William P. McGivern Essay - Critical Essays


William P. McGivern began his career as a conventional crime-fiction writer, submitting to pulp magazines the formula fiction that was their mainstay through the 1920’s and 1930’s. He continued this formula approach into the late 1940’s, when he turned from the short story to the crime novel with the publication of his first book, But Death Runs Faster (1948). His brief tenure as a crime reporter in Philadelphia gave him both factual material and psychological insight into the daily, behind-the-scenes operations of big-city police, a combination that brought considerable authenticity to his writing. In the early 1950’s, McGivern experimented with other forms of writing, including fantasy and science fiction. More notably, in his writing about crime he experimented with a Mickey Spillane-style plot and protagonist, exemplified in his fifth novel, Blondes Die Young (1952). Apparently, he had some misgivings about the Spillane approach to plot and characterization, for he published the novel under the name Bill Peters. It was the first and last time McGivern used a pseudonym for crime fiction.

Eventually, McGivern’s interest focused on the complex characterization of the police detective as fallible hero, the culpable human being on the front lines of civilization’s perennial battle with a criminal element that threatens to undermine and destroy it. Specifically, McGivern centered his attention on the intrinsic nature of urban corruption, the two-sided, inherent duplicity of society. He concentrated on the darker, ambiguous side of human nature that is subsumed and obscured by the surface appearance of a functioning, law-abiding society.

Rogue Cop

In novels such as The Big Heat, Rogue Cop (1954), and The Darkest Hour (1955), McGivern places his protagonists in solitary—and lonely—confrontation with the seemingly overwhelming power of an underworld that thrives on duplicity. Although the detective/protagonist is clearly superior to his fellow officers in his ability to observe, investigate, and make deductions concerning a crime, that superiority is always taken for granted. Mike Carmody, the protagonist of Rogue Cop, stops by a hotel room where a murder has been committed. His fellow detectives are in the middle of their investigation. It is not Carmody’s case, but in a matter of minutes and in an offhand, matter-of-fact way, he solves the crime for his befuddled colleagues.

In his crime fiction, McGivern is never overly concerned with details of investigative deduction and solution; his emphasis is on character study. The reader’s attention in Rogue Cop is focused on Carmody’s inner struggle, the psychological/ethical/moral conflict that McGivern’s protagonists invariably face. The depiction of their struggle frequently reflects the influence of McGivern’s Catholic background and his abiding interest in humanity’s need for a spiritual center. Essentially, McGivern illustrates a very basic conflict between good and evil. In these novels, evil in the modern world comes in a highly attractive and deceptive package, with money and power its primary attributes. It is simultaneously seductive and destructive, and its appeal is easily and readily rationalized.

Mike Carmody

In developing the character of Mike Carmody, McGivern has drawn, at least indirectly, on the New Testament story of the prodigal son. Seduced and corrupted, Carmody is a crooked cop, the scion of a loving Catholic family that he rejects. As the novel begins, he is a prodigal without a home to which he can return. His mother died when he was a child; his father, whose values and spiritual optimism Carmody cynically dismissed, lived long enough to know the pain of his son’s corruption. In his attempt to justify his choices and the life he lives, Carmody has all but totally convinced himself that he is simply playing the percentages, living the good life that only a fool would reject. Yet the richly furnished apartment, the expensively tailored suits, and the other accouterments of a life lived according to material wants all bear testimony to a moral, ethical, and spiritual poverty.

Carmody’s redemption, along with the opportunity for retribution and subsequent atonement, comes after his younger brother, an incorruptible rookie cop, is murdered by racketeers because he has refused to follow his older brother’s example. Bereft of family and career, Mike Carmody nevertheless regains in some semblance his lost integrity by turning state’s evidence. The lost son returns, if not to the father, at least to the father’s values. When Carmody becomes the star witness for...

(The entire section is 1922 words.)