The Toughest Guy in the Room
One of the things I found refreshing when I discovered dark crime fiction (or noir or pulp or whatever you want to call it) was that it didn’t need a hero. Heroes in mainstream fiction and movies are often flawed but in inconsequential ways, like if you’re not Superman or Jack Reacher then you qualify as damaged. Crime fiction characters are free to be substantially–even fatally–flawed.
Still, crime fiction has its tropes and I call the crime fiction equivalent of the hero the “toughest guy in the room.” You’ve seen this guy (and, yeah, it’s a guy) more than once. He’s the one who no one fucks with–or when they do, they get fucked up. He works on the wrong side of the law. He’s a hit man or an enforcer or a dirty cop, yet he also operates according to “his own code,” frequently defending a tradition against young upstarts. He’s “a man of few words.” He always comes with a blue-collar pedigree and he “isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.” He may be juxtaposed against a weaker, less-experienced character, a fellow criminal who’s a poser, who’s brash and loud but quick to either run away or stay and get his ass kicked.
Above all, toughest guy is confident in every situation he encounters. He may be cautious–even frightened–but that’s only because he’s savvy and world-weary. He’s always in control. In this way, he mirrors the mainstream hero: because of his presence, the outcome of any scenario is rarely in question. He will prevail. While the mainstream hero exudes wholesome goodness, the toughest guy in the room exudes competence.
Unlike the mainstream hero, he is flawed and may operate in a morally ambiguous space. Nevertheless, these are typically within certain confines. If he’s an alcoholic, he’s a high-functioning alcoholic. If he’s a sex addict, he never lets this get in the way of his work and may push the promise of sex out of the way to get the job done. He may work for reprehensible people–drug dealers or pimps or corrupt politicians–but he does so independently because no one fucks with the toughest guy in the room.
Does this guy sound familiar? He’s the protagonist of some of the greatest crime stories of the last several decades. The toughest guy in the room has been here for years and will continue to captivate readers and viewers. He’s Jack Carter in Ted Lewis’ Get Carter. He’s Denny Malone in Don Winslow’s The Force. He’s Driver in James Sallis’ Drive. He’s Jimmy McNulty in The Wire. He’s Jimmy Marcus in Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River.
He also appears in many of the books I’ve published with All Due Respect.
The toughest guy in the room does have more room for variation than the mainstream hero. He has no obligation to conquer evil, though he may win a minor victory against it. He has no obligation to be morally upright and he has real human weaknesses.
But it may be worthwhile to be wary of this prototype and to shake up the formula. The toughest guy in the room is part of crime fiction’s past, but he may not be part of its future.