Monday, 27 January 2014



meGeoff’s Guide to Detective Noir


Wilkie Collins, a contemporary of Charles Dickens and author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone is generally credited as the originator of fiction’s mystery genre. In Britain the format gradually evolved from Victorian melodrama into deductions voiced before the assembled cast of characters in the drawing room: The butler did it with a candlestick in the library. The current incarnation of dark and often violent police procedurals abundantly populated with flawed, maverick protagonists owes more to the American detective story than the works of Agatha Christie or P.D. James.


Consider our neighbour south of 49 100 years ago. The New World republic peopled with Europe’s disenfranchised is expanding ever west, cities are being built in deserts. Big Oil has been birthed. The American Dream is a function of mass production and the Oz illusion that this hard won and still young democracy offers opportunity and a fair shake to all of its citizens. Everything’s on the up and up, there’s no seething underbelly to speak of: In God We Trust. Thing is, everybody wants a piece of the free market action, at least a wedge slice of the American Dream with two toppings whatever the cost. The best of American literature, music and art, an astounding canon, has long laid bare The Big Lie. Detective noir, a uniquely American creation, provided us with the lurid and sordid details.


Movable type was conceived in China, probably 1000 years after the birth of Christ. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press some 400 years later; it was the Internet of the Dark Ages (except most people were illiterate). Efficiencies followed centuries later with the invention of the steam engine and the idea of imprinting with a rotating cylinder rather than the much slower process of pressing down one impression at a time on a flatbed. In the States this mechanization gave rise to the pulps, inexpensive themed magazines printed on inexpensive paper; an affordable, low budget entertainment option for many. The writers were not paid particularly well. (As one science-fiction scribbler wrote to a friend, ‘The big money is in religion.’ Those are the words of L. Ron Hubbard, hope that sentiment sits well with your inner thetan.) Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the absolute apex of detective noir was initially serialized in a pulp rag.


The hardboiled, cynical private detective Sam Spade casts such a towering shadow over the genre that it gives one pause to recall that the character appeared in a single novel. Hammett’s other creations included the nameless Continental Op and sleuthing socialites Nick and Nora Charles whose dog Asta remains a staple solution in The New York Times crossword puzzle. Spade’s equal is Philip Marlowe whom Raymond Chandler introduced to readers in The Big Sleep. Marlowe’s turf is down the coast highway from Spade’s San Francisco, but his City of Angels which he describes as ‘having all the personality of a paper cup’ becomes a character itself alongside its resident unhinged psychotics, hoods and femmes fatale. Both men are sharp-eyed observers of their surroundings – hey, they’re detectives, but their commentaries on the depravity of the human condition and the foibles of the rich, powerful and spoilt crackle with as much electricity as the characters’ realistic dialogue.


Crime writers seem to love Los Angeles as much as Randy Newman. Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, a worthy successor to Marlowe, prowls its mean streets alone. James Ellroy, the reigning king of modern noir who may be as whacked as some of his more extreme characters, continually mines the city’s corrupt and colourful past. Elvis Cole, the wise-cracking private detective conceived by Robert Crais, lives in the same neighbourhood as Michael Connelly’s L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch. In the weave of mood and atmosphere in fictional, alternative reality L.A. these two anti-heroes are actually on nodding terms with one another.


Travis McGee is not a licensed private eye. Instead, he is a self-described ‘salvage expert’ and ‘rusted knight errant’ who will work for a monetary percentage of whatever needs to be recovered. He lives alone on a houseboat (won in a poker game) in Fort Lauderdale. John D. MacDonald’s McGee stories are notable for their prescient undercurrent of the ecological impact of greed-fueled overdevelopment and the arrogant futility of capitalism’s attempts to harness and control nature. One more armed and solitary figure splashes through the puddles of The Lonely Silver Rain.


Robert B. Parker’s one-named Spenser (‘like the poet’) is a hybrid of Marlowe and McGee. Parker’s Boston is as present as Chandler’s L.A.; the reader may never have been there, but they will know it like the back of their hand. Like McGee, Spenser operates by an idealized personal code of conduct which is above the ignoble grasp of ordinary average guys, their fans. Each has a sidekick: McGee the hirsute economist Meyer, his slip neighbour; while Spenser calls upon the ultra Shaft-like, mysterious and lethal Hawk As with Mickey Spillane’s ham-fisted Mike Hammer, Parker’s Spenser and Hawk sometimes teeter dangerously on the precipice of pulp or comic book super heroism. However Parker’s dialogue is as witty and snappy as Elmore Leonard’s.


Disgraced New Orleans ex-cop Clete Boyer is Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux’s sidekick. Both are shockingly violent alcoholics, except that Dave is a dry drunk and a bit more rational with a bittersweet, default fondness for Dr. Pepper. The skies over the Louisiana bayous in the Parish of New Iberia are oppressive, purple and iron, a storm is always imminent, death lurks in the swamps. Author James Lee Burke forces you to inhale the twin reeks of humidity and heat, the organic rot of antebellum history. How can a reader bypass a novel called In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead? Like Spenser, Robicheaux conducts himself by a unique and peculiar personal code; both men are Korean War veterans although each seemed to cease ageing sometime before 1980 even as real time marched on in their respective constituencies and in the narratives of their creators.

Somewhere out there tonight in your town, in the lee of a recessed doorway away from the lemon sidewalk cast of the street light, there is a good yet unfriendly man in a trench coat who signed on for a job at an hourly rate plus expenses because nobody else would. As to why he did, well, therein lies the mystery. And if your conscience lets you sleep at night, why, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

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