The Good-Bad Hero Comes to a Poignant End TREATING THE purely evil protagonist is, at best, a dangerous business. Even assuming that the writer does not make the fatal error of seeming to sympathize with a bad man, the editor, reading such a story, fails to see in it the moral uplift which the slick magazine has dedicated itself to presenting. When an editor does buy such a story, he does so because he feels it is simply too "strong" a piece to turn down. It has its change-of-pace value, but nonetheless, essentially, it breaks with the formula. That is the main reason why the bad men of these stories are so exaggeratedly bad. The slick editor is afraid of being misinterpreted. After all, he has proclaimed himself to be a purveyor of high-type stuff, fit for consumption by the entire family. If certain of his readers would find occasional sex and violence interesting, they'll just have to look elsewhere. The good editor can't afford to rock his boat; it's too full of gold.
Strangely enough, stories about half-bad men and women are even more dangerous to the position of slick editors . Hollywood has made millions on them; book publishers love them; Broadway, radio, and television thrive on them . The legend and folk literature of every land are full of them. But the slicks are slow to admit them to their pages and suspicious of them when they do. The quaint or noble law- and convention-breakers of myth and history hold a tremendous fascination for the public. And they should; they are a unique breed. Constantly contravening the laws of the land, they studiously abide by the codes of sportsmanship and gallantry. They are every desperado the early Humphrey Bogart played in motion pictures. They are Robin Hood and Jesse James. When Willie Sutton, the notorious New York bank robber, was finally apprehended-as an example of the public's eagerness for this type of hero-the public set about making him into a lovable rascal. The public smiled at reports of his cleverness, audaciousness, and seeming sense of fair play. Unfortunately, the literal-minded authorities revealed him as a pathetic little man-bright as crooks go- but otherwise just a lonely, frustrated, beaten neurotic. The public was very disappointed.
The appetite for this kind of hero is strong in certain segments of the slick-reading public, and he is so well established as a familiar fictional type as to be inoffensive to any but the professional evil-influence-sniffer-outers. The natural urge of slick editors would be to use these good-bad heroes and use them a-plenty. Well, they do use them-but hardly a-plenty.
The reason for this editorial caution can be found by inquiring into the social viewpoint glorified by these modern Robin Hoods. They defend the individual's concept of ethical behavior rather than the community' s. By their actions they ridicule vested interests. They romanticize rebellion against authority. Their approach to life implies anarchy. All this may seem unnecessary and arbitrary theorizing. But there must be a reason for the relatively infrequen t incidence in the slicks of this classically popular type of story. Although slick fiction may appear to be a highly organized medium of reactionary propagandizing, probably neither advertiser nor editor nor writer is entirely conscious of all the moral and social implications of slick fiction. Yet, common to popular magazine fiction are these taboos and strictures which definitely set slicks apart from other communication media, and, consciously or not, editors, advertisers, and writers have formed them.
At any rate, just as the gay, devil-may-care cavalier is not the type the manufacturer wants as an employee in his business, so he does not care to find that type in the fiction he supports. What is to be done? Drop the type completely from the pages of the magazine when the type would so patently titillate readers? Not quite. The editor will slip one in every now and then, taking the greatest precautions when he does.
Here is a hero who is an admitted swindler. But he does not swindle old ladies, he swindles racketeers. He makes his living by stealing from the underworld (much as Robin Hood stole from the fat and decadent privileged classes who, too, were undeserving of their wealth). The hero is known to members of the underworld. They are aware of his means of livelihood, and most of them have been hoodwinked by him. It is a sport among the big-time crooks to listen to the hero's propositions, and to take him up on them; but if the racketeer can catch the hero in his trick, whatever it happens to be at the time, then it is understood that the racketeer will kill him. To date, the hero has plied his trade without being caught. When the story opens he has met and fallen for a blonde. He has decided, after the manner of so many good-bad heroes, that he will pull off one last job, then quit and settle down with the blonde. With this in mind, he visits the suite of the biggest, meanest crook in town. The boss is there like the familiar little king surrounded by his henchmen. He is amused at the hero's audacity in coming and challenging him to a duel of wits. The proposition offered by the hero is a large bet on a horse race at a local track.
The racketeer accepts the bet, directing his henchmen to watch carefully for the hero's gimmick. They check the clock in the room against telephone time to make sure the hero can't pull off a post-race hoax. Then they sit the hero in the middle of the room. The hero, for his part, uses his prerogative of waiting to choose his horse until the very last minute. While they all wait for post time, the hero excuses himself and goes to the bathroom. The racket boss sends a henchman to stand guard outside. In the bathroom, behind a closed door, the hero manages to blow the electric fuse by tampering with the bathroom light socket. This stops the electric clock in the room where the gangsters are waiting. The hero returns from the bathroom, calls his choice of horse after the race has been run, which fact the stopped clock does not indicate.
The gangster boss gets the result of the race late over the phone since his radio would not play and finds that he has been successfully tricked by the hero. The hero leaves intact, but when he goes to meet the blonde at a prearranged spot he discovers she has had a fatal car accident. The hero feels responsible for the accident because he had had her park the car in an indicative position along the street in view of the bathroom window of the gangster's apartment, after she had picked up the race result over the car radio. The reader is left with the impression that the hero has had his spiritual back broken.
There is a subtle ambiguity to a story like this-or rather a devious moral duplicity. Essential to the success of the story, to any slick story, is a sympathetic hero. Essential to the flavor of such a story as this is the illegal practices of the hero. In a freer fictional form there would be no danger in the reader equating the "sympatheticness" of the hero and the illegal behavior. But in the slicks the equation is poisonous. Consequently, what the reader should be given is bad deeds done by a good man. The trick in separating the doer from the deeds is accomplished by qualifying the "bad" actions to the point where they become only nominally bad. In this particular tale, of course, the qualification is achieved by having the swindler swindle swindlers.
Nonetheless, there is the chance that literal-minded readers will take as strong exception to this kind of usage as to any less subtle, so that the writer is compelled to provide punishment for the transgression-as slight as that transgession has been made to seem. This is a stricture fully as demanding as that which forces Hollywood movie-makers to see that every motion-picture murder is avenged. The reader has come to expect such a denouement and looks to the writer to give him an imaginative and original punishment.