This is a design I drew years ago (in markers pencil and gouache) for a story idea created by John Hays, about a weirdo San Francisco private-eye.
It also illustrates a recent reading obsession – DETECTIVES; hard boiled, soft boiled and scrambled. This fascination came to me by way of the informal paperback exchange in my apartment building. Tenants leave their old books on a mantel shelf in the lobby for others to take, and in doing so I discovered many authors I may not have heard of otherwise.
One neighbour is clearly an avid reader of crime fiction, because I found several mysteries by Tony Hillerman that chronicle investigations by Officer JIM CHEE and Lt. JOE LEAPHORN of the Navajo Tribal Police. Another find was a novel by MC Beaton from her series about HAMISH MACBETH, a small town policeman whose beat is the Scottish Highlands. My next score was Carl Hiassen‘s very funny crime novel called SICK PUPPY which follows an outraged environmentalist chasing after corrupt real-estate development in Florida.
But what really got me interested in reading more detective fiction were some books by Robert Crais, featuring smart-alec LA detective ELVIS COLE. Though set in contemporary LA (late 1980s to early 2000s) they are written in the first-person narration I associate with the classic private-eye style. I have read about 7 of the books in this series and due to the funny-tough, sensitive-guy persona of the main character they are very fun to read.
Follow-up reading online lead me to Robert B. Parker and HIS own wise-cracking Boston Private Eye from the 1970s called SPENSER. So far, I have read 4 books about this gourmet cooking, hard punching tough guy with a heart of gold, a character cited as an influence on the Elvis Cole series. Both are tough guys in the private-eye tradition, though neither is hard-boiled all the way through. They have steady girlfriends and their committed relationships make them more than mere lone-wolf private Dicks. Nevertheless, each series has a formula of sorts and I wanted some more variety in my crime-fiction diet…
More research online led me to the Thrilling Detective website; a wonderful resource to find out about writers and characters, learn which series came first, what order books should be read in, find out which writer was influenced by whom and learn what defines a story about a private-eye, as opposed to a police procedural or an amateur sleuth.
After several trips to Green Apple Books I now have a huge stash of 2nd hand crime paperbacks that I am ploughing through… I read a few books by Sara Paretsky featuring tough-gal detective V.I. WARSHAWSKI. Then one of my favourites so far; FLETCH by Gregory McDonald, a very witty and cleverly plotted crime story following the exploits of a wry investigative journalist. Elmore Leonard writes crime fiction full of shady quirky characters and those that we root for straddle the line between “goodie” and baddie”. His style of dialogue is imitated often, and many of his books have been made into movies, such as a very entertaining book I just read called RUM PUNCH (which became JACKIE BROWN).
Generally, I have been working my way backwards in time, so after the modern crime stories I read a few of Ian Fleming‘s 1950s pulp novels featuring JAMES BOND, a character who, I think, owes something to the hard-boiled crime stories of 20s 30s and 40s…
…And they were next on my reading list. I caught up with James M. Cain‘s classic crime novels DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. These aren’t detective novels, but are part of the ROMANS NOIR tradition where some average sap is tempted to do horrible things for love or money, or both (They were made into classic FILMS NOIR).
I really enjoyed re-reading THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett. Although NOT in first person narration, it is written in a sparse, tight, blunt, yet somehow elegant style that has been imitated ever since the book came out in 1930. It is especially satisfying to read if you live in the same neighbourhood as SAM SPADE, and I do; all the action takes place within blocks of my apartment. I wanted to read other adventures of Sam Spade but to my surprise and disappointment, there were no other stories ever written featuring this iconic character.
Thankfully the same is not true of Raymond Chandler‘s creation PHILIP MARLOWE, a hard boiled detective (some would even say THE hard boiled detective) who walked the seedy streets of 1940s and 1950s LA and whose cases spanned 9 novels starting with THE BIG SLEEP. It is no wonder that Raymond Chandler’s style is probably one of the most copied of all time when he has detective Philip Marlowe narrate his cases using lines like these:
“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”
“Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”
That voice that has been ripped-off, referenced and lampooned so often that the spoofs come to mind while reading the books. When reading Hammett and Chandler, it helps to remember that the lines about deadly blondes, the similes about goons, or the scenes where someone falls through the office-door with a knife in their back and riddled with bullet-holes, only to mutter a cryptic clue before dying on the floor, were all NEW when they were written. They somehow remain fresh even today. Even if I think of DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID or a Harvey Kurtzman spoof as I read them, these books are a joy to read.
As a change of pace from gun-toting gum-shoes, and femme fatales, I am now reading Arthur Conan Doyle‘s famous creation, SHERLOCK HOLMES in a collection featuring both novel-length adventures and short stories. The elegant Victorian prose of these tales is a great contrast to the hard boiled style, and once again the pleasure of reading transcends the fact that the character has become something of a much lampooned cliché.
Hard to say how long this obsession will last, but if it has legs I still have to read stories by Mickey Spillane, James Ellroy, and Jim Thompson. Not to mention Edgar Allan Poe, the man credited with inventing the crime novel in 1841 with the publication of The MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE. Then I want to read more Raymond Chandler, and Dashielle Hammett’s THE THIN MAN and ALL the FLETCH novels. Oh, and Ross Macdonald‘s private eye, LEW ARCHER.
OK, must dash; I have a lot of reading to do!