He's the coolest operator in books and movies. No wonder the dick is back
That all-American hero. the private eye, arrived with guns blazing in the pages of pulp magazines nearly 80 years ago. From the Twenties to the early Forties, he fought killers, corrupters and saboteurs, homegrown and imported. He sipped ocktails and swung to cool jazz through the post-war Fifties. hunted runaways, battled drug dealers and danced the Watusi in the Sixties and then was rudely shoved into the shadows by superspy James Bond and his Cold Warrior brethren. The Eighties found the P.I. bound and gagged by political correctness, male sensitivity and the female insensitivity of hard-boiled sister shamuses who tried to elbow him out of the profession.
In the Nineties. he seemed set up to follow his forefather, the cowboy, into the big sleep. But suddenly, swept along with the retro-hip rebirth of swing, martini society, quiz shows and the Rat Pack, and just in time for the new millennium---the dick is back.
By rough count there are nearly 100 male private eyes prowling the mean streets of American fiction, with another 20 or so battling wrongos in Australia, Canada and Europe. Led by older pros like Robert B. Parker's Spenser and Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder, and a new generation of gumshoes, including Robert Crais' Elvis Cole and Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins, the P.I. is once again making his mark on best-seller lists.
He has even rekindled the interest of Hollywood. where the mystery story was tagged D.O.A. three decades ago. In the past few years we've seen an influx of nosy new sleuths, including Bill Pullman's neurotic Sherlock, Daryl Zero, in Zero Effect, Nicolas Cage in 8mm, Paul Newman in Twilight and Clint Eastwood in True Crime. The mock documentary Where's Marlowe? about two gonzo filmmakers who focus on a private eye of the old school and get sucked into one of his cases failed upward from discarded TV pilot to art movie favorite. Denzel Washington's quadriplegic detective matched wits with a serial killer in The Bone Collector. And Ewan McGregor's nameless, extremely patient investigator spent more than a decade observing his homicidal but nonetheless captivating quarry (Ashley Judd) in Eye of the Beholder.
There's more: In 15 Minutes Robert De Niro is a detective who teams up with an arson investigator (Edward Burns). Keanu Reeves will be on the trail of a serial killer in Driven, and will follow that up with Shooter, a suspense flick based on Stephen Hunter's Point of Impact. James Ellroy's skip tracer-P.I. Fritz Brown (Michael Rooker) will make his film debut in Brown's Requiem.
Where movies go, television follows. The good-guy vampire in Angel (David Boreanaz) has opened a private detective agency in Los Angeles, and A&E is airing telemovies based on popular literary dicks. Joe Mantegna has already checked in as Robert Parker's Boston P.I. Spenser in Spenser: Small Vices. Maury Chaykin and Tim Hutton are the cerebral, sedentary Nero Wolfe and his resourceful legman Archie Goodwin, respectively, in Rex Stout's Golden Spiders. And, shades of Dan Tanna, Sean Patrick Flanery and Guy Torry are two private eyes working Las Vegas in The Strip on UPN.
What put the private eye back into the public eye? Ask a dozen mystery writers and many will agree with Bill Crider, author of Murder Takes a Break and other mysteries featuring Texas investigator Truman Smith. "You can't keep a good man down." he says. "Americans have always loved the lone hero who has the skill and ability to set things right. It's part of a great literary tradition."
The new breed of dicks is a bit different, however. "The two-fisted superstud no D-cup-packing blonde could resist was fun and relatively hermless," says Gar Anthony Haywood, author of the Aaron Gunner series. "But now that his female contemporaries have taught him it's OK to be human as well as superhuman, his appeal is just that much greater." Les Roberts, whose humane Slovenian American shamus Milan Jacovich appears currently in The Best-Kept Secret, is quick to note that "nobody went too far in that direction. Who'd want to read about Alan Alda. Private Eye?"
Richard Barre, the award-winning author of Blackheart Highway and other mysteries about southern California surfer-sleuth Wil Hardesty, sums it up: "We're writing about a shining knight in a tarnished land, a flawed loner who, against the odds, sets out to make things right. Try doing that with a lawyer."
From Race Williams to Easy Rawlins
---a short P.I. history---
Just as clean as a whistle I had pulled and shot him straight between his bloodshot eyes.
---Race Williams, in an early Carroll John Daly Novelette
The private eye. as we have come to know him, was born on June 1, 1923. His office was between the covers of a pulp magazine titled Black Mask, and the name on the door was Race Williams. A tender soul, Williams removed punks with gusto ("I squeezed lead---and the show was over. He was dead five times before he hit the floor"). But as Ron Goulart, editor of the anthology The Hardboiled Dicks, has noted, Williams and his creator, Carroll John Daly, always justified his actions: "You can't make hamburger without grinding up a little meat."
The editorial reins of Black Mask passed through many hands, including those of George Jean Nathan and H.L. Mencken, before they were firmly grasped by Joseph T. Shaw, a former WWI Army captain who'd never even read the magazine. That accomplished, he settled on one author whose stories would form the prototype for the Black Mask style, an ex-Pinkerton detective named Dashiell Hammett.
When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it.
---Sam Spade. In Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1930)
Hammett's heroes of the Thirties were slightly ruthless, cynical, hardbitten professionals operating in an era of open lawlessness. The men they dealt with were corrupt and evil, the women not much better. The author's big three were Sam Spade, the most famous of all private eyes, whose fictional adventures are limited to one novel and three short stories; Nick Charles, whom Hollywood dubbed the Thin Man, though in his only novel the title referred to the victim; and the otherwise nameless Continental Op, troubleshooter for the Continental Detective Agency, a fat-and-40 detecting machine who, in The Dain Curse, drives a young woman to a state of nervous collapse with his relentless investigation. When her fiance reprimands him with the words "I hope you're satisfied with the way your work got done," the Op replies, "It got done."
If the Thirties belonged to Spade and the Continental Op, the next decade was the private property of a cultured, hard-drinking, two-fisted and often lonely gent named Philip Marlowe. His author, Raymond Chandler, was British public school-educated, a victim of this country's Depression who, in his 40s, picked up a copy of Black Mask and wrote a story that the magazine published later that year. Many novelettes followed, and while the detective's name changed, the character remained the same. He became Philip Marlowe in the novel The Big Sleep.
Marlowe's books are all first-person narratives, allowing him to be introspective, to make a few judgments of his own. to be wrong about a few things and to enjoy it when he is right. Chandler's rich use of similes and metaphors has never been matched, and his flowing commentary on southern California could form a tourist guidebook and probably has. Along with his penchant for cynical observations and wisecracks, Marlowe was endowed with a strong code of justice and was driven to do all he could to restore morality and justice to a corrupt world.
Setting oneself up as moral arbiter was a tough job for both hero and author. Reflecting Chandler's growing disillusionment with his own life and times, Marlowe's narrative soured and took on a note of desperation.
Let the telephone ring, please. Let there be somebody to call up and plug me into the human race again. Even a cop. . . . Nobody has to like me. I just want to get off this frozen star.
---Philip Marlowe. In Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister (1949)
Chandler died March 26, 1959, of bronchial pneumonia. Throughout his literary life he bitterly regretted that the establishment had shunned him, that he had never been accepted as a genuine novelist. As he put it in a letter years before his death, "I'm a little tired myself and a little discouraged. Having just read the admirable profile of Hemingway in The New Yorker, I realize that I am much too clean to be a genius, much too sober to be a champ and far, far too clumsy with a shotgun to live the good life."
Regardless, his protagonist became the model for all ensuing eyes. Some embraced his ideals, others his flippant speech. (continued on page 156)Private Eye(continued from page 98) Prominent among them was a no-non-sense avenger who shifted the locale from the West Coast to the East and upped the ante on sex and sadism.
Some day, before long, I'm going to have my rod in my mitt and the killer in front of me. I'm going to watch the killer's face. I'm going to plunk one right in his gut, and when he's dying on the floor, I may kick his teeth out.
---Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, In I, The Jury (1947)
Spillane understood the mood of postwar America better than most other mystery writers of the day, and he profited from the knowledge. Readers couldn't get enough of a self-reliant hero who didn't feel the need to follow the rules of law. The bad guys didn't. Why should Hammer? His only restriction was the number of bullets he could load into his Army-issue 45. His only distractions were the incredibly beautiful and available women who threw themselves at him. He would pause to look and give the reader an intriguing description, but he rarely acted rashly. The dame trying to crawl up his pants might be a stone killer.
Only two years after Hammer put two slugs into the belly of a lady he almost loved ("How could you?" she asked him as she faded. "It was easy," he replied), a new, considerably less violent California shamus hung out his shingle.
The thought of Sue fell through me like a feather in a vacuum . . . I wondered where she was, what she was doing, whether she'd aged much as she lay in ambush in time, or changed the color of her bright head.
---Lew Archer, Recalling his ex-wife, in Ross MacDonald's The Doomsters (1958)
When he arrived in Ross Macdonald's 1949 novel The Moving Target, Lew Archer, though no shrinking violet, was a kinder, gentler private eye than Spillane and even Chandler might have imagined. It took a while for readers to appreciate him. Chandler wrote to critic James Sandoe that he was impressed by Macdonald. But he thought the newcomer was giving Archer a voice that was too intellectual for his background, describing a car as being "acned with rust" and using medical Latin.
Regardless of the criticism, Macdonald freely admitted being influenced by Chandler. There was a difference however. Archer---divorced, world-weary and disillusioned---had fallen heir to the society that Marlowe only foresaw. By maintaining the earlier detective's shining knight's stance, Macdonald's private eye found himself in a society that had more or less accepted corruption and injustice. Out of step, confused as to why the world should be in such awful shape, he continued to plumb the murky past, searching for clues as to exactly what went wrong.
Was he not the perfect sleuth for the age of anxiety? John Leonard, then editor of The New York Times Book Review, seemed to think so. William Goldman's glowing front-page review of The Goodbye Look in 1969, along with Leonard's page two interview with Macdonald in that same issue, turned the novel into a best-seller. Macdonald's books continued to make the lists for as long as he was able to write.
By the middle of 1983, when he finally succumbed to complications caused by Alzheimer's disease, his immediate successor had been on the scene for nearly a decade.
[I get] a hundred a day and expenses. But I'm running a special this week; at no extra charge I teach you how to wave a blackjack.
---P.I. Spenser, to a prospective client, in Robert B. Parker's Mortal Stakes (1975)
When he appeared in The Godwulf Manuscript, Robert B. Parker's Spenser was nearly a dead-ringer for Philip Marlowe, down to the British-poet last name and wiseguy attitude. There were also elements of Dashiell Hammett's lean style and Ross Macdonald's empathy for the helpless. No surprise, since the author had written a doctoral dissertation on the three writers. Over the years, he has moved the character further and further from the prototypes of Marlowe and Archer. Forget about that lonely P.I. life, dining at greasy spoons and passing dreary nights in drearier apartments. Spenser lives comfortably and dines as well as Nero Wolfe. He also has a proper nuclear family consisting of a loving if difficult significant other, an adopted son, a good friend and even a dog.
A while back, Parker began to streamline his novels, discarding complexity of plot in favor of straight-ahead quests interrupted by personal byplay involving his regular cast of characters. Readers haven't seemed to mind that the books are now primarily adventure stories, especially since Spenser continues to excel at clever repartee and satisfying methods of problem solving.
Today, among the many male P.I.s happily employed, two are the most likely candidates to carry the genre through the next couple of decades. One began in Spenser's footsteps, the other took an entirely different path.
I produced the P.I. license and the license to carry, and watched him read them. "Elvis. This some kind of bullshit or what?"
"After my mother."
"Guess you take some riding about that."
"My brother Edna had it worse."
---Elvis Cole, Goofing on a Cop, in Robert Crais' The Monkey's Raincoat (1987)
At the start of his career, in Robert Crais' The Monkey's Raincoat, Elvis Cole was a younger, hipper version of Spenser. He was flippant in the face of adversity, took delight in delineating the meals that crossed his educated palate and had the assistance of a semi-sociopathic sidekick when needed. He even had a cat to stand in for Spenser's mutt. Over the years, the gap between the two characters has widened. Parker has been changing his own formula. And, as is especially evident in Crais' current novel, L.A. Requiem, he has been moving both Elvis and his partner Joe Pike kicking and screaming into maturity. Good for Elvis and good for the genre. The changes in the lives of Spenser and Elvis have occurred slowly, with their stories progressing in more or less annual installments. The other newly famous private eye has been presented in a chronological format as unconventional as he is.
I tried to think of better things. About our new young Irish president and Martin Luther King, about how the world was changing and a black man in America had the chance to be a man for the first time in hundreds of years. But that same world was being rocked almost daily by underground nuclear explosions and the threat of war.
--- Easy Rawlins, at the Dawning of the Sixties, in Walter Mosley's Black Betty (1994)
When we first meet the unlicensed African American detective Easy Raw-lins, in Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), he is a WWII vet, recently let go from his defense plant job and searching for a woman in the jazz clubs of 1948 Watts. His second appearance, in A Red Death (1991), picks him up in 1953, with Los Angeles dividing its time between redbaiting and blacklisting. And so it's gone for the other books in the series. The idea of a time-tripping P.I. was not precisely new. Max Allan Collins, a prolific wordsmith, had pioneered the concept, using it to place his hero, Chicago dick Nathan Heller, on the scene for historical mysteries (e.g., the current Majic Man in which Heller checks out the 1949 UFO crash landing in Roswell). Mosley's purpose seems more personal and more ambitious. With a unique voice, vivid characterizations and inflection-perfect dialogue, he not only presents the full adult life of his character, he provides us with eras and locations and moods and feelings rarely explored in mass market fiction. How he will handle Easy's inevitable destiny with contemporary times and old age is anybody's guess. But right now, Mosley remains one of the private eye novel's great hopes for the future.
P.I. Style, Then and Now
I was wearing my powder blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on 4 million dollars.
---Philip Marlowe, calling on a client, in Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939)
I was wearing blue jeans, white sneakers, a white oxford shirt, a gray and blue tie, and a dust-colored linen jacket. My glasses were clean, and the two small surgical steel hoops in my left earlobe sparkled.
---Atticus Kodiak, calling on a client, in Greg Rucka's Smoker (1998)
I set myself on my heels and hit him in the jaw. It wasn't the smartest thing to do. My legs were middle-aging, and still wobbly. If I missed the nerve, he could cut me to ribbons with his left alone. But the connection was good. I left him lying.
---Lew Archer, getting tough, in MacDonald's The Barbarous Coast (1956)
Evandro's hands clawed at my face and I dug my hands into the flesh under his rib cage. I spun, tightening my fingers on his lowest ribs, and hurled him over Angie's vanity chest and into the mirror. I watched his slim body crest her makeup and crash through the glass. The mirror cracked in large, jagged pieces the shape of dorsal fins and the candle flames sputtered, then flared as they fell to the floor. I dove over the bed as he came down and the entire vanity came with him.
---Patrick Kenzie, getting tough, in Dennis Lehane's Darkness, Take My Hand (1996)
Dinah stuck to gin. I tried that for a while, too, and then had another gin and laudanum. For a while after that I played a game, trying to hold my eyes open as if I were awake, even though I couldn't see anything out of them. When the trick wouldn't fool her anymore I gave it up. The last thing I remembered was her helping me on to the living room Chesterfield.
---The Continental OP, being entertained by a lady, in Hammett's Red Harvest (1929)
I should have realized that I'd fucked up when the blow job was too good, too professional. But just as soon as the thought came, so did I. And a thin, sharp needle plunged into my thigh, so sharp and thin I didn't really notice it until I realized I was completely paralyzed, conscious but without muscular control. I had to watch without resistance as the blonde quickly stripped me out of my clothes. All of them.
---Milo Milodragovitch, Being Entertained by a lady, in James Crumley's Bordersnakes (1996)
The Beat Detective Novels Ever
(1) The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
(2) The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
(3) The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler
(4) Farewell, My Lovely, Raymond Chandler
(5) The Little Sister, Raymond Chandler
(6) Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
(7) I, The Jury, Mickey Spillane
(8) A Is for Alibi, Sue Grafton
(9) Eight Million Ways to Die, Lawrence Block
(10) Too Many Cooks, Rex Stout
Ten Dicks Worth Hiring
If it's a top-of-the-line P.I. you want, who are you going to call?
(1) Bill Pronzini's "Nameless." Working more or less continuously in San Francisco since 1971. Has undergone many personal ordeals---a cancer scare, a spiky romance that has led to a difficult marriage, the suicide of his former partner and the desertion of a few publishers. Still, his success average is high, his reputation solid.
(2) Joe Gores' Dan Kearny. Heads up the San Francisco detective agency bearing his initials, DKA. Still the same famously unsentimental pro he was in his first hardcover appearance in Dead Skip, back in 1972. You're not just hiring Kearny, you're hiring his whole crew of likable if sometimes loopy associates.
(3) Robert B. Parker's Spenser. In business since 1973. Originally a Boston-bred clone of Philip Marlowe; is now his own man. Whips up gourmet dishes while being a sensitive guy with his difficult main squeeze. Faces off thugs and killers with flair and humor. If your case requires action too morally borderline for Spenser to handle, he'll call in his more pragmatic pal Hawk.
(4) Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder. Debuted in The Sins of the Fathers (1976) as a boozer wracked with guilt over having accidentally shot a seven-year-old girl. Slow self-improvement kick has paid off. Currently sober and happily married to a bright, self-sufficient former call girl. If your problem is particularly hairy, he may seek homicidal assistance from Mick Ballou, a churchgoing Irish mobster buddy.
(5) Loren Estleman's Amos Walker. Honorable, dependable sleuth employing wisecrack, wit and muscle. Has been getting the job done in Detroit since 1980. Not crazy about divorce work.
(6) Jeremiah Healy's John Francis Cuddy. Boston P.I. with law training. Uses attorney's skills in eliciting information. Not as flashy as fellow Beantowner Spenser, nor does he eat as well. But he delivers results. Widowed for more than 15 years, he still visits his late wife's grave to discuss his cases. Even weirder, he follows her advice.
(7) Robert Crais' Elvis Cole. Originally modeled after Parker's Spenser, with smart mouth, gourmet palate and dangerous sidekick (Joe Pike). Is hipper and considerably less smug than Spenser, and thanks to LA sunshine, has a better tan. Will work for Disney collectibles.
(8) Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone. As tough and resilient and clever as any of her brothers in the racket. Almost single-handedly kept the fictional private eye from drooping shut in the late Eighties. Then, in an astonishing show of strength and staying power, went on to top best-seller lists with a frequency that would have brought tears to Philip Marlowe's eyes. The only trick to hiring her today is that (as Grafton points out in the current O Is for Outlaw) she's "caught up in a time warp and is currently living and working in the year 1986."
(9) Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. Veteran of the Big One, WWII. Past retirement age, but is still able to go biblical when hunting killers: vengeance will forever be his. Likes the dolls, but is true to his beloved secretary Velda. And never lets the ladies stand in the way of business.
(10) Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski. With Grafton's Millhone, kept the PI game going through the hard-scrabble Eighties and early Nineties. Hard-boiled, tough and resourceful, can handle nearly any case. Record is especially strong when it comes to getting the goods on establishment greedheads. In her own way, as vengeful as the Hammer.
Six P.I. Movies you didn't see
But should have
(1) The Maltes Falcon (a.k.a. Dangerous Female) (1931). Not in the same class with John Huston's version, this first film adaptaion of the Hammett novel nevertheless hews just as closely to the book and has the distinction of having made in roughy the same period. Ricardo Cortez' Sam Spade is silkier than Bogart's and a shade more decadent.
(2) You Never Can Tell (1951). In this fantasy, a murdered dog returns to earth in human form to hunt down his killer. Dick Powell's entertaining sleuth-hound is like Philip Marlowe with fleas. But even with him constantly nibbling kibble, the film manages to be as witty and suspenseful as it is goofy.
(3) Darker Than Amber (1970). Rod Taylor certainly wouldn't be anybody's idea of a physical stand-in-for Travis McGee, but he gets on a for attitude. The Miami and Caribbean locations look fine, director Robert Clouse knew how to stage a good fight. William Smith is a top-notch villain and this remains the only feature film appearance by John d. MacDonald's famous character.
(4) Gumshoe (1972), Albert Finney is a struggling British stage comic who decides to change his luck by opening a private a private inquiry office and doing a Bogey-Stephen Frears directed. Andrew Lloyd Webber supplied the score.
(5) Hickey and Boggs (1972). Directed by Robert Culp form a hard-boiled script by Walter Hill. Culp and his I spy cohort Bill Cosby are two down-and-out private dicks in a slightly surreal California. The result is not all fun and games. Oddball, downbeat, yet strangely effective.
(6) Twilight (1998). Directed by Robert Benton from his and Richard Russo's original script. An aging P.I., freeloading on a friend's estate, agrees to "do a little favor" for his host and winds up involved in a murder case that spans decades. Critics correctly praised the acting---by Paul Newman as the detective, Gene Huckman as the buddy and Susan Sarandon as the buddy's wife, whom they both love. But they missed the boat by labeling this strikingly crafted film old-fashioned. Its depiction of contemporary southern california, with its wistful memories of the past mixing it up with today's homicidal excesses, is as up-to-the-minute as any material the Coens or the Farrellys might offer. And one you can be thankful you missed. The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990). Directed by Renny Harlin, this was an attempt to lauch a rock-and-roll P.I. series starring Andrew Dice Clay. What more do you need to know?