RARA-AVIS: archetypes, fantasies & conventions

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 18 Dec 2000

I agree that some of the conventions of HB private eye fiction I referred to are based on archetypes. The lone wolf or knight fighting for justice predates the American frontier but a powerful version did come out of US frontier fiction beginning with Cooper and that had a great influence on the birth of the HB private eye. After all, westerns and adventure stories co-existed with crime stories in many of the pulps including Black Mask.

And Marianne's comment on the accepted myth of private eyes solving murders left and right reminds me that Chandler who made the most quoted of the realism claims was himself a failed businessman who had little or no association with crime in the streets. Fired from his job, he read the pages of Black Mask, absorbed what he needed and came up with something different and special. But he had as much association with street crime as Edgar Rice Burroughs had with Africa when he created Tarzan (now there's archetypes for you).

Hammett, who more than anyone got this thing going and did have the real life background, did not make such a strong claim for realism. The backgrounds are more realistic and they certainly add to my enjoyment and appreciation. But the private eye going down those mean streets is a romantic notion we agree to accept.

The role of women in early HB fiction is, I don't think, driven as much by archetypes as it is by the more immediate cultural background at the time of the writing. And I think some of it reflects or appeals to male fantasies more superficial than the lure of the archetype.

These conventions change from decade to decade and can be pretty funny in retrospect, as Maura demonstrated with her delightful spoof. Conventions are also evident in a certain type of woman-authored series that has come along in the last twenty years. I have chaired several panels at the annual Malice Domestic convention and in my preparatory reading I was struck by how many of the female protagonists had police officers as boyfriends. These boyfriends served the same purpose as friendly Chief Gentry does to Mike Shayne or Captain Pat Chambers to Mike Hammer. They help the plot along by providing information that only a cop would know. This doesn't bother me (although the authors were always sensitive when I asked them about it). After all I never understood what Gentry got out of his relationship with Shayne except a lot of trouble and aggravation. I do know what the police boyfriend is getting and that's a motivation based in reality.

Richard Moore

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