Re: RARA-AVIS: Private Eyes. What else?

From: Juri Nummelin (
Date: 01 Mar 2001

On Wed, 28 Feb 2001, Kevin Burton Smith wrote:

> 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?

I read the whole book ("Looking for Rachel Wallace"). It was the second Parker I've read. I don't think I ever will read another. I'm sorry to dismiss all the other authors of the genre based on my opinion about one author only. This seems to be my sin.

> 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?

I meant the whole hardboiled genre. Well, now that you mention it, Whittington couldn't actually be said to have renewed any genre. But take Lionel White, for instance. He brought into the caper genre some of the most furious critique towards the capitalist society of his time. In the fifties, this was revolutionary. And the revolution he made was more meaningful to me than that was brought in the end of seventies by writers like Marcia Muller and Parker.

> 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.

Like I said (or at least tried to say and will say many many times in this posting), I was talking about the whole continuum from Chandler
(and other thirties and fourties writers) up to this time. If I was dismissal towards some authors, it was because I saw them as a part of this continuum that I don't find as interesting as that that leads up from James Cain.

> And the genre is too easy? What? To write? To
> imitate?

To imitate. Greenleaf, for example (several books read, although it was a long time ago), seems to me to be a Ross Macdonald copy or at least something very close.

> 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?

Sorry about this. This was a bold exaggeration. But I was still talking about the Chandler tradition in which Frank #Q#ยค&" Kane and others were dominant in their own time. With this I didn't mean the current P.I. writers. I do know that Parker's books aren't about girls and guns - well, they are, but not in the manner that I was talking about.

> 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.

You're probably right about this. But I was still talking about the Chandler heritage in general and not the current authors. The infallibility of guys like Johnny Liddell (why am I thinking about him all the time?) gets to me. Like it must get to everybody else. That's why Parker, Grafton and others changed the thing. But they are still too much about the private eye him/herself - at least for me to really be interested in their work.

> 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.

Hence the including and excluding at the same time. I like Prather's books a lot and acknowledge the parody, but I realize at the same time that Prather really can't shatter the P.I. genre's foundations.

> Is
> it possible you've read some of the other modern P.I. writers you're
> weighing in on almost as extensively?

You've got me. I write too much about Parker, but that's just because I don't care about his books and I don't see anything special about them. I promised some months ago that I would read more Parker (I honestly tried - I was mildly entertained by "Looking for Rachel Wallace", but the simplicity of the plot and the snobbery turned me away, but I did finish the book, it was quite a fast read), Grafton and others. It's just that I've been reading some other books and haven't had time to dwell in the hardboiled genre for some time now. Kevin, I promise again that I try the authors you seem to regard pretty highly.

> >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.

You've got me, pt. 2. Apart from liking Ross Macdonald and Greenleaf
(even though it's some ten years I read him) and Pelecanos and having been bored by some of Crumley's books ("The Last Good Kiss" is a good one, although) and having had some difficult time about Mosley (can't tell you why - I like him and realize what's he coming from, but there's something about his books that just doesn't grab me), I haven't read the authors you mention. Must get back to them.

Let me still add that I said "necessarily".

But my criticism - let me add one more time - was meant to regard the whole genre, from the early thirties up to this day. The current trends in the P.I. genre are still more shallow than the other, older ones. If the renewing of the genre continues, that's fine. Maybe I'm wrong and too pessimistic, but I just hope they get over the Parker influence.

> 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?

Egotistical in the narrative sense, in the sense of the lead characters. Egotistical may be the wrong word, maybe narcissistic would be more accurate. I know too little about the authors themselves to be able to say if it's because of them, but I should say that I find it very hard to get interested in the private eye him/herself. Maybe I'm old-fashioned in my preferences, but I like Chandler more than Parker, because Chandler doesn't try at every turn to tell me what a wonderful guy Marlowe really is.

> 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.

You are not getting the point. I was talking about the whole genre - like I think I already said here -, not just the current writers in the genre. I know there are interesting authors out there, but I have too many involvements right now to be really able to dig them out. Sorry if I have offended anyone. This wasn't my meaning.

My meaning was try to point out that the Chandler side of the genre has been dwelling too much and too often in girls and guns and the P.I's ego. If that's not the case anymore, fine. But let me still add that it seems to me that the narrative usages in, well (here we go again), Parker's and Grafton's (whom I've read) books are not interesting to make the lead character interesting enough. I mean, the writers simply put some superficial qualities into the characters (meaning, he can cook and has trouble finding the right one). It should be done in a more interesting manner. It's not done that way in the mainstream or art literature, or whatever it should be called. Or if it is, I'm bored.
(This is why I liked Pelecanos's "The Sweet Forever" and "King Suckerman" more than his "Nick's Trip" and other Stefanos books - because the qualities of the characters seemed to have more to do with the plot.)

If I was talking about some obscure authors and referring to them as more interesting ones, like Williams and White, it's just because I know their work and respect it.

> (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 don't get you. If you read a book and don't like it, do you go rushing into the book store and grab everything else the author has written and read that? Why waste your time?

By the way, do you remember the time I read Dennis Lehane's "Gone Baby Gone" and told that I liked it, you criticized me for liking it?

> 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.

Hope this has been keeping you interested. I didn't answer all of your criticism, but that's because this took pretty much of my time already.

By the way, am I still on the Thrilling Detective writers list or have you dismissed me already? There are some contributions (about some deeply obscure authors) that I've been thinking about.


PS. Glad this is an easy day at the job.

# To unsubscribe from the regular list, say "unsubscribe rara-avis" to
#  This will not work for the digest version.
# The web pages for the list are at .

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 01 Mar 2001 EST