© 2007 William Ahearn
Mickey Spillane tipped me wise and truth be told it was his death that did it. Not in any direct way. In that roundabout way that things sometime have to go to get to the place in your head where it makes sense. When Mickey died last year, I wanted to send him his props. His writings are way too crude for me but I loved his attitude.
The guy wrote I, the Jury in six days and it became a major bestseller.
“The difference between me and the great authors,” he once said, “is that the people actually read my stuff.”
Not this person. Not now, for sure. We’ve all moved on to other detectives and other cases. What I wanted to do to celebrate Mickey Spillane was to see the Mike Hammer film classic, “Kiss Me Deadly (1955)” based on the book of the same title.
That’s where Mickey tipped me wise. Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa had a lot to do with it. And Dashiell Hammett finally nailed it shut because in a lot of ways, detective fiction always comes back to Dash.
There’s a gut shot cowboy down in the dust in front of the saloon. The dust is in Spain and the dead gunfighter is in Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars (1964),” a film that would change how westerns are viewed forever. All Akira Kurosawa saw in “A Fistful of Dollars” was a remake of his samurai masterpiece “Yojimbo (1961).”
Dashiell Hammett wrote the story that both films were based on. “Yojimbo” and “A Fistful of Dollars,” were based on Hammett’s first novel Red Harvest that was published in 1929. That’s what great writing really means: Stories that can travel beyond language and distance and historical setting. If you believe that The Maltese Falcon or Red Harvest is about hardboiled detectives, you’ve utterly missed the point and you’re holding a fake bird and you paid dearly for it.
More than anything else, it was the strange landscape that made these stories possible. Consider the opening lines of Red Harvest:
"I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name. Later I heard men who could manage their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better."
We all learned better. What we don’t learn is the character’s name. The nameless private detective, the nameless gunslinger and Sanjuro Kuwabatake, the unemployed samurai of “Yojimbo,” exist in a mythic expanse all their own. Leone’s vision of the American West would be the death knell for cowboy movies. All that would follow would be Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” and then Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” Everything else, including Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” would be minor rehashes of themes already fading from the screens of the multiplexes.
Contexts shift and strand characters with nowhere to go. The post-feudal Japan of Kurosawa and the dismal wild west of Leone sustained the mythic elements of their protagonists as the depression era mid-west gave the nameless private detective of Hammett a milieu in which to spin his evil plots against evil men. The samurai movie tradition of Kurosawa died with him and what followed were movies with samurais and ninjas that relied little on narrative. All that was needed was a flimsy excuse to get to the next sword fight. The western died in some forgotten backwater in Mexico with Pike and Dutch and the rest of the Wild Bunch.
What I realized while I watched the beach house burn and the ocean tide rolling up the sand in “Kiss Me Deadly,” was what Mickey was telling me all along. The private detective is as dead as a two-dollar steak and would somebody please get a shovel and bury the stiff.
The first private detective was spit out by a drug-addled and alcohol-soaked Edgar Allan Poe in 1841, or at least that’s what I hear. Not being a historian – or even a critic – that’s the story I’m sticking to. Poe created the mold and it’s been mutating ever since. Poe set down in stone some ground rules in Murders in the Rue Morgue that would last almost a century: The detective is of superior intelligence and class, yet, an outsider who works within the class and justice systems. No scrimping dockworker or charwoman can do this kind of work. Only someone of unexplained wealth with the need to help the police and tweak its nose at the same time will do. This model will posture and strut from Sherlock Holmes to Bruce Wayne and beyond.
For the full text of Murders In The Rue Morgue go here:
What followed Poe was a flurry of pretender pulp writers who offered prurient possibilities that the master would never consider until the next detective entered the scene.
In 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Study in Scarlet. (For the full text, go here.) Doyle changed everything by making it so familiar. Taking this and that from Gaboriau and Poe (and being snarky about them, to boot), Doyle created the quintessential private or consulting detective.
In 1913, E.C. Bently wrote a parody of private detectives in Trent’s Last Case. It’s available from the Gutenberg Project here.
The Golden Age of mysteries arose with C.K. Chesterton and Agatha Christie and while I had a lot of fun writing about this era, I found that Raymond Chandler had said it before and a lot better in The Simple Art of Murder. To read Chandler’s essay, go here.
What Chandler should have guessed – and only suggests – in his essay is that the realism required for his and Hammett’s work would soon be appropriated and it was only a matter of time before the imitations became as formulaic as the English cozy.
Anthony Boucher started spreading the news about Ross Macdonald’s Target in the New York Times Book Review. Boucher said the book was "the most human and disturbing novel of the hard-boiled school in many years." And there the troubles began. Lew Archer – Ross Macdonald’s private detective – had feelings and with that observation, Boucher would influence a generation of upcoming writers with a private detective as the hero.
Dash Hammett and Raymond Chandler were different cracks in a dirty mirror. Their lights refracted from the same place but in different ways. Sam Spade, Doghouse Reilly and all the unnamed ops and dicks were witnesses. Our witnesses. We saw the degradation, greed and foibles of humanity through their eyes. They were never supposed to be our friends or dinner companions. They were paid to sink into the depths of the human sewer and get whatever their client wanted whether it was a black bird, a woman named Velma or the disturbed daughter of a dying general. We didn’t know much about them because they weren’t the kind of people that you knew, only the kind of people that you paid. They were vehicles to another side and critics and intellectuals could create all kinds of mythological precedents and psychological manifestations of the collective unconscious about them but I don’t.
Sometimes things are just what they are.
What followed Ross Macdonald was the beginning of the unraveling of the archetype; the cold errant knight, the distant wisecracking, trench-coated tough guy began to morph into identifiable characters that we could relate with. What we lost was the larger picture of a hostile environment and an ugly, violent, greedy world and what we ended up with are detectives who are people like us solving pedestrian crimes in a recognizable world where the murder is just a peg to hang a comfortable hat on.
What we have these days are the remnants of a style that manifests itself in hardboiled anachronisms with a backstory that make you reach for the aloe-soaked tissues; or sensitive wimps who pack a gun as a fashion accessory and have crowds of convenient friends who know somebody at DMV, IRS, or the FBI and being retired from the CIA and they know every street thug working for the Russian mafia by name.
One of the anachronisms is written by Dennis Lehane and I pick Lehane only because he is so well known. Having liked Mystic River and Shutter Island, I gave his series a shot. Halfway through the third book (I may not have read them in order), I threw it against the wall. All I remembered was that the character is defined by descriptions of his car, his gun and some sorry ass infatuation with his partner who is – of course – beautiful and in a destructive relationship that he desperately wants to save her from. Cars, guns – and stereo systems, for that matter – are not indicative of character. That is not character; that is clutter.
The tough guy with the hot car and the big gun who can’t save the beautiful woman from herself (for himself) is a subplot for soap operas. It seems the perfect setup for that scene where they finally get together and she tells him that she has a rare and incurable blood disease and she’ll be dead by Wednesday.
The other writer I stopped reading was James Lee Burke. Dave Robicheaux was fun the first time around. Maybe, even the third time. But the books are repetitive and filled with sympathy-inducing and manipulative devices that prey on base emotions and knee-jerk – almost sympathetic – responses. If he isn’t haunted by his alcoholism, his dead wife or the child he pulled from a sunken plane, it’s a senior moment where he forgets how to make a po’ boy sandwich or when to water the worms in his bait shop.
Back in the day, private detectives were – as Raymond Chandler described Phillip Marlowe – errant knights. They drank whiskey, black coffee, had affairs with dangerous partners, ate rare steak, had more black coffee with scrambled eggs and sat in cars on stakeouts eating takeout or whatever they found under the seats.
Now, the modern private detective is seeing a therapist, going to Alcohol Anonymous, is on a diet or having a personal struggle with chocolate, or is getting messages from their cat, dog, the weather channel or a dead grandmother. They all have some depressing event that haunts them or some contrived block or problem that could spell either disaster or another session with the therapist or the tarot reader or the Amway distributor.
And far be it from these tough guys to actually engage in violence. There’s violence in the books but not from the protagonist. There’s another convenient friend named Mouse or Hawk or whatever to beat up some schnook who forgot the numbers of the license plate, knows the secret way into the murder’s house, computer, nightclub or library file or is leaning on the protagonist to stop investigating the murder, disappearance, missing pet or unsigned birthday card.
If I read another book with a private detective who needs a hug, I’m throwing it in a fire.
“Kiss Me Deadly” is as poetic as a William Butler Yeats’ poem in describing the passage of the then into the now. As the fire burned – started by nuclear material – it was clear that the private detective could travel from one long-gone dismal environment to another but only in the past. The now is a different animal and there is just no place for shadows of errant knights masquerading as our friends or some self-ego projection of sleuths who knit, do crossword puzzles, quilt, walk dogs, run an animal shelter, a bed and breakfast or a muffler repair shop.
(“I realized that I forgotten to install Miranda’s muffler bearings so after work I drove up to the multimillion-dollar condominium that she bought with the money from modeling and international currency exchanges that she learned from the mail order course only to find her beautiful body floating in the pool. ‘The cops will never figure this one out,’ I said to myself as I began dusting the pool water for prints.”)
The hardboiled detective stories – the real ones – were always about where they took the reader. It wasn’t about the detective. That was what the golden age was about: Locked doors and trivial solutions wrapped around a Poirot or a Whimsey.
(“Miss Dumsfries looked about the room at the assorted suspects and noticed the bemused and baffled Inspector Todd dabbing the tea out of his moustache. Lord Wilford Pence, the former soldier and now collector of rare books, sat upright in his chair, the teacup balanced on one knee. Hillary, the housekeeper, sat on the sofa uncomfortable for she, she thought, should be serving the tea and not cast among these scoundrels as a suspect in a murder. The beautiful and unmarried librarian, Janet Marsden, kept the teacup in both hands in her lap as she returned the disapproving stare of Miss Dumsfries.
“Inspector,” said Miss Dumfires, with an air of finality, “your murderer is in this room and his name is Lord Wilford Pence.”
Lord Pence began to rise and defend his honor when the Inspector motioned him to remain seated.
“Lady Diddlewich, as you recall, was killed by a rare poison that the police assumed was administered at the Balls and Cod café. She had just come from the London Zoo where she told Janet Marsden that a bee had stung her before keeling over and spilling the leek soup and cucumber sandwiches all over the café floor.
“It was at the zoo that the poison was administered and not through a bee but a small dart camouflaged to look like an insect and it was while Lord Pence served with the Queen’s Second Auxiliary Musketeers in Uganda that he learned of this poison.”
“But how could he have shot a dart without being seen at the London Zoo,” asked the mystified Inspector.
“At Cambridge, Lord Pence was a member of the Summer Savoyards and was indoctrinated into the arts of acting, makeup and costumes. And it was at the zoo where costumed as an elephant he shot the dart through the paper-mache trunk into the neck of Lady Diddlewich as she passed on her way to the café. If you remember the newspaper article about the real elephant, you will recall that it was taken ill and its cage was empty and the handlers were nowhere in the vicinity that fateful day that allowed this murder to almost succeed.”
“Well, you’ve done it again, Miss Dumfries,” said the Inspector. “I’ll run him down to the station as soon as I have a scone with a bit of jam.”)
What has happened is a merging of contrived murders with a personality that some niche can identify with: Roger Blackstone, an amputee, diabetic, Leo, ex-homicide detective, rarely leaves the porch of his retirement home that he shares with Olga, a Gemini wisecracking Lesbian physical therapist who defected from the KGB and is now a target of the state department and the Russian mafia. They were both looking for quiet lives on the coast of California but fate dealt them marked cards in The Quiet Death of a Crossing Guard, The Postman Only Dies Once, The White Noise of the Cable Installer and Flowers For The Dead Delivery Guy.
It wasn’t about the detective in hardboiled fiction because Hammett and Chandler had other things to say. The detective was the vehicle, not the destination. Now, the mysteries are trivial and reduced to puzzles that some contrived pastiche of a character runs around and solves the murder while the idiot police fumble or ignore the obvious evidence or never question witnesses.
It isn’t about bad writing (although there’s plenty of that) it’s the utter and total lack of any kind of point of view on the part of the author other than descriptions of the characters and the locale. Which is why so many mysteries that I’m reading lately have become so forgettable.
The enigma has only so many variations before it’s stifled by parody or worse. My fluff level is full and genre fatigue has left me numb to almost all of the newer mystery fiction. The other day I tossed an Ian Rankin book against the wall. It was titled Blood Something or Other and by page twenty-five, I was hearing only formula in the story. Rankin is a successful and respected writer and I’ve read other works by him but it was all beginning to sound the same. It was the drone of the expected, the comfort of the familiar voice and the predictable story with its dependable twists and turns.
When I pick up a mystery, I’m not looking for comfort (although many people read them for just that reason) or formula or the predictable drone of genre. Scare me. Amaze me. Dazzle me. Haunt me. These are my expectations and I’d rather read a book with a failed vision than a book with no vision at all.
So these days I read the masters and the innovators and leave the recent private detective novels for when I have nothing better to do while I wait for some new or new-to-me writer who will break the tedium and deliver a damn fine book that will make all the sorting through this stuff worthwhile.
As for private detectives: If I had the address, I’d send flowers.