Are the great American detectives remote creatures, escapist heroes whose adventures we can lose ourselves in in an idle moment? Or are they just like us – not perfect, but wanting to do the right thing? Writer and Murder Room author Deborah Valentine gets to the heart of these enduringly popular figures.
It’s impossible to look at American detectives without first acknowledging the founding fathers: Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, both great stylists.
John Banville, under his crime fiction nom de plume Benjamin Black, has just written a well-received Philip Marlowe novel, The Black Eyed Blonde. In a recent Guardian podcast, he remarked on how chaste Chandler’s novels are: no swearing, no graphic sex. Marlowe is cynical, world-weary, but fundamentally decent. The loner who has only his innate goodness to cling to.
Hammett’s Sam Spade is perhaps less decent, but certainly driven by the idea of justice. It’s his raison d’être. It’s interesting to note that in the classic film versions, Humphrey Bogart was chosen to play both Spade and Marlowe. Though he didn’t look like either of them, he embodied an essential American quality: idealism. Hide it behind as much gritty life experience as you like, but it leaks through his weathered pores.
And the women? One of the things that makes these books so compelling is the women, often as adversary. They’re clever. They’re classy. They equal the men in edginess. In a complicated world these authors knew one thing for sure: smart women are sexy.
So how has the portrayal of the American detective progressed since then?
Well, there’s swearing and sex, and Joe Gores’ Daniel Kearny Associates (DKA) discards the loner for an ensemble, rather like a big dysfunctional family. Kearny governs a crew of detectives/repo men –and one woman, Gisele Marc, another of those smart, independent women – whose individual eccentricities seem likely to spiral into chaos at any moment. They’re not politically correct; if you’re easily offended, breathe deeply. But Kearny keeps them adhering to principles of right and wrong. In 32 Cadillacs, the DKA team has to figure out why these cars have been stolen. It’s a heist caper, fun and funny, and pretty damn violent. And has a twist in its resolution leading straight back to ‘the decent thing’.
The American detective is smart, but can still be fooled. In Robert Crais’ Stalking the Angel, Elvis Cole makes some catastrophic misjudgements. And his never-ending irreverence cannot disguise a deep sense of wanting to right wrongs. With his virtually monosyllabic partner, Joe Pike, he pursues red herrings created as much by his own romanticism as anything else when a young girl is kidnapped.
In Promise Me, Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar faces a similar dilemma. Has a young girl been kidnapped, or has she run away? When should a promise be kept and when should it be broken? Bolitar wrestles with these and a raft of moral questions as one kind act leads him into a shedload of problems. His fundamental decency gets him into trouble.
Dave Robicheaux, James Lee Burke’s creation, explodes on the scene in a riot of Southern charm and against lush, sensual landscape. The past rears its ugly head in Crusader’s Cross when he gets a lead on a woman his brother loved who disappeared in 1958. Forty years on this lead finds him older, and perhaps no wiser, contemplating his own mortality. Guilt, mortality, Catholicism, alcohol: Robicheaux has enough angst to fill a tanker, enough anger management issues to keep the ‘blood spilled’ quota high and a certain poetry in his soul.
Story-wise, Craig Johnson’s Spirit of Steamboat is something of an anomaly. Sheriff Walt Longmire is approached by a mysterious young woman (of course!) and what follows is . . . different. Unexpected. It’s hard to talk about without spoilers. All I can say is it’s a poignant action adventure, a modern Wild West story. Man against the elements in a daring, seemingly doomed, mission. It’s idealistic romanticism at its finest: what is a young life worth? Everything.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has a similar philosophy: everyone counts. Fellow Murder Room bloggers Mason Cross and Steve Cavanagh have been tracking the new Amazon series, but I’m thinking of the book The Last Coyote. Bosch is in therapy (yes, therapy!). Not by choice but a departmental order, having again come into conflict with authority. Spying a coyote late one night, he dreams of him. He ponders how many coyotes are left in LA. Is he the last of his species? The animal becomes a symbol for him, of him, as Bosch embarks on his own private cure: finding the killer of a prostitute in 1961. His mother. What transpires shakes him to the core and leaves us wondering where this last coyote can go from here.
For all the surface cynicism, there is an inherent romanticism in the American detective. They operate under a moral code, even if their methods are sometimes – well, often – questionable. They have a past with a capital P. They have problems with love. They have existential angst. They have wisecracking humour. And they try, in their own way, to be decent human beings.
They are just your average Joe.
Only a lot more violent.
Who is your favourite American detective, and why? Let us know, in the Comments below!
Deborah Valentine is a British author, editor and screenwriter, who has lived in London for many years after moving there from California. Her crime novels feature former California sheriff Kevin Bryce and his artist girlfriend, Katharine Craig, and chart their turbulent romance amid murder and mayhem. Unorthodox Methods is the first in the series, followed by A Collector of Photographs, and the Ireland-based Fine Distinctions. In addition to the Kevin Bryce series, Deborah Valentine has been the editor of a number of niche journals, and is a prolific writer of articles, screenplays and novels with a supernatural theme. Find out more on Deborah’s website.