Excerpted from The Minds of Peter Rabe By Rick Ollerman
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In the same interview with George Tuttle Rabe also states that despite his background in psychology, it has not influenced his fiction “in the least.” Rabe explains that both his fiction and his interest in psychology are independent and merely stem from the “same kind of orientation and interest.”
The fascinating part of this statement is simply that it is natural for any reader of Rabe’s work with knowledge of his background to ask precisely that question, as did George Tuttle. This is because Rabe’s work is so character driven, and his characters are so flawed, that their psyches, their psychoses and neuroses and thought processes, all dictate the plots of his novels.
In other words, Rabe’s characters don’t have mental quirks or attitudes that are used as devices to move the plot along; rather his characters’ very natures are what dictate the plot. This exact quality distinguishes Rabe’s work from most of his contemporaries, many of whom used flaws of this type in much more superficial ways.
For these other writers in the paperback original world, psychological elements were more a part of the general themes of their work. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe must be noble above all else, or as he said in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” “He must be the best man of his world and good enough for any world. I do not care much about his private life […]” Marlowe has the code Chandler has given him, and this code guides Marlowe throughout his stories. Indeed, as Chandler has said, he doesn’t care much about Marlowe’s life beyond that.
James M. Cain’s or David Goodis’s protagonists are in more of a psychological rut: they have no intent to cause the bad things they do, rather they fall into them with eyes wides open, powerless to stop themselves or alter events in any meaningful way. It’s never clear whether they’d even want to if given the choice. For the sake of the story, they simply must march on.
Jim Thompson wrote about some clearly psychologically damaged specimens, starkly so, prototypical sociopaths and psychopaths, served up for mass consumption. When we know from the start the protagonist has certain psychological issues, we know how he will act throughout the book. The question may be in how far he will take things, or in what manner he will betray himself or be caught, but psychological elements infuse the entire narrative.
Rabe’s method of using psychological attributes is far more subtle. His best protagonists are neither completely sane nor completely crazy, all good or pure evil, right or wrong, noble or ignoble. They’re quite often a blend, a combination of contradictions, made up of psyches not quite working wholly together.
Like James Quinn from The Box, a mob lawyer intent on splitting the organization he works for in half, siphoning power away from the incumbent Ryder. Only Ryder won’t take this sitting down and cares nothing for the precautions Quinn has made should something happen to him. Ryder makes it happen anyway. His men dope Quinn, seal him in a crate, and send him on a trip around the world via the hold of a cargo ship. Only Quinn is discovered early, in the African port of Okar, before he experiences the full level of despair, or even death, that Ryder intended. It’s clear to the Westerner who takes charge of Quinn what has happened to him but when he seeks confirmation of Quinn’s criminal past, Quinn merely tells him he has no record.
Quinn thought that with no record he was either a very good criminal or no criminal at all, and perhaps it came to the same thing. He had not been very much interested in deciding on this because other things meant more to him. Whether he had been smart or stupid, for example, and here the decision was simple. He had been very stupid with Ryder, but that, too, was a little bit dim, since he, Quinn, was here and Ryder was not. Maybe later, more on this later, but now first things first.
So Quinn gives some thought to what had happened that got him shipped halfway around the world by his arch enemy, but surprisingly not much. Instead he sets about finding out who runs the local black market and immediately makes plans to take it over. A lone man, with no money, friends or resources, only a compulsion not justified or explained to the reader, only made felt by the author, is absolutely driven to take over in Okar what he couldn’t back in the States. We don’t know what happened to make Quinn this way. We wonder at his audacity, his self belief, and above all what could possibly make a man, any man, act this way. For Quinn it’s an inevitability; for Rabe it’s another subtly nuanced “non-normal” protagonist. Quinn is just different.