RARA-AVIS: Private Eyes. What else?

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@colba.net)
Date: 28 Feb 2001

Gee, Juri, I think I preferred it when you were dictating dress codes for private eyes.

If you're going to pontificate publicly on the genre, could you at least display some familiarity with it, beyond reading some forty-year old paperbacks and thirty pages of one Robert B. Parker novel?

>What I meant was simply that the writers like Robert Parker, Stephen
>Greenleaf, Walter Mosley and others (should I also name some paperback
>writers like Frank Kane and Richard Prather?) haven't been able to renew
>the genre to the same extent that writers like Goodis, Willeford, Harry
>Whittington, Charles Williams, Lionel White and others have done.

Renew? Renew what genre? The hard-boiled genre? The crime genre? The P.I. genre? And how exactly have writers like Goodis, Willeford, Harry Whittington, Charles Williams and Lionel White, all mostly obscure and forgotten except to denizens of this list (and most long dead), renewed whatever genre you're talking about?

And are you taking about commercial or artistic renewal? I'm not denying the very real talents of any of your faves (particularly, IMHO, Goodis and Willeford), but I'm not convinced their contributions have "renewed" any genre. On the other hand, Parker definitely, and arguably Mosley, Hansen, Paretsky and Grafton, have all left their mark on not just the P.I. genre, but the whole crime/mystery genre, both in monetary and literary terms. Now, you may not like that mark, but it exists.

And you're basically comparing two different eras -- Parker et al are current authors, Goodis et al were contemporaries of Chandler, for the most part.

>private eye genre lacks intensity and personal intimity that fills the
>works of those other writers. The private eye genre is too easy.

Sorry, but the personal intimacy of who? The author? The reader? Since much private eye writing burrows deep into the narrator's thoughts (eg. Greenleaf, Shannon, Macdonald), this is an almost absurd statement. And the genre is too easy? What? To write? To imitate?

>a) the private eye genre slips too easily into the girl chase and guns;
>Chandler already notified this and wasn't too happy

Well, yes, that can happen. But you're talking about the worst examples, and in most cases, that sorta stuff, enjoyable as some of it was, passed away long ago. Could you give us a few contemporary examples of these "girls and guns" masterpieces?

>b) the private eye genre slips too easily into the praise of the private
>eye himself - look at Parker's Spenser. I tried, but I just couldn't get
>anything out of "Looking for Rachel Wallace": the first thirty pages are
>passed in what seems to be only the appraisal of Spenser. He has a
>beautiful and witty girlfriend whose only function in the book seems to
>be there for him, always telling that although he has his peculiarities,
>he's always the man! same goes for several other writers, including
>almost any fifties and sixties paperback writers (including and
>excluding Richard Prather at the same time)

I'm not quite sure I follow here. You think P.I.s are portrayed as heroes too much? That they're too perfect? Parker's an easy target, because Spenser is a rather smug SOB. But most contemporary P.I. heroes are far from perfect, and they'd be the first to tell you that.

And those forty and fifty year old Shell Scott books are parody. You knew that, right? That they're not supposed to be taken completely seriously? I mean, in one book he disguises himself as a rock. So I'm not sure he's a good example for your case.

You've already told us you've only read one book by Parker. Oh, and now, thirty pages of another (although you apparently know what Susan's function is in the whole book). Or is that the same book? Is it possible you've read some of the other modern P.I. writers you're weighing in on almost as extensively?

>d) the private eye genre is superficial and doesn't necessarily have any
>involvement from the author, whereas such writers as Goodis and Williams
>seem to be very deep in their work

This is just silly. No involvement from the author? Read Greenleaf, read Macdonald, read MacDonald, read Pelecanos, read Pronzini, read Mosely, read Joseph Hansen, read Harold Adams, read Collins (Max or Mike), read Mosley, read Haywood, read Crumley, read Gary Phillips, read John Shannon. Hell, read Grafton and Paretsky. If you can't figure out where these writers are coming from, you're a very poor reader indeed. The almost confessional, deeply-personalized tone of much of their work burrows pretty deep into the minds of their heroes and, by suggestion, their authors.

Having been fortunate enough to meet or communicate with some of these writers, and having read some of interviews with the others, I can assure you that most of them take their work very seriously indeed, and invest a lot of their own passions and concerns into their work. It isn't the genre that's superficial. And hackdom, as anyone who goes into a bookstore can tell you, is not limited to any one genre.

>The line of authors that leads up here from James M. Cain (and maybe
>others, Edward Anderson perhaps, but I haven't read him, and W.R.
>Burnett) just is more interesting than the egotistical private eye
>genre. Chandler's books aren't egotistical (or if they are, he does so
>well I don't mind), but his successors are. (Ross Macdonald excluded and
>Howard Browne. Others, too, but you know how I feel about Parker and
>other guys.)

All writing, and indeed, all art, is ultimately about ego. But how is the P.I. genre specifically egotistical? Because they're often narrated in the first-person? Please explain...and how can it be egotistical, while simultaneously lacking personal involvement from the author?

And could you give us a few more names on that line? James Cain > Edward Anderson (who you haven't read) > W.R. Burnett > ???

Hey, you don't like P.I. books, fine. You have an opinion on 'em, fine. I respect that. But don't make pronouncements on the genre when it seems obvious you haven't done the homework. Howard Browne? Ross Macdonald? Frank #$%%@#@ Kane, for god's sake? Maybe you should read something a little more, um, current, occasionally.

(Remember the guy who dissed all over an author here, and then he actually read some of the author's work? Now he seems to be one of the author's biggest fans, keeping us posted on his comings and goings.)

I'd love to debate it further, but you have to give us something to go on, besides blanket dismissals. You're a smart guy, Juri, so please, put some meat on those bones, so we might all have a good chew.

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