RARA-AVIS: The Exhausted Hard-boiled

From: Frederick Zackel ( fzackel@wcnet.org)
Date: 21 May 2000

I think I mentioned this before: that I suspect the Lone Wolf mythology seems to have exhausted itself. That we have seen too many Lone Wolves over the past 35 years (since the assassination of JFK by a Lone Zealot.) Too often the heroic figure of the Lone Wolf has been swamped by the Lone Zealot, all those sociopaths / psychopaths with a gun and three names (Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wayne Gacy(?), etc.)

American readers are frightened by the Lone Wolf. Too often the Psychopath at the End of the Street -- the quiet guy who lived all alone and never bothered anybody -- has the same look.

So what's hot? Oprah's book club seems to ONLY feature Cinderella stories -- against all odds a suburban woman discovers how to empower herself. (Without speed or Prozac! Which is a real fantasy!) I mention this because storytelling's relationship to its audience is to bring a semblance Order to frightening feelings of Overwhelming Chaos knocking at the door.

I know how everyone on rara-avis thinks of Sue Grafton, but in Publishers Weekly two years ago she said, "Fantasy is the Great Equalizer." And I think that's what Pronzini might be getting at.

Look at the White Male PI story. It's vanishing from the charts. Who takes his place? The Lady Dick. Consider at any given time who feels most out of place in the greater culture. In the 1920s (and later the 1940s), the soldier boy comes back from war and finds Society corrupt, so he goes to war against it.

With the GI Bill of Rights, real equity begins. And now we have nostalgic PI books written by male college grads who miss adventure in their lives. But it's only their fantasy about the Good Old Days, when Men were Men and Women were Femme Fatales, and most of them are not familiar with the mean streets, but more likely only find themselves in suburban jobs where they're surrounded by corporate cubicles of other cloistered eunuchs.

Meanwhile the Lady Dicks aren't nostalgic. Like suffragettes a century ago, they're out there on the streets. (Consider the feminist agenda to "Take Back the Streets." A meritorious agenda, if I ever heard one, and I wish them all the luck in the world at that Labor of Sisyphus!)

Read some of Lady Dicks (Elizabeth Cosin, for one, who is obviously living in a hard-boiled wonderland and loving it. Her Lady Dick not only beats up the bad guys, but has conquered Cancer! You want balls? She's got 'em. Ignore the cat.) They are working their "clews" through their labyrinths, killing the Minotaur-monsters, and having the time of their lives throwing themselves under the Wheels of Life. (to mix a few metaphors.)

Lehane and Crais have found niches for themselves in the book shelves. Lehane has a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. His allegiances are to technique, not the genre. Crais is mining the Dual Personality vein: Elvis Cole & Joe Pike are the prototypical suburban fantasy, where Road Rage is the natural expression of the Jeckyl-Hyde personality disorder. Rucka? He is the boss of an organization, and does what all bosses would do if they didn't delegate their authority.

Hey, a dysfunctional hero is okay -- as long as you're in therapy. And how many male writers have created the dysfunctional-in-therapy hero? (Is Matt Scudder your final answer?) Can you see Mike Hammer taking Anger Management Classes at the local community college?

A suggestion: see who the enemy is in the most recent successful hard-boiled books. See who the enemy is. That tells you who "the Other" is. (As in, Us against Them and their "Otherness.") That's what the audience perceives as the enemy. Who are Boston Terran's "heroes" fighting?

Look back at Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, McDonald, et all. Visualize who was reading those books. Who were their enemies? Are those enemies still around? If America is the only suburban nation in the world, then who are the current enemies of the suburbs? The audience that fears those enemies is there now.

If you write it, they will come.

Do Fantasy Figures disappear completely, never to reappear? No, like King Arthur they are in hibernation, waiting the nation to call them forth to battle once more. I suspect -- suspect! -- that the Hard-Boiled Lone Wolf is waiting in the wings for the appearance of an appropriately evil enemy.

Right now the Hard-Boiled Hero looks like a candidate for a Spousal Abuse Seminar.

On other notes: I read Brown's Requiem, too, when it came out. I couldn't finish it for its sophomoric blather. Ellroy has leapfrogged beyond that stage. I am curious what he writes, but I want to stay far away from his circle. Like the Lone Wolf, he could easily metamorphose into a Lone Zealot with a Gun.

Also, I said all I discovered about Calle Ocho. I wish I knew more.

Back to lurking

Frederick Zackel

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