Ballad For F. Scott Fitzgerald*

gatsbyAs 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.


Filed under F. Scott Fitzgerald

38 responses to “Ballad For F. Scott Fitzgerald*

  1. You have made an excellent case. And I see the same elements in so many co-called literary novels. Just read one, in fact. LISTEN TO ME, (Hannah Pittard) where an assault sends a woman into chaos.

    • Thanks, Patti. And thanks for mentioning Listen to Me. I admit I’ve not (yet) read it, but it’s a great example of the way crime plot threads really are woven into all sorts of stories we think of as literary fiction.

  2. Ha, great minds think alike, as I just wrote an article for Crime Fiction Lover on so-called literary crime novels. I reluctantly left The Great Gatsby out of the final list, but yes, I agree it could fit in there. But then, to my mind, any book is enhanced by a mystery or a death or two!

    • Great minds, indeed, Marina Sofia! And I think it’s wonderful that you wrote that post. There are so many examples of that sort of novels; I’m sure you had a lot to discuss. As you say, what novel isn’t enhanced by a death or two, or at least a good mystery…

  3. I can definitely see the flawed characters. All seem in need of some type of confession booth along with a priest. Only Nick comes away as pure, almost angelic. He definitely stands above the other characters.

    • You have a point, Acacialane. He’s certainly the only character who maintains his integrity and comes away whole, if that makes sense. He’s certainly head and shoulders above the others, as the saying goes.

  4. Excellent argument, Margot. And I’ll be interested to read Marina’s piece on Crime Fiction Lover. Something that never felt ‘right’ for me in Gatsby was Tom having an affair with a garage owner/mechanic’s wife – perhaps it’s due to the British obsession with class, but it’s one part of the novel I always struggled to find as ringing true. And, as you’ve mentioned, class and snobbery isn’t absent from this book. Is it something Margot or anyone else has ever thought about?

    • Thanks for the kind words, Crimeworm. And I am very much looking forward to reading Marina Sofia’s post, too. You make a really interesting point about Tom’s affair, too. I hadn’t thought deeply about that aspect of it, to be honest. But now you mention it, I can see how that might not sit right. Of course, there’ve been plenty of ‘gents’ who had affairs with people from lower classes. Still, it is an interesting thing. Folks, what do you think?

  5. Fascinating analysis, Margot! I can quite see how the book sits comfortably in both crime and noir fiction. Before I started blogging and had to set up “categories” and “tags” I paid less attention to how to categorise a book, and I now find that a lot of literary fiction has crime of some kind at its heart, and sometimes it’s hard to justify sticking a book in just one category. I think of Bleak House as a great crime novel, CJ Samsom’s books are crime, literary and historical fiction rolled into one, and, of recent reads, both Emma Cline’s The Girls and Suzanne Rindell’s Three-Martini Lunch straddled both crime and lit-fic for me. In fact, that crime element almost feels essential to great lit-fic to me – I think that’s why I complain about “plotless” novels so often. If literature is to tell us something about what it is to be human, then it has to put the characters in difficult circumstances and let us see how they respond – crime, betrayal, war are amongst the best ways to do that, I find. Though I suspect that’s very much a subjective matter of taste…

    • It may be, FictionFan, but I think your underlying point – the value of putting characters into situations and watching how they cope – is well-taken. I think that’s part of the appeal of literature that has crime in it. Certainly stories that have that element are more engaging than stories where we don’t see that tension. And I’m very glad you’ve mentioned both Bleak House and Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels. Both really do count as (literary) historical fiction as well as crime fiction. And The Girls really is as literary as it is crime. I think the two can go together. And that’s the sort of novel that shows how right you are that it’s hard to put some books strictly into one category or another. Some books really do ‘count’ as more than one. Thanks for the kind words.

  6. Col

    Not a novel I’ve ever read or considered reading until now. Maybe….

  7. Very interesting piece Margot, and you make a convincing case for reading Gatsby as a crime novel. Mind you, anything that gets people reading Fitzgerald has to be good! 🙂

  8. I think you have a point. On the other hand, I wonder why we humans have the desire to categorize everything? You could, for instance, make a case for all novels being mysteries. Why do people act as they do?
    On another point , I was excited to see Gale Garnett mentioned. I met Gale in the late 70s when she shared a house in Toronto with my good pal, the late Chopper McKinnon. Gale was known for her hit song “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” and was just home from a stint of acting in a Broadway musical. She was (most likely still is) a larger than life personality – vivacious, curious and wonderfully inventive.

    • Lucky you, Jan, to have met Gale Garnett! How exciting! I’ll bet it was a great experience. I remember We’ll Sing in the Sunshine, too.

      You ask an interesting question about why we have this urge to label. I think part of it is that we want to make sense of our world, and we label things and people so that we can put some order into our world. It’s a natural impulse because it helps us learn and remember. But it really can have its down side. Very often a book defies a label. And people almost always do, especially once we get to know them.

  9. I’ve often found it fascinating that much of what we call literary fiction have elements of crime within their pages coming to the conclusion that this is the easiest and most effective way to portray people at their worst. Despite your fine words of encouragement though, I will not be attempting The Great Gatsby anytime soon 🙂

    • No book appeals to everyone, Cleo 🙂 – You have a point about including crime elements into literary fiction. It’s certainly a way to build tension and to portray characters under all sorts of circumstances, isn’t it?

  10. Thanks for an interesting and different look at one of my favourite novels. Thinking in that vein, Daisy might be one of the femme fatales, of noir novels, who always get their lovers to do the dirty work for them.

    • Oh, that’s an intriguing idea, Neeru! Thank you for adding that, as it fleshes out what I wrote very effectively. That perception of Daisy fits in with the idea of this novel as an example of a crime novel.

  11. Margot, this is a wonderful tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald. It definitely makes me want to read “The Great Gatsby” right away and look for the crime fiction elements.

  12. I can see noir elements in The Great Gatsby, and I agree with the others that your argument is sound. But I also think the term “noir” means something different to many readers. For example, Lamentation by Joe Clifford. He calls his books noir, but I would categorize many of them as mysteries. Sure, they don’t have a happy ending, but neither do mine, and I wouldn’t classify mine as noir, though some people may. His previous work, Junkie Love is most definitely noir. It’s funny how readers’ views differ. Same goes for “literary.”

    • You’re right, Sue, that what ‘counts’ as noir varies among people. And it’s interesting to get different people’s reads on whether a story is or isn’t noir. You’ve given some interesting examples, too, of what might (or might not) fall into that category.

  13. Patricia Snow

    Thank you, Margot, for your examination of The Great Gatsby as a crime novel. Fan Fiction expressed my own experience precisely. You put it so well: what novel isn’t enhanced by a mystery or a death or two. Take Jane Eyre, for instance.

    As for noir: Think like porn, you know noir when you read it. I would categorize noir as relentlessly dark and bleak. Not just the events–the outlook of the characters. Sometimes I am in the mood, and sometimes I drop a noir novel like a hot potato.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Patricia. I’m very glad you enjoyed this post. As you say, a mystery or a murder or two really can add so much to a novel, whether it carries the label of ‘crime’ or not. And yes, Jayne Eye is a fine example.

      I know what you mean about noir, too. I have to be in the mood for an utterly bleak novel, too. And you’re right; it’s at least as much about the outlook of the characters as it is the actual plot events. Thanks for your thoughts on that.

  14. Pingback: Use Your Freedom of Choice* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

  15. Oh great analysis Margot, I really enjoyed that, and you make unarguably good points in your comparison.

  16. Keishon

    I’m very late but wanted to add that I read this book because you said it had elements of crime fiction in it. That’s what made me pick it up. I think it was in one of your quizzes that you said as much. I agree and do view it as a crime novel in the sense that the author criticized the class system and all but mocked their behavior and criticized them. This book definitely showed how the rich and powerful define justice in their world. A sad book.

    • There’s no such thing as ‘late’ here, Keishon. The party never stops. And I agree with your views about Fitzgerald’s take on the class system and the casual assumption of privilege among the wealthy and powerful. Thanks for sharing your take.

  17. I loved your take, Margot. Only, must we categorise it? We spend our modern time categorising and generalising, couldn’t we call it simply a novel?

  18. Tender is the Night has always been the top for me. It’s gorgeous and only seems more tragic the more you reflect on Fitzgerald himself.

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