphasize the mundanity of routine private investigations, something that would be followed by any number of private eye writers. He'd also played around in the DKA novels, including a cameo appearance by Richard Stark's Parker, a gesture returned by Donald Westlake in a novel of his own.

I mention Parker, because Gores dedicated Interface to Parker, 'that Stark villain...because he's such a beautiful human being.' And that's quite a big clue into the business of Interface, because the crook in that story, called Docker, is Parker with a slight limp, and the nominal hero, Neil Fargo is as bent a private eye as you've ever seen. The book begins with Docker killing two men and stealing drugs for which he was supposed to be the bag man, limping away with both money and heroin. Docker was a Vietnam buddy of Fargo's and Fargo has brought him in, acting as middleman between a local dealer, Kolinsky and an importer, Harriss. Kolinsky keeps a junkie mistress, called Robin, who's given up on life, and she knows Docker, and Fargo is looking for her, because she's actually Roberta Stayton, an heiress whose father pays Fargo for the search.

It's not a pretty story, and it's not told in pretty terms: in fact it seems of a piece with all those grimy looking early 1970s crime movies, the dark and grimy side of the bright New Frontier, when the veneer of society's civilising structures had been removed from the ever-present underworld. It's a novel about failed dreams, and about obligations to the past; a novel about the ruin of Vietnam and the sonambulant world of drugs. Most of all, it's about what being a private detective is all about. In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade has a line about not really being as crooked as he's supposed to be, and of course he has responsibilities he cannot escape, lines he will not let himself cross. The same is true in this book, which spends 200 pages deconstructing everything about a private eye you're supposed to believe, and then putting it back together with one twist that turns it all on its head. I loved the novel when I read it for the first time, and it is so well-done I was still caught by its twist when I re-read it thirty years later. Joe Gores has always been the real deal, and this is the most real of all his books. It's a classic, it's one of the all-time greats. Over the years I've handed out a number of copies of the book to friends; it's the kind of book you want everyone who loves the detective novel to read.

Interface by Joe Gores 1974
Orion Crime Masterworks edition, 2004 £6.99
ISBN 0752851888


Nathan Cain said...

Excellent post about an excellent book. Interface is a favorite of mine. I have a first edition that I would love to have Mr. Gores sign.

And I would recommend The Siege of Trencher's Farm. It differs quite a bit from Straw Dogs in some signifcant ways.

A Time of Predators and Trencher's Farm (and Straw Dogs) are excellent revenge stories and stand in sharp contrast to say, something like Last House on the Left, which is a terrible movie that's been remade into what is undoubtedly another terrible movie.

Graham Powell said...

INTERFACE is one of my favorite crime books. Just absolutely merciless. And you're right, the tone is the same as films such as DIRTY HARRY or THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

Chris said...

I enjoyed it, but I'd certainly rate the Parker novels of the 70's over it and Eddie Coyle. Having just reread The Maltese Falcon, I would have to say Spade was a more morally troublesome character, since he has a conscience, but opts not to make use of it--people keep confusing him with the Bogart character in the movie.

The problem with the two protagonists of Gores' novel is that the twist requires never really getting inside their heads at all, which makes character development a challenge. I suppose that's part of the allure as well, but there's not quite enough there there. Westlake did a better job making Parker an enigma while still giving us some insights into his true nature. Obviously both Spade and Parker are influences here, but that's not such a stretch, since Westlake very clearly drew on Spade as one of the influences on Parker. Gores clearly recognized that, so it's a double homage.

And the one thing all the great private detective novels of all eras have in common is that they have nothing to do with what a private detective really does for a living. The DKA novels could have done, but then nobody would have read them. Gores certainly was one of the finest exponents of this form, but he was not in quite the same league as Hammett or Westlake.