Is The Great Gatsby the forerunner of the modern 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.” 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. The literary techniques that turn up again and again in noir – a detached narrator, a temporary love interest, and great big pile of plot coincidences – can all clearly be seen in ‘Gatsby.’
For those of you who haven’t read Fitzgerald’s best-known novel in a while, a quick recap. Young Nick Carraway arrives in West Egg, Long Island, planning to work in New York City as a bond trader. He reconnects with his beautiful but insubstantial 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 Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker, 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 wealthy industrialist, 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 chooses to ride with Gatsby in her husband’s blue coupe, a 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 awoken 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. 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, 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 example of the “carelessness” 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. Daisy, who is driving, hits Myrtle and doesn’t stop. Later, Gatsby covers for her, not reporting the truth of who was driving 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 Wilson shoots and kills Gatsby as he floats on a mattress in his pool in a fugue of early-autumn melancholy.
The entire book, in essence, leads up to and hinges on these two crimes: the hit-and-run and Gatsby’s murder. Of course, this doesn’t make “Gatsby” a mystery novel – it’s more like “Gatsby” is a hardboiled crime novel seen through a kaleidoscope, rearranged into something dazzling. The key components are all there, and the most important one is this: “Gatsby’s” reliance on coincidence.
‘Had Fitzgerald just wanted Gatsby to die, he could have had him slit his wrists in the bath.’
The unhappy truth about crime fiction 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 the commoners laboring in the genre fields. For all his lyricism and his incisive social criticism, Fitzgerald really had to work to create the ending he wanted. Had Fitzgerald just wanted Gatsby to die, he could have had him slit his wrists in the bath. But Fitzgerald wanted an epic 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.
Creating the death that took some serious plot machinations, which I’ll list. Any one of the following would be perfectly believable on its own. Only in the bulk do they become a problem.
First off, when the group of five decides to go to the City, they 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 talk 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 . This is relevant because the jaunt to the City, complete with car swap, takes place on the same day George Wilson has learned about his wife’s infidelity . Then Myrtle looks out the window at just the right moment to see Tom with the big yellow car . But she can’t go talk to Tom right then, because Myrtle has been ‘locked up’ by her angry husband . (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 home as writers want people to believe. Sure, you can often lock someone out of a bathroom or bedroom, 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 miles an hour.
Then comes the homeward trip. Gatsby drives his own car back . 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 plot point deserves a little examination. Fitzgerald sells this as a perverse victory gesture on Tom’s part, made “… 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. Daisy’s faith in Gatsby might be shaken, 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 an easily-swayed person.
Which brings us to this: It’s Gatsby’s car, yet Daisy is driving . Then, as they pass the service station, Myrtle is once again at the window at just the right time to see the yellow car approaching . Finally, Myrtle is also no longer locked up , freeing her to run out in the street.
In his defense, Fitzgerald did as good a job as any writer could in justifying the improbabilities he needed to get Gatsby to that swimming pool. But ultimately, the generosity of the reader has to come into play. We make excuses for our favorite 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.
Other parallels with the hardboiled novel 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, not a close relationship at all.
More important, Nick isn’t part of either financial tribe represented in the book. Fitzgerald 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 wealth 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 see this clearly because he is neither Old nor New Money; he’s from a middle-class family in Minnesota. 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 often make time with a woman during the course of an investigation. In Gatsby, Nick takes up with Jordan Baker, a friend of Daisy’s from her 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 relationship, observing. Without Jordan, it’s a little creepy. With her, it takes on the quality of a double date.
In crime novels, the detective’s infatuation ends when the mystery is solved, and it usually ends in disillusionment. That’s why, after Gatsby is killed, Jordan Baker seems to Nick irredeemably tainted by her involvement in Tom and Daisy’s 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 he has to: the hardboiled protagonist is ultimately destined to be alone.
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 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 Wilson who the yellow car really belonged to.
This is made clear in a police-procedural-style recreation of Wilson’s movements on the fatal afternoon:
“His movements – he was on foot the whole
were afterward traced to Port Roosevelt and then to Gad’s Hill,
where 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
The italics are mine, because of course Wilson had an ‘easier, surer way’ of finding out who owned the yellow car. He asked Tom Buchanan, who was driving it yesterday, and who told George he’d borrowed it from its true owner. The police only spend 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.
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 Tom and Daisy leave town the following day, those plans were likely 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 Jay Gatsby and re-commit to their marriage? Or is it because Daisy told Tom that she was driving Gatsby’s car?
If the latter, it changes the entire tenor of Tom’s decision to tell George Wilson who owned the yellow car. His entire justification is the Gatsby “had it coming.” He further said, “He ran Myrtle down like you’d run over a dog in the street and never even stopped his car.” Nick, in turn, thinks, “There was nothing I could say, except the one unutterable fact that it wasn’t true.”
Would Tom fulminate against Gatsby in this way if he didn’t know that Gatsby wasn’t driving the car? Quite possibly he might. Lying convincingly requires a good deal of method acting – 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 guilt breeds anger.
Nick, for his part, should be able to do the math of Tom and Daisy’s late-night ‘conspiring’ (his own word, remember). So why does he consider the truth “unutterable”? Because he can’t be entirely sure what Tom knows, so he has to stay silent. It’s to protect Daisy, which is what all the novel’s male characters do throughout the book. In this light, Daisy becomes another staple of the hardboiled novel: the femme fatale.
Given the success of literary pastiche novels – Sherlock Holmes and Austen’s Mr. Darcy have enjoyed many new adventures, 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.