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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

Send Thoughts and Prayers

Monday, June 11, 2007
In my last post I send along congratulations to Bill and Judy Crider; this time the news is not so good. As Bill just posted on his blog, his wife Judy has been diagnosed with Lymphoma, a blood cancer. At this point they don't know if it's Hodgkin's or non-Hodgkins.

I have learned a bit about this disease lately, as two of my co-workers have close relatives recently diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. If you follow politics, presidential hopeful (and Law and Order actor) Fred Thompson recently revealed that he has the disease. It's serious, but treatable, so everyone keep Bill and Judy in your prayers.

If you'd like to contribute, you could do worse than the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

posted by Graham Powell at 12:51 PM

Congrats all round; Mug Shots #5

Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Congratulations! Lots of worthy news around the mystery world lately. Here's a sampling off the top of my head:

  • John Rickards has spawned. He claims he had help from his "wife", but since I have seen no evidence of this I suspect he merely divided, reproducing asexually.

  • Bryon Quertermous has convinced some unlucky lass that he's worthy of a lifetime of love. Again, I have seen no evidence that this "fiance`" exists. Maybe she's from Canada, hmmm? Presumably there will be wedding pictures and my doubts will be satisfied.

  • No doubt about this: Bill Crider and his wife Judy just celebrated their 42nd anniversary. I met both of them down at ConMisterio in Austin; marriage couldn't have happened to a nicer couple.

  • Finally, CrimeSpree Magazine has just celebrated its third birthday. I've described CrimeSpree as "People for the murder-and-mayhem set" and it just keeps getting better. The most recent issue has interviews with Laura Lippman (by Sujita Massey!) and Stephen King, among other.

Mug Shots #5. And now the moment you've all been waiting for - the most recent installment of Mug Shots. Or in this case, "Cheap Shots", because I'm sure that anyone who has ever met Marcus Sakey can't help but notice the resemblance. So, is that the author of the highly-praised The Blade Itself, or is that... Detective David Starsky!

Like I said, it's just too easy.

Who killed the radio star? A while back Jonathon Santlofer sent me a link to a video advert for his latest, Anatomy of Fear. Check it out on YouTube. And I know this isn't the only book video going around - authors, send me a link and I'll do a roundup.

Still got the blues. The new Noir Blues issue of Hardluck Stories is out, and contains a treat for those of us who've been on the web a while - a new Doug McCool story by Miles Archer. It's really nice to see guys like Archer and Hugh Lessig still putting out good stuff. Like several recent issues, Noir Blues features artwork by Jean-Pierre Jacquet.

Thug life. And of course there's a new issue of ThugLit is out, with some big news - to quote Todd Robinson (Big Daddy Thug), "Starting next year, the geniuses over at Kensington Books will be publishing the first of THREE (count 'em... well, don't actually count em since we don't have the first one out yet. You get the point. Shut it!) ANNUAL THUGLIT ANTHOLOGIES!" (additional exclamation points redacted)

See you next time!

posted by Graham Powell at 6:36 AM