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

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 02 Mar 2001

Juri wrote:

"Does that make any sense? What I meant to say was that the genre leads to works, but the works equally lead to the genre. (This begins to sound like the eternal hen-egg question. Which one comes first? The works, perhaps, but one might say that even the groundstone work in a genre
(say Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings") don't come out of nowhere. They have their own predecessors.)"

Makes sense to me. This is what I was trying to get at when I said it matters where a work lies in the evolution of a genre. John Cawelti's work is very interesting in this area, particularly his article
"Chinatown and Generic Transformations in Recent Films." He deals mostly with film, both hardboiled and westerns (he has previously written extensively about the former's roots in the latter), but also touches on the written roots. For the record, he sees the four modes of transformation as: humorous burlesque, evocation of nostalgia, mythologization of generic myth and the affirmation of the myth as myth. Of course, there is plenty of overlap between the categories. It's not hard to think of examples of each in recent PI novels. Hell, Joe Gores's DKA series alone is a testament to the genre's continued elaticity, including examples of all of them, from the zero-degree procedurals of the early books to the hilarity of 32 Cadillacs.

This reminds me of the other thing I wanted to get into, how the PI novel of the past few decades has been transformed. Just look at Chinatown -- SPOILER ALERT -- as originally written, it ended with Evelyn Mulray killing her father Noah Cross and stoically standing trial while JJ Gittes spirited her daughter away to Mexico. Polanski changed the script against scriptwriter Robert Towne's wishes (which makes it ironic that it was the shooting script, not the original that was published under Towne's name). I'm guessing just about everyone here knows how the finished film ends -- Evelyn is shot and Noah Cross gets his daughter/granddaughter and there's nothing Gittes can do about it --
"It's Chinatown, Jake." Towne's script was very traditional, evoking the genre at the time the story is set. Polanski's take fit with the time the film was released.

That sense of futility permeates the post-Vietnam PI novel. I mentioned in an earlier post that David Brandstetter's investigations never save his insurance company employer any money, sometimes actually cost them money when a regular payoff becomes double indemnity. As often as not, the PI does no good -- in Michael Z. Lewin's The Way We Die Now, PI Albert Samson uncovers a whole murder for hire plot, but it doesn't help get his client out of jail. Even the usually infallible Spenser can do no good in Mortal Stakes. In both Parker's God Save the Child and Arthur Lyons's All God's Children the PI comes to realize a kidnapped kid is better off with his captors than his parents. I just reread Jonathan Valin's Second Chances -- SPOILER ALERT -- not only did he not help his client, he ended up revealing she was guilty.

And following in Ross Macdonald's wake, many are the cases that end up exposing generations of buried secrets, causing more trouble. I'm with Kevin in praising Stephen Greenleaf's Marshall Tanner series. He and a number of the recent generation of PI writers (particularly Lewin, Valin) did start out owing as much to Macdonald as he, in turn, owed Chandler, but they all found their own ways, making their PIs distinctive individuals, not imitations of anyone.


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