Re: RARA-AVIS: Sensitive detectives

Mark Sullivan (
Sat, 27 Nov 1999 11:29:36 -0500 (EST)

Jason, You've brought up The Big Echilada a couple of times as the only recent example of hardboiled. I read it when it first came out in paperback, in the early '80s (as well as Morse's Old Dick). I remember liking it, but I didn't really stick with me. So please remind me what made it so distinctive that it is the only one of its kind.

I'm assuming that your definition of hardboiled requires a private eye, which leaves out such contemporary hardboiled writers as Kent Harrington, Terrill Lankford, Fred Willard (anyone know if he's close to finishing his second book, the one he left the list to concentrate on?), Boston Teran, Vicki Henderson (at least Miami Purity), David Eversz (at least the great Shooting Elvis), most Ellroy, Vachss (Stella and his short stories, I can't take Burke), etc. Then there are the numerous new and recent Brit writers like Derek Raymond, Ian Rankin, Russell James, etc. I'm guessing you'd call those noir, not hardboiled (no, I'm not trying to start that battle again).

Now, I don't like Parker or Grafton, but there are many "sensitive" PI writers I do like, such as Rob Kantner, Richard Barre, Linda Barnes, SJ Rozan, John Shannon, GM Ford, Don Winslow, to name but a few.

Still, there are several post-Vietnam hardboiled private eye writers I can think of. First and foremost, there's James Crumley. Although I've been a bit disappointed by his last two, I think Last Good Kiss is the best private eye novel of the past seeral decades and one fo the best, period. And there are the mid-period Scudders by Lawrence Block. Just off the top of my head, there's also Stephen Greenleaf, Jonathan Valin, CJ Henderson and John Straley. Denis Lehane probably falls (or swings back and forth) between the two schools.

Now I could see someone arguing that all of the above (except probably Henderson) are "sensitive," hell, they're practically depressives. I'd argue this is part of what makes them good contemporary hardboiled. They are tired, depressed and often just one drink away from giving up, but they keep going, can't help themselves, for their identity is so invested in the ritual of turning over the next rock and seeing what creatures crawl out.

And as far as senstivity goes, it's not just a recent thing, it's built into the genre. Chandler's Marlowe certainly had a sensitive side, as did Macdonald's Archer and no one doubts their credentials. Even Mike Hammer had his incredibly sentimental moments. The whole romantic notion of being a man, and more recently woman, out of time, knowing s/he will probably make no real difference, but carrying on anyway, holding to a own personal code is built on sentimentality. And I think that's what draws many of us to the genre, this romantic center. Of course, we also require that it be well-covered with blood, guts and shoot-outs so we can prove how hard, cynical and worldly we all are.


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