How “The Great Gatsby” foreshadowed the
American hardboiled crime novel
In my younger years, my father gave me some advice — wait, that wasn’t me.
Let’s try again: In my younger years, I read The Great Gatsby twice. Once in high school, again in college, sprinting through its nine economically-written chapters so I could write the obligatory paper on “Car Culture and the American Dream in Gatsby.” Much like Daisy Buchanan, I didn’t slow down to pay attention to the details, because I wanted to get back to what I really loved in those days — reading hardboiled crime novels. Which is funny, because had I paid attention, I would have seen that Gatsby is, in all but structure, a hardboiled novel. Don’t believe me? Let’s go back to West Egg; I’ll fix you a julep and tell you what I mean.
Two caveats. First, this essay is going to contain spoilers. But then, you probably wouldn’t be reading this essay if you hadn’t first read the book. Second, I’m aware that NPR’s books correspondent Maureen Corrigan wrote about Gatsby and noir in her book, So We Read On. Corrigan’s book is sitting on my nightstand right now, waiting for me to hit ‘send’ on this essay. I won’t start reading before that, because I don’t want to be influenced. (Which is my way of saying that I didn’t want to come to the unhappy realization that all my best points had already been made by someone else.)
For those of you who haven’t read Gatsby in a while, a quick recap. Our man on the scene, Nick Carraway, arrives in West Egg, Long Island, planning to work in New York City as a bond trader. He reconnects with his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom, a rich, aging college-football hero. Nick soon learns that Tom is cheating on Daisy with Myrtle Wilson, the earthily sensual wife of service-station owner George Wilson.
Nick also meets Jay Gatsby, a likable millionaire, who’s made his fortune and bought his gaudy house all as a way of peacocking for Daisy, his old flame, whom he hopes to win away from Tom. Amazingly, this almost works: with some help from Nick and fifth wheel Jordan Baker (a friend of Daisy’s and love interest for Nick), Daisy and Gatsby rekindle their romance. By this time, Gatsby has come clean to Nick about the fact that he was once a poor boy from North Dakota, James Gatz. He reinvented himself with the help of a rich copper miner turned sailboat jockey, Dan Cody, and an organized-crime figure, Meyer Wolfsheim.
Things come to a head on a hot summer afternoon, when the party of five – Tom, Daisy, Gatsby, Nick and Jordan – drive to New York City (in two cars, with Tom and Gatsby driving each other’s cars for no credible reason other than the needs of the plot). Daisy, at the last minute, chooses to ride with Gatsby in her husband’s blue coupe, a pointed snub Tom can’t ignore. Making Tom’s mood worse is the fact that when he stops for gas at George Wilson’s service station, he realizes that George has finally snapped to the fact that his wife is cheating on him (though he still doesn’t know with whom). George intends to take Myrtle out West, out of reach of this unknown lover.
Seeing both his wife and his lover slipping out of his reach, Tom confronts Gatsby about his affair with Daisy. He does this in a room in New York’s Plaza Hotel that the party has rented simply to get out of the heat, one of many the-rich-are-not-like-you-and-me details that Fitzgerald does so well. Gatsby at first takes Tom’s verbal assault in stride, since getting the affair out in the open is a necessary step in getting Daisy to leave Tom for him. But as Tom starts revealing the details of Gatsby’s shady business affairs, Gatsby is rattled. He then makes a second misstep, demanding that Daisy say not only that she loves Gatsby now, but that she never loved Tom. Daisy balks, saying “Oh, you want too much!” (Watch for Daisy throwing a lit match onto the carpet at this point, an early example of the ‘carelessness’ that Nick will indict later.)
Daisy and Gatsby drive home together, but this time they take his big yellow car – the one Myrtle saw Tom gassing up on the way in to the City. This allows for a mistaken-identity tragedy: Myrtle runs out in the road, apparently intent on getting Tom’s attention and, possibly, being rescued from her husband’s plans to move West. Daisy, who is driving, hits and kills Myrtle and doesn’t stop. Later, Gatsby covers for her, not reporting the truth to the police and only admitting it to Nick after Nick guesses. George Wilson, a harmless sort up to that point, proves the adage about It’s Always the Quiet Ones by going on an all-out hunt for the yellow car’s real owner. This is successful, and he shoots and kills Gatsby as he floats on a mattress in his pool in a fugue of early-autumn melancholy.
Right away, we can see two significant crimes in the books: the vehicular manslaughter of Myrtle Wilson, and then Gatsby’s murder. But let’s be clear: Gatsby would not work as a mystery novel even if his death were transplanted to the beginning of the book (and if Fitzgerald had not had George turn the gun on himself not far from the crime scene, pre-empting any mystery about who did it). However, consider this: if Fitzgerald had simply wanted to write a melancholy novel of Jazz Age manners, it would have been much easier to have Gatsby slit his wrists in the bath. He didn’t. The innate GPS that good writers have for plot led Fitzgerald in the direction of murder. The book’s denouement, the bloody culmination of its secrets and lies, is one of several motifs that Gatsby shares with the crime novel. Others include ….
A detached narrator. This is a staple of P.I. novels: the detective is an outsider with no stake in the mystery’s events or its outcome – except, of course, his innate drive to find the truth. Nick Carraway fits this mold. He doesn’t know Gatsby at all when the story opens, while Daisy, though she is often referred to as “Nick’s cousin,” is actually his second cousin once removed. This means they share a great-grandparent or a great-great-grandparent; it’s really not a close relationship at all.
More important, Nick isn’t part of either financial tribe represented in the book. Gatsby makes an important distinction between Old Money and New Money, Daisy being the first and Gatsby the second. Gatsby, who grew up poor, at first believed that once he had a fortune, he could win Daisy. But by definition, his recently-acquired money is New Money in a world where Old is gold. So, in essence, he’s only traded one problem for a slightly better one. Nick Carraway can observe this clearly because he is neither Old nor New Money. He’s from a comfortably middle-class family in Minnesota, thus doesn’t have a horse in this race. This allows him to quietly observe the sins and tragedies of the very wealthy as Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade will do a generation later.
A ‘temporary’ love interest, discarded at the story’s end. Hardboiled gumshoes are fairly easy to bed, and often make time with a woman during the course of an investigation. In Gatsby, Nick takes up with Jordan Baker, a professional golfer and a friend of Daisy’s from her Louisville debutante days. Nick’s interest in Jordan is never terribly convincing, but it’s narratively necessary. Nick’s at risk of being a voyeur; he’s almost always on the scene of Gatsby and Daisy’s renascent relationship, observing, observing. Without Jordan, it’s a little creepy. With her, it takes on the quality of a double date.
Jordan’s other purpose in the novel is to tell a part of Daisy’s story that none of the men have access to – the evening she nearly backed out of marriage to Tom. Jordan, as a bridesmaid, was in a position to find Daisy, on the eve of her wedding, drunk on Sauterne and crying over a letter presumably written by Gatsby. She tells Jordan to go downstairs and tell those assembled for the bridal dinner that “Daisy’s change’ her mind!”
This frightens Jordan badly because she has always admired Daisy, as she tells Nick over tea at the Plaza Hotel. As Jordan explains:
“She was just eighteen, two years older than me, and by far the most popular of all the young girls in Louisville. She dressed in white, and had a little white roadster, and all day long the telephone rang in her house and excited young officers from Camp Taylor demanded the privilege of monopolizing her that night.”
Jordan spots Daisy sitting in that white roadster with one such officer (Gatsby, it turns out), and Daisy likewise spots her.
“ ‘Come here, Jordan,’ ” [Daisy] called unexpectedly. ‘Please come here.’
I was flattered that she wanted to speak to me, because of all the older girls I admired her most. She asked me if I was going to the Red Cross to make bandages. I was. Well, then, could I tell them that she couldn’t come that day? The officer looked at Daisy while she was speaking in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at some time, and because it seemed romantic to me, I have remembered the incident ever since.”
What strikes the reader about this incident is less its romanticism than the fact that it shows us a coolly confident Daisy who doesn’t appear in the book before or after. Sitting in the driver’s seat of her roadster, she is also in the driver’s seat of her own life. She calls Jordan over as an officer might an enlisted man, dispatching her with a message. She is in charge in a way that we never see her anywhere else in the story.
This is why it unsettles Jordan so deeply to see her completely undone by a letter on the eve of her wedding. But Jordan, already becoming the self-possessed woman Nick will know, summons
“ … her mother’s maid, and we locked the door and got her into a cold bath. … We gave her spirits of ammonia and put ice on her forehead and hooked her back into her dress, and a half an hour later, when we walked out of the room, [Tom’s] pearls were around her neck and the incident was over.”
Jordan’s story, brief but vivid, is a poignant reminder that although men like Gatsby and Nick might literally have worn the uniforms, women marshal their own troops and fight their own wars.
From the perspective of crime fiction, though, what Jordan Baker is doing is giving the investigator, Nick, information he can’t get from another source. Beyond that, Jordan serves as a perfunctory love interest – perfunctory because Nick’s real interest lies elsewhere, with Gatsby. I’m not suggesting a literal sexual attraction, but he clearly fascinates Nick in a way that the central figure of a crime novel often transfixes the investigator. And, because this central figure is frequently unavailable – murdered or missing – the PI shifts his attentions to an available second-best figure. Put more simply, he loves the one he’s with. As Nick does: “Unlike Gatsby and Tom, I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs, so I drew up the girl beside me … I drew her up closer, this time to my face.”
In crime novels, the detective’s infatuation ends when the mystery is solved, and it usually ends in disillusionment. Similarly, after Gatsby is killed and Daisy flees the whole situation, Jordan Baker seems to Nick irredeemably tainted by her involvement in Tom and Daisy’s meretricious world. When Jordan calls Nick on the day after the hit-and-run death, Nick cannot bring himself to see her: “I couldn’t have talked to her over a tea-table if I never talked to her again in this world.”
Their final meeting doesn’t go any better. “Angry, half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away,” Nick reports. But he does turn away, as perhaps he has to: the hardboiled protagonist is ultimately destined to be alone.
A denouement that depends heavily on coincidence. There, I said it. In doing so, I’m not only criticizing what might be our finest American novel, but the kind of fiction I loved to read in my youth and have chosen to write. However, the truth about crime novels is that it requires both a good bit of plot manipulation by the author and generosity on the part of the reader to bring the story in for a three-point landing. This reader generosity is often withheld: one of the most frequent criticisms of a mystery novel is, ‘It started out strong, but then it fell apart at the end.’
Which makes it somewhat gratifying to realize that one of our best literary writers didn’t do much better a job of it than all of us out here in the genre fields. For all his lyricism and his incisive social criticism, Fitzgerald really had to put in work to create the ending he wanted. As noted earlier, had he just wanted Gatsby to die, Fitzgerald could have gone for suicide. But Fitzgerald wanted a death for Gatsby that was a result of mistaken identity, and it’s not hard to see why — the whole novel is about Gatsby’s impossible-to-get-a-handle-on identity.
But doing that took some serious plot machinations, which I’ll count up in bracketed numbers. You may not agree with all of these; everyone has a different idea of what counts as a coincidence or an implausibility. Any one of the following would be perfectly believable on its own. It’s only taken with the rest that it becomes problematic.
Okay: It’s a hot summer afternoon in East Egg. When the group of five decides to go to the City, they decide to do so in separate cars even though Gatsby’s will seat all of them . Then Tom and Gatsby decide to drive each other’s cars . There’s really no convincing explanation for why they do this – there’s a little bit of jawing about whose car has been parked in the shade and whose has enough gas, but none of it is entirely plausible.
Gatsby’s car is, in fact, is low on gas, prompting a stop at Wilson’s service station . Myrtle Wilson looks out the window at just the right moment to see Tom with the big yellow car . Myrtle Wilson is apparently ‘locked up’ by her husband, so she can’t go talk to Tom right then . I’m counting that as an implausibility in part because it’s not nearly as easy to lock someone in a room in a private residence as fiction writers want people to believe. Sure, you can often lock someone out of a bathroom or bedroom, for privacy, but who are all these architects designing homes to double as jails? Anyway, this keeps Myrtle from slipping out to talk to Tom at an opportune time (opportune chiefly in that the car’s not going 50 or 60 miles an hour).
Finally, wrapping up the ‘outbound to Manhattan’ coincidences is the fact that the jaunt to the City, complete with car swap, takes place on the same day George Wilson learns about his wife’s infidelity . Okay, technically it’s the day after, but it’s still a big coincidence.
Then comes the inbound trip. Gatsby drives his own car home . You might say that this makes sense, since Tom and Gatsby have just had a fight, so there’s unlikely to be any kind of goodwill between them. I’m counting it, though, because of the next coincidence: Right after outing Gatsby and Daisy as illicit lovers in the hotel room, Tom sends Daisy home with Gatsby .
This deserves a little examination. It’s true that Fitzgerald sells this as a perverse victory gesture on Tom’s part. It’s his idea, announced “… with magnanimous scorn. ‘Go on. He won’t annoy you. I think he realizes that his presumptuous little flirtation is over.’ ” The problem is, Tom’s position isn’t convincing on close examination. Daisy’s faith in Gatsby might be shaken now, but a ride back to East Egg, with just the two of them in the car, seems like an excellent opportunity for Gatsby to do damage control, especially since Daisy has proven herself to be a fairly easily-swayed person. Tom should know this: he’s a jerk, but he’s not stupid; after all, he’s the only one in the novel who screws Gatsby to the sticking point on his murky past and the source of his wealth.
Which brings us to this: It’s Gatsby’s car, but Daisy is driving . Then, as they pass the service station, Myrtle is again at the window at the right time to see the yellow car . She’s also no longer locked up , freeing her to run out in the street.
Is it also a coincidence that Myrtle chooses to run out in the street? I’m undecided on that one. It’s hard to see what she hopes to accomplish in doing so. Fitzgerald makes clear that Myrtle saw not only Tom but Jordan Baker in the yellow car, and apparently she believes Jordan is Daisy. She has no reason to believe that ‘Daisy’ isn’t with Tom on the return trip. What’s to be gained from approaching Tom in front of his wife? The most likely outcome seems that he’ll deny any acquaintance with Myrtle beyond knowing her from the gas station. Wisely, Fitzgerald chose not to maneuver a witness to Myrtle’s last, fatal thought processes into the story, so we’ll never know what Myrtle hoped to accomplish. Then again, maybe she didn’t think things through at all. The book makes fairly clear that Myrtle was never a threat to beat Einstein to relativity.
In listing these coincidences, I’m honestly not criticizing Fitzgerald. He did as good a job as about any writer could in justifying the improbabilities he needed to get Gatsby to that swimming pool. One of those justifications, I’ve already pointed out, is Tom’s reason (“magnanimous scorn”) for sending Daisy home with Gatsby. Shortly thereafter, Fitzgerald explains, through Gatsby, that Daisy was driving because she thought driving would calm her nerves, and that’s believable. Perhaps she was remembering better days when she had her own little roadster and was the most admired of a cadre of Louisville debutantes.
But ultimately, the generosity of the reader has to come into play. We make excuses for our favorite stories and writers, even retroactively helping them plot. (“Maybe Myrtle thought that …”) That’s reader love: when we care about a story enough, we pitch in and help shore up an unstable plot.
A moral showdown in the epilogue. PI novels often save their most poignant confrontation for after the mystery is solved. It isn’t enough for the PI to have solved the literal mystery. He must assign blame where it’s truly due, regardless of who actually pulled the trigger. Thus we have Nick’s final conversation with Tom Buchanan, who set both Myrtle’s and Gatsby’s deaths in motion. Tom can be let off the hook, maybe, for Myrtle’s death. He couldn’t have predicted that she’d all but fling herself in front of a car hoping to talk to him. But Nick – canny investigator that he proves to be – realizes that only one person could have confirmed to the desolate Wilson who the yellow car belonged to.
This is made clear in a very police-procedural-style recreation of Wilson’s movements on the fatal afternoon:
“His movements – he was on foot the whole time – were afterward traced to Port Roosevelt and then to Gad’s Hill, were he bought a sandwich that he didn’t eat, and a cup of coffee. … Then for three hours, he disappeared from view. The police supposed that he spent that time going from garage to garage thereabout, inquiring for a yellow car. On the other hand, no garage man who had ever seen him ever came forward, and perhaps he had an easier, surer way of finding out what he wanted to know. By half past two he was in West Egg, where he asked some one the way to Gatsby’s house. So by that time, he knew Gatsby’s name.”
The italics are mine, because of course Wilson had an ‘easier, surer way’ of finding out who owned the yellow car. He can ask Tom Buchanan, who was driving it yesterday and told Tom he borrowed it from its true owner. The police only spend so much time chasing the garage-owner theory because they know nothing about the car swap of the previous day. Nick, however, does. So when, some time after Gatsby’s funeral, he runs into Tom on the street, Nick refuses to shake his hand and wastes no time in asking the key question: “ ‘Tom,’ I inquired, ‘what did you say to Wilson that afternoon?’”
Tom admits that he told Wilson the yellow car was Gatsby’s, also giving Wilson the mistaken impression that Gatsby was Myrtle’s lover. In this way, he sealed Gatsby’s fate. Tom admits this so easily because in his eyes he’s done nothing wrong: “That fellow had it coming to him.” Nick tells us, “I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. … I shook his hand; it seemed silly not to.” Here Nick plays the part of the morally-exhausted investigator, who realizes that all his efforts will never straighten out such a crooked world.
It’s worth pausing here to note the spare, secondhand beauty of the reconstruction of Wilson’s movements. This isn’t just a functional passage: Poor George Wilson spends the entire day getting from his service station in the Valley of Ashes to West Egg, where he commits a murder and ends his life. Does it require three hours – the time he ‘disappeared from view’ – to talk to Tom Buchanan about the owner of the yellow car? Of course not. But it plausibly could take him three hours to get to East Egg on foot. And why is he on foot? Given that he pesters Tom about selling him a car at two earlier points in the book, it’s possible that despite owning a service station, Wilson doesn’t own a car himself. This turns him into a kind of gunslinger without a horse, implacably trudging all over Long Island first to discover the identity of his nemesis, and then to kill him. Whatever else you can say about George Wilson, you can’t say he went out without a kind of horrifying style. The crowning glory is the passage’s final line, with its note of subtle dread: “So by that time, he knew Gatsby’s name.”
A ‘bonus’ mystery. Actually, there’s more than one unanswered question in Gatsby, but I’ll stick to the one I find most compelling: What does Daisy tell Tom the night of the accident? On Gatsby’s request — he is afraid that Tom will become abusive with Daisy — Nick sneaks up to the Buchanan house to see what’s going on inside. Through a kitchen window, Nick spies Tom and Daisy in a tableau which, after all that’s happened, is shocking in its serene domesticity. It’s worth quoting in full:
“Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, with a plate of cold fried chicken between them, and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her, and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while she looked up at him and nodded in agreement.
They weren’t happy, and neither of them had touched the chicken or the ale—and yet they weren’t unhappy either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said they were conspiring together.”
The obvious question is, what are they conspiring about? Given that they leave town the following day, those plans were likely a big part of their discussion. But that only re-states the question: Why do they feel the need to leave? Is it solely to get away from Gatsby and re-commit to their marriage? Or is it because Daisy told Tom that she was driving Gatsby’s car?
Re-reading what I’ve written, I almost want to say, Well, of course she told him. However, in the book’s final pages, Nick doesn’t seem to think so. When Nick and Tom cross paths on the street, Tom fumes about how Gatsby “ ‘…ran over Myrtle like you’d run over a dog and never even stopped his car.’ ” Nick’s unvoiced response is, “There was nothing I could say, except the one unutterable fact that it wasn’t true.”
Would Tom continue to rail against Gatsby if he knew Gatsby wasn’t driving the car? Of course he would. Lying convincingly requires a good deal of method acting – supposedly, the best liars half-believe what they’re saying. It’s also possible that the very fact that Tom knows that Gatsby was blameless in Myrtle’s death only makes him angrier, in the way that longtime, unrelieved guilt breeds anger.
Why, then, does Nick consider the truth ‘unutterable’? He’s already proved that he isn’t interested in sparing Tom’s feelings, in refusing (at first) to shake his hand. Plus, he liked Gatsby, much more than he likes Tom. So if Nick realizes that Tom knows damned well who killed Myrtle, he’d very likely say so. The fact that he doesn’t indicates that Nick believes Tom doesn’t know. Or, at least, he can’t be sure.
Nick should be able to do the math of Tom and Daisy’s late-night ‘conspiring’ (Nick’s own word, remember) and the following day’s departure. But he can’t be sure, so he has to stay silent. It’s to protect Daisy, which is what all the novel’s male characters do throughout the book.
Given the success of literary pastiche novels – Sherlock Holmes and Austen’s Mr. Darcy have enjoyed quite a few new adventures many decades after the deaths of their creators – it’s surprising that no one’s written a noir featuring the middle-aged Nick Carraway as a detective. In light of history, it makes sense: Nick returns from the Midwest to New York City to work again on Wall Street, but the stock-market crash puts him out of work. Needing to support himself, Nick walks the streets of 1930s New York, sorting out the troubles of the few remaining idle rich, observing their flaws and questioning their alibis with the skepticism that Tom, Daisy and Jordan taught him so well.
Stranger things have happened.
The first cover image is the classic design by Francis Cugat. The second is a noir treatment done by the Pulp!theClassics line.
Hungering for some Gatsby-influenced crime fiction? I highly recommend James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss and John Burdett’s A Personal History of Thirst, both of which have noticeable homages, and both of which are excellent on their merits.