RARA-AVIS: Re: The Marlowe Paradigm

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 06 Dec 2002

Jim wrote:

>Even today, the vast majority of PI writers,
>characters like Dick Francis's Sid Halley
>notwithstanding, ARE American, which was my point.

Was it? I thought your point was Chandler's influence on everyone. Sure, most P.I. writers are still American, but that also explains why most of them set their stories in American cities. Chandler's influence, at least as far as setting goes, is fading rapidly. P.I. writers nowadays (and even pre-Chandler) tend to write what they know, which is often where they live (or at least, have lived).

>And a surprisingly large number of non-American
>writers who wrote PI stories, such as James Hadley
>Chase, Peter Cheney, and Peter Chambers (not to be
>confused with the PI character of the same name) used
>American characters and settings precisely because the
>PI story was so closely identified with the US.

Well, yeah, but those guys (by the way, you forgot Carter Brown, another wordpump) are, well, they're not exactly Chandler. Though, in fact, Chandler doessort of back up your argument, since he was a British citizen when he wrote most of his work (maybe he was influenced by himself?) And Ross Macdonald, who was half Canadian. My guess is they wrote about southern California, not because of what their passports or birth certificates said, but because of where they lived.

And, uh, Cheney's P.I.s were Brits, weren't they?

To put it another way, do you really think someone like, oh, George Pelecanos, would still write about Washington, DC, if he grew up and lived in Shepherd's Bush, London?

You can credit Chandler with a lot, but the American setting for P.I.s isn't one of them. Especially since most P.I. writers are, as you point out, American.

>Certainly this has changed to a degree in recent
>years, but the hard-boiled private eye character is
>still widely regarded as an American, just as the
>traditional "cozy" amateur is still widely regarded
>as a Briton, despite the large influx of American
>writers and characters in recent years.

Oh, no denying that. But "widely-regarded" or not, more and more non-American (and non-male and non-white) writers are using the hard-boiled P.I. genre to tell their own stories, often to very great effect. The genre has proven to very adaptable, and offers a powerful literary tool for cracking open the lid and getting a good look at the works.

What good writers (as opposed to hacks) got from Chandler is the notion of really crawling into a setting, and making it come alive. Hacks saw just the Los Angeles setting, good writers saw beyond it, to what Chandler really did. And I would argue that the very strong regionalism of the P.I. genre, be it Parker's Boston, Malet's Paris, Grafton's Santa Theresa, Peter Corris' Sydney or Christopher Moore's Bangkok, is one of Chandler's true legacies.


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