Re: RARA-AVIS: Sensitive detectives

a.n.smith (
Tue, 30 Nov 1999 09:04:15 -0600

To suggest that something is "truly hardboiled" kind of locks in the style so permanently that it implies formula, to me, at least. The best hardboiled writers are not the copycats who had the swagger, the cliches, the mood, the tough-guy street lingo. No, the best ones push the edges of the genre and force it to accept new ideas and change.

What sort of badge is "hardboiled"? I always liked the fact that Hammett's characters had a shifty moral make-up to them. Made them more real. Chandler, while a wonder with the language and supporting characters, made Marlowe into too much of a saint. Too cut and dry. I like that Jim Thompson focused on the criminals rather than the PIs. I liked that Pelecanos and Ellroy created characters that can't be defined so easily, characters who grow and change from book to book, and not always in the direction of "bettering themselves."

The recent Atlantic article, while right-on in some aspects, was a bit harsh on Ian Rankin's John Rebus, who seems to me absolutely hardboiled. So he questions his motives sometimes, has a drinking problem that he faced up to
(and he's off the wagon again in DEAD SOULS), has questionable policing methods. Good! That confusion is hardboiled. The cold, hard facts about this unfair world, and writing about that world and characters who have no choice but to face the dark areas of it, *that's* hardboiled in my eyes.

I can see through language and pretense and wardrobe and setting. But I can't see through something that makes my gut feel cold.

Neil Smith

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