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Detective Fiction


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Detective Fiction

  1. 1. Detective Fiction – The Hero / HeroineThe first protagonists were usually detectives. As the genre evolved, he or she became apoliceman, an insurance salesman, a politician, a reporter, a crook, unemployed, or a bystandersucked into events. However, as the genre branched and crossed with other forms of popularfiction, most hard-boiled heroes and heroines have retained identifiable characteristics.The protagonist embarks on a journey of discovery, like the heroes of classic Westernmythology, such as Odysseus, Percival, and Lancelot, in order to attain a goal or to recoversomething lost. These figures faced dangers, challenges, and temptations that were physical,moral, material, and sexual. Success depended on the acquisition of special knowledge, or on anall-powerful sponsor (a god, patron, muse), fidelity to whom permitted success. There is apersonal cost to the protagonist. Classic detectives, from Poes Dupin to Doyles SherlockHolmes and Chestertons Father Brown, clearly fit this definition. They answer to a higherauthority, whether God or Reason; they have special powers; and they undertake journeys thatput right wrongs and restore the wholeness of persons, families, or communities. In Adventure,Mystery, Romance scholar John Cawelti has shown how these characteristics develop indetective fiction. Robert Skinner has developed this topos specially for the hard-boiledhero/heroine. 1It is significant for the hard-boiled protagonist that the genre began during the urbanization ofEurope and North America, against a background of still-fresh frontier mythology in the latter.This made for heroes and heroines who were urban and urbane, familiar with the intricacies andelites of the city, but still possessed of practical "know-how" and an aggressive attitude toward"unknown geography" and its inhabitants. This breadth of knowledge and abilities, deployed onbehalf of a private person, is a transformation of the divine sponsorship in myth that became akey feature of the American detective tale with Allen Pinkerton and his stories of the "privateeye." The "eye" is by implication all-seeing, just as it appeared on Pinkertons business card.Privately hired omniscience represents a secularization of supernatural power, and Old CapCollier and the pulp heroes mentioned earlier appeared just as the first commercial securityforces were supplementing inefficient, small public police forces.These detectives were obviously different from Sherlock Holmes or other English detectives ofthe same period; they were also different from Poes Dupin. They saw the world from theperspective of the average citizen, the "man on the street," rather than from an educated,aristocratic one. Most scholars feel that a specific historic development accounts for this tone —the settling of the American West, with the resulting populist traditions. William Ruehlmann andMarcus Klein have described how this modified the classic archetype and narrative. 2 Briefly, bythe era of Pinkerton, the U.S. had become a populist country. Hawthorne, Melville, and Jamesmay have characterized American "high culture," but traditions of popular music, popular art,and popular literature took hold among the masses. As Richard Slotkin has shown, elements ofNative American myth combined with frontier tall tales to make heroes of Daniel Boone, DavyCrockett, and Annie Oakley. 3 These hero/ines spoke the vernacular (the language of the people)or even a regional patois, a verbal distinction that hard-boiled fiction recaptures. They alsoshared physical toughness. They could withstand heat and cold, arduous journeys, orsleeplessness. If they were not superior in size, power, or speed, they acquitted themselves well
  2. 2. in one-on-one competitions, such as shooting, fistfights, card-playing, horse or auto-racing, andthe verbal joust. Usually it required a gang to defeat the popular hero in a fight, and no numberwere a verbal match. "Wit and grit" was the phrase associated with these heroes between 1865and 1900.These characteristics in sum outline the hard-boiled hero/ine in the classic period of 1920through 1950. The protagonist was usually a detective of the "private eye" variety, orfunctionally similar. He or she used special expertise to restore a loss, which could mean findinga missing object or bringing a murderer to justice. They did so for little or no money, oftensimply for justice. They met challenges, trials, obstacles, and temporary defeats — werekidnapped, beaten, shot, knifed, snubbed, humiliated, and dismissed as inferiors. It became aritual that the protagonist had to pass out, either from a beating or drugs. The symbolic meaningof this — the heros passage into the underworld — is clear from the classics. Often, in thenarratives of Hammett and sometimes Chandler and Macdonald, the hero has significant dreamsthat relate to the theme. Hard-boiled protagonists who lose consciousness regain it with greaterstrength or clarity or ability, and thereby solve the case. The hard-boiled hero or heroine alsocarries on the tradition of verbal prowess: he or she can use language against opponents and isconscious of words and their effects.More recently Kathleen Klein, in The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre (University ofIllinois Press, 1995) has surveyed nearly 300 female detectives and taken up the question ofwhether or not the genre can actually be progressive. Taking a feminist viewpoint, shedocuments the parallels in social history and the womens rights movement. A very useful andprovocative study1 Skinner, The New Hard-Boiled Dicks (San Bernardino, CA: Brownstone Books, 1995), 7-20;Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, Romance Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 65-72,142-54. 2 William Ruehlmann, Saint With a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye, 21-59;Klein, Easterns, Westerns and Private Eyes, 133-77. 3 Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Detective Fiction – The CodeWhen the protagonist is a detective, she or he is presumed to have a set of ethics or moral values.These are called "the detective code," or simply "the code," when discussing the genre. Thebasics of the code are best summarized by Richard Layman in his discussion of what JamesWright of the Pinkerton Detective Agency taught Dashiell Hammett. To summarize, thedetective should be anonymous, eschew publicity, be close-mouthed, and secretive. He or sheprotects good people from bad people, who do not live by the rules; thus, one may break therules in dealing with them. The detective ignores rules and conventions of behavior, because theclient pays for this. Loyalty to the client is very important, but may be superceded by a personalsense of justice or the rule of law. The detective must keep an emotional distance from thepeople in the case, retain an objective point of view, and consider all pertinent clues.
  3. 3. The classic articulations of the detective code are those delivered by Sam Spade at the end ofDashiell Hammetts The Maltese Falcon and by Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandlers The BigSleep. But these set-pieces are already variations on the basic credo above. Spades speechstresses his loyalty to his ex-partner, his profession, his sense of self-preservation, and his refusalto be a romantic "sap."When a mans partner is killed hes supposed to do something about it. It doesnt make anydifference what you thought of him…. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well,when one of your organization gets killed its bad business to let the killer get away with it. Itsbad all around – bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere…. Since Ivealso got something on you, I couldnt be sure that you wouldnt decide to shoot a hole in me someday…. I dont even like the idea of thinking that there might be one chance in a hundred thatyoud played me for a sucker. (183-84)This is already a narrower, more cynical version of the code. Not surprisingly, Chandlerliberalized Philip Marlowes code in The Big Sleep, stressing his "insubordination" of authorityand his personal thriftiness, instead of a narrow professionalism.Im thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if theres any demandfor it. There isnt much in my trade. I worked for Mr. Wilde, the District Attorney, as aninvestigator once. … I was fired. For insubordination. I test very high on insubordination… (7)Marlowe charges $25 a day and expenses. For solving General Sternwoods blackmail case, hemerits "fifty dollars and a little gasoline" (69), which he volunteers to return when his clientcomplains:"Id like to offer you your money back. It may mean nothing to you. It might mean something tome.""What does it mean to you?""It means I refused payment for an unsatisfactory job. Thats all." (127-8)When Vivian Regan supposes that money motivates Marlowe, he mocks her:"All I have the itch for is money. I am so money greedy that for twenty-five bucks a day andexpenses, mostly gasoline and whiskey, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it; I risk mywhole future, the hatred of the cops and of Eddie Mars and his pals, I dodge bullets and eat sapsand say thank you very much, if you have any trouble, I hope youll think of me, Ill just leaveone of my cards in case anything comes up." (137-38)Marlowe also defines more clearly than Spade did the detectives relation to the law. When MonaMars asserts that "as long as people gamble there will be places for them to gamble, Marlowetells her: "Thats just protective thinking. Once outside the law youre all the way outside….Dont try to sell me on any high-souled racketeers. They dont come in that pattern" (117). ButMarlowe doesnt believe in toadying to the police either: "Its against my principles to tell as
  4. 4. much as Ive told [the police] tonight, without consulting [the client]. As for the cover-up, Ivebeen in the police business myself, you know. They come a dime a dozen in any big city. Copsget very large and emphatic when an outsider tries to hide anything, but they do the same thingsthemselves every other day…." (69-70).Most versions of the "code" share these common points. The private eye is 1) dedicated to theclient, 2) economical, if not thrifty, in his expenses and personal habits, 3) loyal to hisprofession, 4) cooperative, to some degree, with the police, 4) concerned with self-survival, and5) unwilling to be duped by anyone. Later detectives, such as Archer, Spenser, and Warshawski,add a considerable amount of empathetic humanism to the first feature above. Detective Fiction – ThemesTo discuss theme, one must first grasp the difference between the apparent plot and the revealedplot. In the apparent plot of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade is helping Brigid to find a valuableobject and to discover who killed his partner, or so readers think while reading. But when theyhave finished, readers can see that, in retrospect, Spade betrayed and sacrificed her, so as not tobe killed like his partner. This is the revealed plot. In the apparent plot of Farewell, My Lovely,Philip Marlowe is looking for Moose Malloy and delivering ransom for a necklace, but in therevealed plot he has uncovered the lower class and criminal origins of a wealthy, socialite wife,who then kills her old boyfriend, flees, and later commits suicide. The revealed plot often givesreaders the dark side of the authors theme or beliefs, so it must be taken seriously. Ever sinceFrench psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan demonstrated how the revealed plot of Poes "ThePurloined Letter" concerned Poes conflict over his parentage, critics have treated the revealedplot as if it were the writers unconscious. Sometimes this is true, but the revealed plot can alsobe the object of conscious, methodical craft, as in Ross Macdonalds works. The apparent andrevealed plots must merge plausibly in the denouement for a proper sense of closure. Some ofthe more common apparent plots involve: -- the search for a reputedly valuable object that turns out to be worthless. The Maltese Falcon borrowed this motif from Arthur Canon Doyles "The Sign of Four," and it has been popular ever since. It can be reversed, as in Cotton Comes to Harlem, where the apparently worthless bale of cotton actually did contain the missing money. -- an apparent crime that the revealed plot shows to be a repetition of an earlier crime. In Ross Macdonalds The Underground Man, Stanley Broadhurst disappears, running off with a woman, just as his father Leo ran off with a woman years earlier. Archer will find them literally buried one atop the other. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Frank Chambers is finally convicted of murder for accidentally killing his wife in a car accident, when he was acquitted of deliberately killing her (then) husband in a faked accident earlier.
  5. 5. -- the wealthy family with a problem or secret. The Sternwoods, the Grayles, the Galtons, and theBroadhursts need detectives to straighten out their messy lives. Those who believe that the richare scandalous but not in need of correction from their inferiors probably read novelists of theEnglish School or S.S. Van Dine. The hard-boiled novel recruited a readership during theDepression and afterwards in part by appealing to prejudices against the rich, and it has workedthem shamelessly ever since. Of course, the rich have valuable things to lose and the means tohire detectives; many of the rich or their ancestors were once poor, so the story of their ascentcan be scandalous. Paradoxically, the hard-boiled novel often views the rich as prosperingthrough evil means and yet naïve about evil. The detective must be especially vigilant about hiscode when dealing with the rich, who will seduce him by money and manners. In fact, thedetectives parsimony will be most emphasized in novels where wealth is investigated, becausethe circulation of money must be viewed suspiciously. -- the antagonist who is a double of the detective or the author. Edgar Allan Poe is usually credited with inventing this motif in his story "William Wilson." Hammett played with it, in his character Clyde Wynant, who looks like the author, in The Thin Man. Raymond Chandler provided Marlowe with a double in Rusty Regan of The Big Sleep, and he wrote the genres first masterpiece of this type, The Long Goodbye, in which he developed three psychological faces of himself. In The Galton Case Lew Archer essentially investigates the past of a character much like author Ross Macdonald. Paul Auster is a contemporary author who uses the motif in his quasi-detective (but not hard-boiled) novels. -- cleaning up a corrupt town. Although developed in the pulps as far back as the 1870s and 1880s, this plot motif was more often seen in the western and the crime novel until Hammetts Red Harvest. Mickey Spillane is the genres great town-cleaner, taking on the Mafia or the Communist Party in such novels as My Gun Is Quick and One Lonely Night. Detective Fiction – VillainsThe hard-boiled detective novel uses villains differently than does hard-boiled crime fiction. If anarrative has a private eye, there will either be a specific, individualized, bad guy or a culpableclass, diffusing blame over a social strata. Casper Gutman of The Maltese Falcon serves as anexample of the former. No author lets readers get too close to the villain, but Hammett still givesreaders much specific detail about Gutmans physique, his clothes, his habits, his motivations,and his conversational style. Spade meets him three times, and they are conversational equals.Gutman values Spade enough to invite him on the renewed quest to find the falcon. ButHammett makes sure the reader understands that Gutman is evil, implying that he abuses hisdaughter Rhea physically. In the film, this memorable role was played in the film by SidneyGreenstreet.The novels of Ross Macdonald, on the other hand, often have no single, discernable villain. The"evil" that Lew Archer faces has apparent human faces, but Macdonald disperses blame over aclass, a social condition, or he locates it in a distant source, such as Nevada gangsters. In The
  6. 6. Galton Case, Macdonald presents a series of briefly detestable characters – Peter Culligan, MariaGalton, John Galton, Gordon Sable. But the revelation that Sable killed Culligan pales before therevelation of the tragic childhood and youth of John Brown. Sable, after all, killed Culligan tosave his unstable wife, who had been the victim of Culligan and assorted Reno gangsters, whosebrutality Macdonald shows his readers clearly. They are blame-worthy, but the real evil-doersare people who would raise a child as Brown was raised (his mother and stepfather) and theupper classes, living insulated on California hillsides from the perils and promise of "coming tobe" someone genuine that Brown has suffered.In the hard-boiled crime novels of Cain, Woolrich, Thompson and others, however, theprotagonist is the bad guy, so "villainy" is constructed differently. Readers are allowed to know,even to empathize with someone who commits crimes, even murder. The police, legal, orinvestigative structure will be represented by an individual or group who may be brutal or unfair,but who ultimately bring the protagonist to justice. It is not accurate to call these antagonists the"villains," for they represent justice – they are necessary to our sense of proper thematic closure.But their manipulation of the protagonists life can seem so cavalier – as in the bet between D.A.Sackett and attorney Katz in Cains The Postman Always Rings Twice – that we begin tosympathize with murderous Frank Chambers, played sympathetically in the film by JohnGarfield (right). Sackett and Katz become merely the human faces of the legal/insurancestructure that "controls" modern life, predicting all of our choices through actuarial statistics. Inthis sense, the hard-boiled crime novel villainizes the restrictive legal and social structure ofmodern capitalism. But this romantic rebellion can only be made appealing for so long, before asubstitute gratification must be offered: its no fun to rebel if it leads to your death. Theconventions of the genre demand that justice finally be served. If the readers appetizer issympathy for the rebel, then his dessert is relief that he does not meet the rebels fate.Cains Double Indemnity is a good example of a second development in the hard-boiled crimenovel – to give the power structure a human face. Murderous Walter Huffs antagonist is hisoffice colleague Keyes, the ace actuary and three-dimensional character. Huff respects Keyesability, they converse respectfully, and Huff is almost fond of his opponent. This tendency is lessoften encountered in hard-boiled detective fiction, though recent crime and detective novelists,such as Wambaugh, Higgins, and Ellroy, have found sympathetic opponents useful. Detective Fiction – The Femme FataleThe femme fatale, defined simply, is an irresistibly attractive woman, especially one who leadsmen into danger. In hard-boiled fiction, she is usually the protagonists romantic interest. Therehave not yet been any hommes fatales (though they abound in gothic and romance fiction). Theprotagonists involvement with her may range from mild flirtation to passionate sex, but in thedenouement he must reject or leave her, for the revealed plot shows her to be one of the causes ofthe crime.
  7. 7. Like the hard-boiled hero, the femme fatale dates to classic myth. An example is Circe, whoturned Odysseus men into swine in Book X of The Odyssey and the Sirens, whose beauty andalluring song attracted his sailors in Book XII. Odysseus vanquishes the first with a magic rootfrom Hermes and the second by sealing his mens ears with wax. The necessity of extra-humanhelp in resisting the femme fatales sexual temptation is an ancient feature of the archetype;adherance to the "code" fills this role in the hard-boiled novel. Mary Ann Doanes feminist studyexplains how "erotic barter" figures in this fiction as well as in film noir. 1In the Middle Ages, Christianity refashioned this archetype as a devil, called the succubus. Thehard-boiled novel, as William Marling has shown, draws on this concept of a female sexual spiritwho visits men in their sleep and has sexual intercourse with them. Succubae were thought todisguise themselves in women and to be identifiable by such features as small, pointed teeth,pointed ears, and sharp noses. 2 To contrast with the succubus, medieval Grail Romancesdeveloped several more noble types: the compassionate Queen, La belle dame sans Merci (tomodernize, a "heartbreaker"), and the true love. An important attribute of the hero became hisability to distinguish between types of women and to respond accordingly, to discern "goodwomen" from bad. The femme fatale has been roundly condemned as misogynist by feministliterary criticism, though in most (and especially contemporary) hard-boiled narrative the readeris more apt to find modern female characters with some archetypal traits, and female charactersunrelated to the archetype at all, rather than the pure archetype. Hammetts Dinah Brand (RedHarvest) and Janet Henry (The Glass Key) are early examples of femmes fatales who defy themisogynist label. More recently, scholarship on film noir has seen the role of femme fatale asempowering, pointing to Bette Davis and Kathleen Turner, among others.One of the purest archetypal representations, however, also comes from Hammett. GabrielleDain in The Dain Curse is sexually attractive, belongs to a cult, uses drugs, and has small,pointed ears and teeth. The detective has to imprison her in a cottage to see her through deliriumtremens and exorcise her lust. Raymond Chandler gave the same physical features to murderous,sex-obsessed Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep. Had he succumbed to her, Marlowe wouldhave been shot at the novels end. Other classic femme fatale characters (not pure archetypes) areBrigid OShaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, Velma Valento/Helen Grayle in Farewell, MyLovely, Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Phyllis in Double Indemnity. Thesecharacters are more individuated and less archetypal in appearance and personality. Authors tendto deploy the femme fatale in signature fashion. Mickey Spillanes Mike Hammer novels arefilled with buxom blonde killers. Ross Macdonald treats his female characters much moresympathetically and psychologically; few qualify as archetypal. James M. Cain lessened his useafter Double Indemnity; his widowed heroine in Mildred Pierce (1941, not covered in this study)makes her way alone through the Depression. Use of the archetype has not been restricted tomale writers. Honey West, the detective created by Gloria and Forest Fickling, embodied manyarchetypal conventions in her "blonde bombshell" appearance. The femme fatale appears inmany contemporary works. Even those writers who avoid the archetype or "unmask" it, such asSara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, sometimes use it negatively.A good example of how the femme fatale is used creatively is Hammetts The Maltese Falcon.There Sam Spade is attracted to three women, a motif that echoes the ancient Greek Fates, whotell men the future. He is involved in an adulterous affair with his partners wife, Iva Archer. His
  8. 8. secretary, Effie Perrine, is a tom-boyish, competent girl-next-door who would make the perfectspouse. Brigid OShaughnessy, the femme fatale, seems to promise sensuality and wealth, butSpade sees through her – and uses her when she thinks she is using him. The novels end leavesSpade alienated from Effie, who is, ironically, mad that he rejected the "romance" of Brigid,while Iva knocks at the door. It is a grim morality play about making your bed and lying in it.The femme fatale in movies predates the advent of film noir. Theda Bara and Marlene Dietrichalready played the role in the silent era. The type appears in the 1930s crime movies and then infilm noir. Bette Davis was an early example and later used the conventions to portray strongcharacters (Beyond the Forest, The Letter). Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford (right), whohad played strong-willed, working women in the 1930s, enhanced their fading careers in the1940s by playing some of the most dramatic femmes fatales: Stanwyck in Double Indemnity,Clash by Night and Witness to Murder; Crawford in The Damned Dont Cry, Possessed andSudden Fear. Ida Lupino was one of the most convincingly human of the movie femmes fatale(The Asphalt Jungle), contrasting with the icy eroticism of Stanwyck (High Sierra; Beware, MyLovely; While the City Sleeps). Other notable performances include Lana Turners in ThePostman Always Rings Twice, Joan Bennetts in Scarlet Street and Rita Hayworths in Gilda andThe Lady from Shanghai. Detective Fiction – ImageryDetective fiction knows no metaphoric bounds today, but texts of the classic period make use ofcommon kinds of imagery. The images per se vary, but they cluster around the opposition ofhard versus soft, and smooth versus rough. This might seem obvious, but it has some history.The terms "hard-boiled" and "soft-boiled" derive from American commonplaces about eggs.Now that they come in boxes from the store, eggs are less metaphorically central than they oncewere. Fifty years ago most Americans knew to the minute how long they wanted their breakfasteggs immersed in boiling water. A "two-minute egg" had a runny, liquefied yolk, while a "ten-minute egg" was solid throughout. The distinction between hard throughout and soft inside buthard outside was widely known. The "hard-boiled" was in opposition to the "brittle," for underthe shell might be softness.This imagery complimented another about sap. A people closer to nature, whose syrup camefrom maples, knew that "sap" was sticky stuff leaking from trees, which also had hard exteriors.The noun "sap" grew up after the Civil War and appears in Mark Twains work ( "saphead") torefer to someone who is foolish, whose mental processes are not structured and contained. Theverb "to sap" meant to hit someone over the head with a blackjack, causing the victim to become"soft." By the time it appeared in hard-boiled narrative, "sap" meant "sucker" or weak -- theopposite of "hard-boiled." Sap and soft-boiled correspond to sentiment, gratitude, and romanticlove, which would weaken the hard-boiled hero/ine.
  9. 9. The contrast between the smooth and the rough is an extension of the distinction between thehard and the soft, with the added meaning of "modern" vs. "old-fashioned." During the classichard-boiled period, the smooth was urged upon consumers in clothing (ready-made clothesinstead of home-spun) in home appliances (gas and electric ovens, instead of coal stoves) andtransportation (the automobile, instead of the horse). Protagonists of hard-boiled fiction tend tobe clean-shaven, dress in smooth fabrics, drive cars, live in apartments (often efficiencies), andto use modern products. As I argue in The American Roman Noir, hardness and refusal to "playthe sap" are usually synecdochal representions of the modern economy. 1Chandler stands out as the great creator of imagery in the genre and one of the greatest inAmerican literature. Philip Marlowes world abounds in comparisons, giving the detective thecomplexion of a polymath. Chandlers metaphors are mostly similes. They most often describe acharacter memorably on first appearance, saving the author effort when the character reappears.Thus Carmen Sternwood in the first four pages of The Big Sleep walks "as if she were floating,"has teeth "as shiny as porcelain," lowers her eyelashes like "a theatre curtain," sucks her thumb"like a baby with a comforter," and "went up the stairs like a deer" (2-4). The reader understandsthat she is infantile, transparently cunning, and energetic. "Artificial" seems to be the conceptChandler had in mind; he returns to it later in the novel: Carmen acts "as if [she had] artificiallips and had to be manipulated by springs" (147). A description such as the later reminds us ofVictorian machinery – exposed and clumsy. Even here the author indirectly values the modern:that which is seamless, functional, and rhythmic. Chandler often uses similes in earlydescriptions of characters and then invokes them again later.Chandler mined a few subjects for his metaphors, all of which can be seen contributing to hisdescription of General Sternwood in The Big Sleep. Chandlers primary referents were time,mass, motion and inertia. The General "nodded, as if his neck were afraid of the weight of hishead" (7). But Chandler also used California life and the daily culture of Los Angeles: TheGenerals "few locks of white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a barerock" (6). Chandler was intensely conscious of death and disease: The Generals orchids are"plants with nasty meaty fingers and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men" (5).Chandler spent his days at home writing, in a domestic, even kitchen-bound, existence: TheGenerals greenhouse is like a "slow oven," where Marlowe feels "trussed like a turkey1 William Marling, The American Roman Noir, 39-92. See also William Marling RaymondChandler. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Detective Fiction – EvolutionMany detective novelists originally observed the central tenets of the mystery genre, which holdthat readers be presented with all the suspects, that no clues be hidden from the audience and thatthe crime be plausible. They were not concerned with baffling or intricate plots to the extent thatwriters of the English school were, but they still created and preserved mysteries. There was
  10. 10. presumed to be a much closer thematic relation between the apparent and revealed plots than inthe English school.But the hard-boiled genre had no sooner come into focus than writers began to innovate, as istypical of genre fiction. Writers look for ways to win new readers; they strive to keep the genretuned to contemporary mood. Competing for the same audience were crime fiction and crimemovies, which had already discovered that they could reverse the criminal/police equation,making interesting or even sympathetic protagonists from outlaws. Some of these had alreadyappeared in frontier myth and Western fiction. Public rectitude and the movie censors, however,demanded that crime be punished in movies. Insofar as a criminal protagonist approached thestatus of "hero," he had to be justified as a child of hard times, born in a ghetto, homeless duringthe Depression, or scarred by one of the World Wars. This made him societys victim, occupyingthe same social margin inhabited by the private eye. Unlike the private eye, who could "see"through people, events, mores, and social strata, the criminal hero saw the rest of society asimpenetrably walled off, incomprehensible. No knowledge or skill or manners would vault himover to the other side, where the winners, the lucky, and the rich lived. Thus, his or her whole lifeassumed the "fated" tone that was usually restricted to the discovery portion of the private eyenovel. In David Maddens invaluable collection on the "tough guy novelists," Joyce Carol Oatesfamously remarked of James M. Cains heroes that their knowledge of the world seems "limitedto the radius of their desire." Desire is key: not possessed of the private eyes "vision," thecriminal protagonist usually seems to act out of desire, which s/he believes is the universalcommon denominator. Overlooked by readers is the fact that, when the criminal is a first-personnarrator, s/he knows the outcome already but suppresses it. Readers, however, attend to crimefiction or movies only partially because of their identification with desire and its objects. Theyalso know that there is a "corrective" to pure desire, be it arrest or death. The readers prurientidentification is balanced by acceptance of this fate. The reading motive becomes: How far candesire proceed before the inevitable punishment? Both the private eye and the crime novelsfeature hero/ines who pay a price for pursuing an object or a quest and who are left the wiser, butthe crime novels wisdom is far darker. At its most dire, there is statement of Cornell Woolrich:―First you dream, then you die.‖The hard-boiled novel began to branch as Raymond Chandler, in the late 1940s and early 1950s,sought to make it not only a vehicle of social comment but of autobiographical reflection. AfterThe Long Goodbye (1953), some hard-boiled fiction began to shed its toughness and some of the"code." Ross Macdonald came to the fore of this "progressive" edge of the genre in The GaltonCase (1959) and took it to fulfillment in The Underground Man (1971). Scholars such as EricMottram believe that this exhausted the "formal" possibilities of the genre, for Lew Archer"finally sees the genre into impossibility, moving into fictions of self-deception and selfexpenditure." 1Archer had descendents – Robert Parkers Spenser, for example – but it is true that hard-boiledfiction branches like kudzu after Macdonald. Some authors availed themselves of techniquesmade familiar through Modernist texts; works such as Higgins 1974 novel Cogans Trade (seebelow) consisted of fragments of conversation overheard and assembled by the reader. Thisnovel paved the way for The Sopranos television series. Other writers followed the contemporarylines of development represented by ethnic literature and renascent regionalism. After the
  11. 11. African-American detective came the woman, the Jewish, the Native American, the Creole, andthe Asian-American detective. In the 1980s there were detectives whose beats were Detroit orBoston, Cincinnati or Chicago, New Orleans, or Indianapolis. In the 1990s there were art-dealing, cab-driving, and handicapped detectives. "A detective for everyone" reflects the fact thatthe genre has adapted to another change: the fragmentation of mass media markets, begun bycable television in the 1980s. Niche marketing may seem like a diminution, but its well toremember that hard-boiled fiction began as niche fiction, and its still quite strong. The Los Angeles Detective Novel Los Angeles has long been the chief locale of the American detective novel. The world of itsracial minorities, however, was marginalized by the Perry Masons and Phillip Marlowes andthen repressed by the LAPD procedural. It has been reclaimed by Ezekial ―Easy‖ Rawlins, theAfrican-American detective of Walter Mosley. The background of Devil in a Blue Dress (1990),from details of the 1940s to the protagonist’s early job in an aircraft plant, is indebted to ChesterHimes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), but from there Mosley recaptures the ―Central‖district of Chandler and extends the geography of the LA detective to the black communities ofWatts and Compton. Worried about paying his mortgage, Easy takes $100 to find a blonde,Daphne Monet, who favors nightclubs on the black side of town. She has stolen $30,000 of herwhite patron’s money which, after an immersion in the world of sexual debauchery and racepolitics that leads her to kill one man, she splits with Easy and his violent sidekick Mouse. Easyhas a distant and antagonistic relation to the LAPD; instead, Mosley thematizes Easy’s pride inhome ownership and ends the novel with him watering his yard and pondering the morality ofthe justice that has transpired. In A Red Death (1991), Easy owns apartment buildings he boughtwith stolen money that he recovered and kept. Pursued by the IRS, he cooperates by spying on aunion organizer, and again extortion and murder have underworld roots. The third Easy Rawlinsnovel, White Butterfly (1994), is set in 1956. Easy helps police investigate the murders of fouryoung women, one of whom, a UCLA student and daughter of a city official, led a double life asa stripper. These novels prize the vernacular details of African-American life, but emphasize theconstant compromises required to ―get along with the Man.‖Mosley’s recent work has departed from the genre; his mantle has been taken up by GarAnthony Haywood, whose detective Aaron Gunner operates from an office behind a Wattsbarber-shop in Fear of the Dark (1989) and All the Lucky Ones are Dead {2000). Haywood’snovels are more driven by dialog and less violent than Mosley’s. Most recently Paula Woods hasbrought the African-American LA sleuth novel full circle, introducing black LAPD DetectiveCharlotte Justice (Inner City Blues [1999], Stormy Weather [2001], Dirty Laundry [2005], andStrange Bedfellows [2006]). Lucha Corpi and Michael Nava have created Chicano/a detectives. In Corpi’s Eulogy for aBrown Angel (1992), Detective Gloria Damasco and her friend find a four-year-old boy deadduring a Chicano Civil Rights march in Los Angeles in 1970. She returns to the case eighteenyears later, employing a ―dark gift‖ that allows her to dream and to see answers to problems.Cactus Blood (1995) is set in Delano during the farmworkers’ strike of 1973, and Black Widow’sWardrobe (2000) delves into folklore. Nava weaves Chicano history and folklore in his stories ofdetective Henry Rios, a gay lawyer, who moves from San Francisco to Los Angeles in How
  12. 12. Town (1990) and investigates the city in The Hidden Law (1992), The Death of Friends (1996),The Burning Plain (1997) and Rag and Bone (2001). The contemporary LA detective novel shows breadth and depth. Michael Connelly, whoworked as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, updates the romantic LA detective toinclude the reality of time cards and weekend rotations in his 12 ―Harry Bosch‖ L.A.P.D. novelspublished between 1996 and 2008. Another police procedural writer, T. Jefferson Parker, haswritten 15 novels set mostly in Orange County or San Diego. Better known is JonathanKellerman, whose child psychologist detective Alex Delaware stars in 21 novels. DeniseHamilton, another ex-Times reporter, has written five detective novels about reporter EveDiamond, who investigates crime in the local Latino, Asian, and Russian communities. LA’sOrthodox Jewish community provides the settings for Faye Kellerman’s 17 novels about policedetective Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, and Rochelle Majer Krich has nine Jewish-themed PInovels. There is a throwback: Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Petersis a private detective whoinvestigates film stars in 1940s Hollywood. Kem Nunn has pioneered a ―surfer/noir‖ variationof the detective in a trilogy (Tapping the Source, 1984; Dogs of Winter, 1997; and TijuanaStraits, 2004) that pursues the environmental themes to which Macdonald, an avid birder, turnedin The Underground Man (1971), set during the 1964 Coyote Canyon fire, and Sleeping Beauty(1973), whose central event is the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. Although LA gained a place in detective fiction rather late, it has become an iconic locale.Films such as Chinatown have reinforced the mystique. Combining important industries such asoil, aviation, and cinema with terrain stretching from the Pacific over mountains to high desert,Los Angeles has offered writers endless possibilities. Its twentieth-century evolution into ahighly multicultural city presages LA’s continued importance in the genre.1 Eric Mottram, "Ross Macdonald and the Past of a Formula," Art in Crime Writing:Essays onDetective Fiction, Ed.Bernard Benstock (New York: St. Martins, 1983), 98.