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Mug Shots #6; A Respone to William Ahearn

Thursday, June 21, 2007
Last Thursday was June 21st, the longest day of the year, and to help pass the long, long hours until midnight, here's CrimeSpot's latest mugshot. So - is that Jason Pinter, who's first novel featuring investigative reporter Henry Parker is due out this week, or is that... actor Clancy Brown!

Too obscure? Brown is best known today as the voice actor behind Spongebob Squarepants' tightwad boss, Eugene Krabs, but he's been around a long time and has appeared in movies such as Shoot To Kill, The Shawshank Redempton... and Bucaroo Banzai: Across The Eigth Dimension. I will always remember him as the immortal Kurgan from the classic Highlander. Someone see if you can get Jason to growl, "I took his woman before his blood was even cold."

Game, Set, Match. Since Wimbledon is starting this week, it's somehow appropriate that B.J. "Bjorn" Borg has posted his latest Mouth Full of Bullets, featuring stories by, well, a LOT of people (hit the link for full contents), including Gerald So, Barry Ergang, Stephen D. Rogers (as required by law), Carl Brookins, Patricia Harrington, and my Fort Worth homey Earl Staggs.

New Thrills. The latest edition of the Thrilling Detective is now online, with stories by Fleur Bradley, Patricia Abbott, Barry Ergang, Michael Bracken, and - it's the law! - the ubiquitous Stephen D. Rogers. Good stuff for private eye lovers. Or even lovers of private eye fiction.

And speaking of private eyes... Dave White had an interesting post responding to an essay by William Ahearn (and check the comments for Ahearn's reply). I decided to post my own response, so here it is.

What Ahearn is pining for is the iconic detective as created by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. In an essay reprinted in Murder Ink, Robert B. Parker described this character as "primarily a jobholder" - he doesn't exist outside of his work. He has few acquaintances and no friends. As Ahearn puts it, they "weren't the kind of people that you knew, only the kind of people that you paid."

In these types of stories, the detective is a cipher who's there only to discover the sordid details of his latest case. As Ahearn notes, this mythic character can fit in to a lot of worlds - Hammett's Red Harvest was made into the films Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, succesfully transplanting the Continental Op to medieval Japan and the American West.

Ahearn dates the decline of private eye fiction to Ross Macdonald's The Moving Target. Lew Archer was a recognizable human being in that novel, not a noble knight but just a man, and to Ahearn, that's a bad thing.

I have a few problems with this argument: first, by the time of Ross Macdonald, the classic private eye had become a laughable stereotype. The power of the original stories by Hammett and Chandler (and others) had not dimished, but their characters had been copied so many times that their impact had been greatly diluted. Mike Hammer was a breath of fresh air, though his roots are firmly in the classical tradition.

Second, Ahearn ignores the differences between the original writers. For example, Hammett's private eye usually operated from a position of strenght - they could, and did, kick ass on a regular basis. Chandler's private eyes - really all versions of Philip Marlowe, even the ones who came before him - operated from a position of weakness. If Marlowe and his brothers Mallory and Dahlmas got their man, they had to get others to do the dirty work, and many times the real villains were never punished.

But my biggest objection is that Ahearn is mistaking his favorite type of private eye fiction for the best. Now, we all feel that things that we like are inherently the best (except for those we call "guilty pleasures"), but to me, running down the modern private eye because he doesn't measure up to the legends of the field is wrongheaded.

Writing off all private eyes that don't conform to the template laid down in the 1920s and 30s would mean discarding not just Macdonald but his immediate heirs like Michael Collins (the Dan Fortune books) and Joseph Hansen (Dave Brandstetter). It would mean writing off books like the remarkable The Wrong Case by James Crumley, in which not only is the private eye a character, he is by farm the main character. The implicit subject of the book is an examination of Milo Milodragovich's life.

It's true that the sales of private eye fiction have been in decline, but I think this is due more to a generational change than a decline in quality. The Western used to be one of the most popular genres, now it's fading into obscurity; once-popular fields like aviation fiction are now gone. I can imagine a day when only aficionados read private eye stories, and only obscure small presses publish them, but we're not at that point yet. And you could have raised many of these points in the 1970s.

Having stated my general differences with Ahearn's essay, I'd like to try to refute a couple of his specific points, first and most important of which was the nomination of Ross Macdonald as the many who poisoned the private eye novel. Ahearn has said that he was not criticizing Macdonald in his essay, and it's true that he was probably chosen as a convenient placeholder, but he was the one chosen and that's hard to deny.

Which is ironic because in Macdonald's mature period (from The Galton Case onward), Lew Archer became little more than a window into the lives of others. Where Marlowe or Spade disappeared into their roles as errant knights, Archer nearly disappeared, period, as he became an onlooker.

Ahearn also states that he threw one of Dennis Lehane's books across the room because "the character (Patrick Kenzie) is defined by descriptions of his car, his gun, and some sorry-ass infatuation with his partner..." I'm guessing here, but that book must have been Lehane's first, A Drink Before The War, in which Kenzie did business in an old church (cool office - check!), used a .44 AutoMag (cool gun - check!), and was called "Skid", but only by Angie (cool nickname - check!), and even had Bubba, his psycho sidekick.

But by the second book, all that had disappeared. In its place was a complex relationship with his former best friend, Phil, who ended up marrying Patrick's first love - and frequently beating the shit out of her. The props laid out in Drink were not just lazy shortcuts around characterization. They were irrelevant.

I love classic private eye stories as much as anyone. Reading The Big Sleep opened my eyes to the possbilities of the detective novel, and I ran out and bought every Chandler and Hammett book I could (in handsome Vintage Crime editions, too). But I like reading other things, too, and I'm not going to mourn dead ancestors when their descendants are so much fun.

posted by Graham Powell at 10:11 AM