As this is posted, it would have been F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 120th birthday. His best-known work, The Great Gatsby, has been examined from a number of different perspectives, and it’s widely considered his finest novel (although, speaking strictly for me, Tender is the Night is excellent, too, if bleak). For years, it’s been part of school curricula, and sometimes students groan about having to read it.
I wonder what they might think about the novel if it was taught as a crime novel. There’s a real argument, I think, that there are several elements of the crime novel, in particular the noir novel, in The Great Gatsby. That may not have been Fitzgerald’s primary goal when he wrote it, but I think those elements are there.
To begin with the obvious, there’s a murder in the novel. Granted, it doesn’t come until close to the end of the story, but we see the buildup of tension and conflict that leads to it. And the motive for the murder falls out naturally from the story. There’s an investigation (admittedly, it takes up very little space in the novel) that shows how witnesses with an agenda respond to police questions.
That part of the novel also shows how social class and wealth can impact the way a crime is reported, and what happens to the people involved. Those with money and privilege don’t get the same treatment as do those without those advantages. We see that in all sorts of modern crime novels, too; I’m sure you could name many more examples of that than I could.
There’s also an accidental death in the novel, and a cover-up of what really happened; that, too, is an element we often see in crime novels. Along with the cover-up, we have a false confession from someone who’s willing to take the blame for what happened. What’s interesting, too, is the terrible consequences of that willingness. If you look at noir crime fiction, you see plenty of examples of stories where a character takes the blame for a crime, perhaps with good reason, but pays a terrible price for that.
There are other elements, too, that we often see in noir novels. For example, there’s quite a lot of betrayal in The Great Gatsby. Daisy Buchanan betrays both her husband, Tom, and Jay Gatsby. And Tom Buchanan’s not exactly upstanding either; he’s having an affair with Myrtle Wilson. There’s a larger betrayal, too, in the novel. The members of the upper-crust group that Gatsby so wants to accept him have their own way of being cruel, and that plays a role in the novel as well.
As is the case with many crime novels, and, in particular, noir novels, the characters in The Great Gatsby are deeply flawed. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, through whose eyes we see the rest of the characters. Most of them are mercenary, and some are downright abusive. And several of them (including Gatsby) have their secrets to hide. They can be very cruel, and only Carraway seems to have any ‘moral compass’ or personal integrity.
There’s also the matter of the way the story turns out. In noir stories, we may find out the truth behind a murder or other crimes, but that doesn’t tend to make things any better. And noir stories don’t generally end very happily. That’s the case with The Great Gatsby. Readers know who’s responsible, both for the accidental death and the murder. But the end of the story doesn’t put things right again, if I can express it that way. Knowing the truth doesn’t solve anything.
The Great Gatsby doesn’t, perhaps, have the level of physical brutality that we see in some other noir novels. But there’s certainly violence in the story; and there’s no great outcry against it among many of the characters. It’s also worth noting that there’s plenty of using, betraying, and lack of what most of us think of as morality.
In that last sense, The Great Gatsby could be argued to resemble some of Raymond Chandler’s work. There’s an Everyman sort of protagonist, who has his own personal integrity and sense of what’s right. He encounters a group of decadent, wealthy people who have neither; and the story shows how he interacts with those people, and what the outcomes of their stories are. Of course, there are many differences, too, but we can see elements of that sort of noir story in The Great Gatsby.
Perhaps that’s part of the legacy of both the novel and its author. The Great Gatsby has earned its place as an important piece of literature. But it also fits into the category of crime fiction – noir, most likely – as well. And one might make the argument that there are other categories of story that could include it as well.
What do you think? Do you see the novel as a piece of crime fiction? Do you think it has those elements?
ps. Sorry, there’s no green light at the end of that dock…
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Gale Garnett.