RARA-AVIS: realism vs fantasy

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 17 Dec 2000

A few odds and ends as I catch up on the postings:

--I greatly prefer the MacShane bio of Chandler and highly recommend his collection of Chandler's letters. I find myself returning to his letters more often than his fiction. Anyone interested in writing will find them richly rewarding. The new book is definitely on my must-buy list.

--Peter Rabe is definitely worth tracking down. One of the best of the Gold Medal writers. He was a big influence on Westlake, as he has testified to in his essay in Breen's book and in the interview recently published in Mystery Scene. Westlake's "361" was his attempt to write a Rabe novel. I also see touches of Woolrich in the opening chapters of "361." It also foreshadows the development of the Parker novels, although it is flawed by a big chunk in the middle where the lead character ceases to move or act while the plot churns around him.

On another topic, I was struck by Anthony's comment about hardboiled fiction being based in reality. As Chandler comments in "The Simple Art of Murder" and elsewhere, murder is more often in the street than in the vicar's library.

But while I agree with that birth being reality-based, I would suggest that hardboiled fiction with all of its conventions has one foot in reality and one in fantasy. Specifically, male fantasy. Hardboiled fiction developed in pulp magazines with predominantly male readers. While these readers responded to the reality elements of the stories, they were also seeking escape--an escape into a fantasy world. The readers' reality had its own dangers and fears but there wasn't much to be done about those. So in these stories they could enter a world with a lone hero who through his brains, fists and guns fought back, made things happen. While some of this fictional world was outside the control of the hero, he was not powerless. Unlike the reader, the hero could smart off to the boss or the police, fight against injustice, drink too much, stay out late every night, answerable to no one. He often didn't have much money either but someone would walk through his office door with a case that would pay the next month's bills.

The male fantasy aspect of hardboiled fiction is evident in the role women played in much of it during the first few decades of its development. There's the faithful secretary like Della Street and Lucy Hamilton--she does everything our hero asks her to do and is absolutely devoted.

The women clients are sometimes untrustworthy (a touch of reality for our male readers) but our hero is up to the challenge. Sexual sparks usually fly when our hero interacts with a woman no matter their role in the plot. They may work for the enemy but they never look through our hero the detective. They may work against him but they respond to his maleness.

To me this (and much more) reeks of male fantasy. And, there's nothing wrong with this. It is, even when well done, escape reading and we males need our escape.

Women readers, no doubt, had their own forms of escape reading in those early decades. In more recent times, large numbers of them have moved into the mystery world beyond that of Agatha Christie and the puzzler story. It's a very different world for women from 50 years ago and perhaps they want a foot in reality too. But they also have their own fantasies and writers have discovered this and are responding to that market demand. Hello Kinsey Malone.

Just as the lives of women have changed over the last few decades so have the lives of men and, perhaps, that has impacted their fantasy lives as well. The male fantasy can now include the meaningful relationship with an independent woman. Like all fantasies, it is possible and much to be desired but for many in the real world, it can prove to be elusive.

The audience responds to writers who innovate into something more satisfying and writers and publishers respond to those sales figures. The world changes, the fantasies change, the readership broadens (ahem) and we see the results on the shelves.

This has gone on too long and I must get to the kitchen to clean up the dishes from the elaborate dinner I cooked for myself last night. Dirty dishes are something Mike Shayne and Sam Spade never had to worry about.

Richard Moore

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