RARA-AVIS: Dirda, boiled

From: ifeelwoozy@yahoo.com
Date: 04 Apr 2002

Michael Dirda works for the Washington Post's book section, and in 1993 won a Pulitzer for commentary. This is a selection of last week's of the paper's chat sessions with Dirda, whose subject that week was hardboiled lit (mildly edited for topicality):

http://discuss.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/zforum/02/dirda032802.htm Dirda on Books Hosted by Michael Dirda Washington Post Book World Senior Editor Thursday, March 28, 2002; 2 p.m. EST

This Week's Topic: Hard-boiled fiction

Laurel, Md.: My favorite detective novels have been those that made reference to (or in some cases, fun of) other detective novels. Lawrence Block does that in his Rhodenbarr books, and in one of this earlier works "Make out with Murder."

The latter isn't a great novel, but has a great, fun premise -- the first person narrator, Chip Harrison, has gone to work for a man who has set himself up as a detective (without any expereince) and who believes Nero Wolfe and Sherlock Holmes are real people and that their stories are factual.

Can you name some other hard-boiled novels in which the author keeps working references to others into the story?

Michael Dirda: Interesting question. There are, you know, a couple of Chip Harrison novels, so you should look for the other one. There might even be more. Andrew Bergman's two novels--one is Hollywood and LeVine--about Jake Levine are wonderful pastiches of CHandler/Hammett and funny. In one of Don Westlake's novels he has Dortmunder and his gang read a Richard Stark novel about Parker, and use it as a model for their own kidnapping. EVerything goes awry. It's called Jimmy the Kid, I believe. The kick, of course, is that the Richard Stark novels are by Westlake himself. And of course there are lots of sherlock Holmes pastiches and homages.

Venus: It's interesting to see how the character of the hard boiled detective has changed since its prototype Sam Spade. How has it changed? A better way to say it may be, the characters have changed, but the character of each one has not changed. The qualities they all share include: loneliness; devotion to justice but not necesarily the letter of the law; cynicism about human nature; a sharp and dry wit; unpredictability even in the midst of these pre-ordained characteristics.

I love that classic scene in "The Maltese Falcon" when Sam explains to Brigit why he is going to turn her in to the police. He won't play the sap for her. Fast-forward to Kinsey Milhone in "K is for Killer" - she finally knows who the killer is, and she turns him in to a very nasty group of mobsters, knowing they will exact revenge on him.

How have the characters themselves changed? First, there are several excellent female hard-boiled detectives: Kinsey Milhone, VI Warshawski, Sharon McComb (the first female hard-boiled detective, introduced in the wonderful "Edwin of the Iron Shoes"), etc. I love these women; they take no guff from anyone. Another big change has been the arrival of Easy Rawlins ("Devil in a Blue Dress" et al.), an African-American detective who brings with him an acute awareness of racial tension and bigotry. What I loved about "Devil" was the way in which Easy changed his voice depending on the person with whom he was talking. It was a brilliant literary device.

Hard-boiled fiction is satisfying without spoon-feeding one a happy ending. And, despite their foibles, one always feels a sense of solidarity with, and empathy for, the lonely hard-boiled detectives. They act out our dark impulses so we don't have to, yet they do it in the interest of justice which makes it ok. And they always provide a wonderful commentary alongside. To whit: Philip Marlowe's comment in (I think) "The Lady in the Lake" -- "She was the sort of blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window."

Michael Dirda: Lovely posting. Interestingly, George Pelecanos--who writes very hardboiled novels about DC crime and punishment--mentioned on his Sunday Morning interview that he'd modeled his work after The Man With No Name in the Sergio Leone movies. ANd, of course, that Eastwood character is, in some ways, a western avatar of the hard boiled p.i. avenger. Remember too, Paladin--a knight without armor in s savage land?

T-shirt weather: Hello Michael,

I remember a while back that you mentioned how certain books, or types of books, fit in best with certain seasons -- Sherlock Holmes when it's cold and blustery outside, etc. I'll be off to the sunny shores of Mexico in a couple of weeks (lucky me!), but I am frightfully pale, and tend to wither away in the sun (not so lucky me). So, most likely I'll spend much of the time safely tucked away under a giant beach umbrella with a book -- but what to read?! I hate all those sappy-happy-Meg-Ryan-romantic-comedy books which are usually suggested as beach reads, as if the sun zaps all of your brain cells (or maybe it does -- that would explain California). Could you recommend something a bit more cerebral, yet fitting for carefree days of sand between my toes? (I'm 24 and female, if that matters, but I like most anything).

Also, I've been looking for your book, Readings, the past few times I've visited an Olsson's. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong section (Literary Criticism?), but where else might it be? I hate to resort to Amazon or some other giant Barnes & Noble type place. Thanks so much!

Michael Dirda: First and most important of all: Ask Olsson's to order you a copy of Readings or look and see if other branches might have it in stock. This would make an ideal beach book, by the way. 2) Traditionally, comic novels, mysteries, and classics make good beach reads. If you've followed this chat, you know some possible authors. For comic: Pick up an anthology of P.G. Wodehouse or one of Terry Pratchett's novels about Discworld; for mysteries: go with a classic if you're new to these: The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep. Chandler is particularly good for hot weather. The opening of Farewell, My Lovely evokes the heat of southern california marvelously. Gregory McDonald's Fletch would also be fun on the beach.As for classics: What have you always felt you should have read? Take it along and see what happens. Have fun.

Of course, if you're 24 and in Mexico at a beach, you might just want to sleep by day and dance/party/drink through the night.

Venus: Michael -- "T-shirt weather" may also enjoy "Persuasion"
(classic) and "Death in a Tenured Position" (detective) while she shelters under her umbrella and sips something tart.

Michael Dirda: Both excellent books.

Morgantown, W.V.: Since the topic is hard-boiled detective fiction I would put in a bid for Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series even though he doesn't wear a trenchcoat (but he does own a house). Easy lives a harder, grittier life in fiction than most of us in the 'real world' it would seem.

Mosley was a computer programmer before he left it for the writing biz; how often does something like this happen? I've been under the impression that serious writers of fiction need to establish themselves before age 30 to get anywhere. Apart from Mosley (who has jumped to sci-fi and made at least one jump into non-fiction), what other examples are there?

Michael Dirda: Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel after the age of 60. By the time she died 20 years later, she'd brought out, I think, nine of them and was widely regarded as britain's finest novelist. I live on her example. Stendhal didn't start producing fiction until middle age. In fact, it was relatively common--in the era before professional authorship and writers in residence--for people to go out and do something in the world and only later, in retirement or when worn out, turn to writing.

Somewhere, USA: As far as hard-boiled goes, you can't beat Lew Archer. Ross Macdonad is tops, at least the equal of Chandler, who I also greatly admire.

Of particular note are The Underground Man, The Blue Hammer, and The Galton Case.

P.S. Wouldn't it be interesting to keep track of the number of cups of coffee drank and the eggs, bacon, and sandwiches consumed during a detective novel?

Michael Dirda: My favorite is The Chill. Though I love that essay of Macdonald's "How I wrote The Galton Case." You know he was one of Eudora Welty's favorite writers and that he dedicated The Blue Hammer, I think, to her. Of course, she did do a front page review of one of his novels for the New York Times Book Review. Maybe that was The Blue Hammer? ANway he did dedicate some book to Miss Welty.

Washington, D.C.: Hello Michael -- Who are your favorite hard-boiled writers and why? I'm more a fan of the Dorothy Sayers type of mystery, but I have enjoyed some hard-boiled mysteries, particularly those by Chandler and some of Hammett (Red Harvest was way too bloody for me, but my husband loves it).

Another question: what is your definition of a hard-boiled mystery?


Michael Dirda: An earlier posting characterized the hard-boiled p.i. A lonely private investigator, cynical but honorable, tough talking and wise-cracking but with a sentimental side, who investigates more realistic crimes than one finds in the cozier eNglish mystery. My favorites? Besides Hammett and Chandler, I would extend the genre to include such writers as Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They), Richard STark's Parker novels; James M Cain (The Postman Always RIngs Twice), Edward Anderson's Thieves Like Us; Jim Thompson (The Grifters); David Goodis (Nightfall); Paul Cain (Fast One); and some of the Black Mask writers,most of whom can be found in anthologies. A couple of years back the library of America borught out a two volume set that included many of these writers. In some ways, they are all school of Hemingway: If Ernie wrote mysteries, this is how they would sound. Chandler excepted. His prose is too lush, too funny, too self-aware--from the beginning he possessed an almost post-modernist feel for the genre. He's my favorite.

Washington, D.C.: Michael -- has a hard-boiled detective ever lived happily ever after? Did Philip Marlowe get married in "Playback?" Does the notion of happily ever after run a bit contrary to the mystique of the hard-boiled detective?

Michael Dirda: He did get married, but it was the end of his career, or at least of any good books. Nick Charles is married to Nora, and a few other detectives end up with spouses, but one really wants the hero to stay a loner. You don't want Paladin wiring back that he has to take the kids to pizza and can't come solve your mystery.

Winston-Salem, N.C.`: One other question since you mentioned Hemingway. Would you put the Faulkner Knight's Gamibit stories in the hard-boiled camp?

Michael Dirda: Yes. Though I've only read one.

Herndon, Va.: Would you call Ross Thomas hardboiled? His "Briarpatch" is a classic.

Michael Dirda: SEmi hardboiled. I prefer Chinaman's Chance and The Seersucker Whipsaw. Ross was an old friend of mine. I used to call him up for reviews and he was always, always at his desk and would answer on the second ring. His copy was exactly the right length, perfectly written and always on time. A consummate professional. I miss him to htis day, as do many other friends and admirers.

RE: Hard Boiled: James Sallis (a reformed Sci-Fi author) writes some of the best hard-boiled, mind bending stuff around. Just don't go in expecting things to wrap up in a nice bundle. "Nice" doesn't exsist in Sallis's world. Start with "The Long-Legged Fly" and go on from there.

Michael Dirda: Yes he does. And that reminds me that I'd left out Chester Himes--the hardest hard boiled writer of them all, in some ways. Black detectives Grave digger Jones and Coffin Ed something or other.

Woodbridge, Va.: Michael -- You have defined hard-boiled detectives, but what term should we use for detective novels where the setting is grim and gritty but the detective is not -- like Constantine's Pennsylvania mysteries, or Paula Woods Los Angeles books? And what exactly is "noir?"

Michael Dirda: Well, the writes I listed in some instances were more properly noir than hard boiled. The noir characters tend to be victims in a hardboiled universe. The masters here are Cornell Woolrich (The Bride Wore Black and many other "black" novels); Jim Thompson, and David Goodis. The Constantine books are police procedurals mixed with philsoophical reflections. Elmore Leonard and George V. Higgins are gritty crime novels, but neither noir nor hard boiled. More works in the vein of John O'Hara. This is all growing very complicated. Maybe an essay is called for.

Venus: Michael -- There is another reason that Raymond Chandler is above the other hard-boiled writers: he is the master of the simile. "I lit a cigarette. It tasted like a plumber's handkerchief." Earlier I posted his line about the bishop and the stained glass window. Such elegant prose, but simultaneously hard-bitten.

I wish I could crawl inside his books.

Michael Dirda: fYes, great similes. Oddly, his classmate, a few years earlier, at Dulwich College in Britain was the other great master of the simile: P.G. Wodehouse. "He drank coffee with the air of a man who regretted it was not hemlock."

very boring work day: Venus had some good points about hard-boiled detectives, but I, at least, can only read so much of them (more or less depending on the skills of the writer). Too much of the tough, cynical, women-are-virgins-or-whores, screw-the-rules type and I want to smack him and tell him to grow up. Sometimes I think the character becomes too romanticized.

Michael Dirda: Indeed. They are very romanticized. Which is why they are so easy to parody. But what man doesn't want to be Sam Spade, or his western equivalent, The Man with No Name?

Border town: For hard-boiled and fun Mexico reading, try some of John D. McDonald's mysteries set in Mexico. There's always Vargas Llosa or if you want a Latin author with heft and fun reading.

Michael Dirda: Oh yes. For some reason John D never worked for me--at lreast not the Travis McGee I read.

San Diego, Calif.: Fiction doesn't get much more hardboiled than John D. McDonald, whose Travis McGee series has aged remarkable well. Highly recommended, although I will regret endlessly that I was born too late to bare my bikinied bottom on the Busted Flush.

Michael Dirda: How late?

Venus: very boring work day makes a good point about the male detectives' attitude toward women; sometimes it is unsavory. That is why the current crop of women hard-boiled detectives are such a satisfying counterpoint!

Michael Dirda: Yes.

VB: I haven't read much in the "hard-boiled detective" genre, but have enjoyed Andrew Vacchs, does that count? Have you read any of his work?

Michael Dirda: VAcchs is very hard-boiled. In fact,he's almost school of Mickey Spillane--who we've almost overlooked. Nobody is tougher than Mike Hammer. "HOw could you MIke? It was easy." I reviewed Flood, the first Vacchs novel and thought it brutal and compellingly good. I coined the term Lord of the Asphalt Jungle, which I see on some of his paperbacks.


New York, N.Y.: Michael:

You mentioned Chandler's description of hot weather but didn't refer to the best of these,that fabulous opening paragraph to the short story Red Wind:

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."

Could anyone put the book down after reading that?

Michael Dirda: Oh, I would have quoted it, but I couldn't take time to look it up. My favorite Chandler bit is the three page excursus on the worlds various sorts of blondes.

SciFiGirl: Michael -- I just wanted to say that I went through a period where I couldn't get enough hard boiled fiction, and you led me to some great authors (They Shoot Horses, Don't They was particulary heartbreaking), but I have to say that even though Fast One was so short, I had difficulty getting through it. Maybe it was too gritty even for me. One of my favorites is The Big Sleep, which I first got to know through the Humphery Bogart film, and is, I think, one his best performances. Great movie.

On the topic of audio books, I listened to the first four books of the Stephen King's Gunslinger series while stripping wallpaper in my condo, and it was a great way to do those books. I was productive and I got in some great "reading." Those are good tapes, too, because the reader is very good (not Stephen King). My favorite author to hear read his own work is John Le Carre. I listened to the Tailor of Panama on tape on a car trip, and while it was severly abridged, Le Carre's reading style was terrific.

I look forward to your piece on fantasy and SciFi!

Michael Dirda: Yes, I've heard le Carre do the first two SMiley novels and he has a wonderful voice, just mesmerizing. Isn't it remarkable how powerful the human voice is, when it's telling a good story? I suppose it must harken back, in some subliminal way, to listening to a mother sing lullabies to one's infant self.

San Francisco, Calif.: Hi Michael,

Welcome back. How about John D. McDonald? Travis McGee is a bimbo, but his sidekick Meyer is interesting. Is an economist the least likely profession of a private eye's sidekick and if not, what is?

Michael Dirda: good point.

Somewhere, USA: Crumley has a few good "hard boiled" titles. I believe The Last Good Kiss is his finest, thought it pales to The Long Goodbye.

Michael Dirda: OH wait. The Last Good Kiss is the best, the absolute best. Long Goodbye is a trifle too long. Heartbreaking books.

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