RARA-AVIS: Don't look now, but here come the eighties

From: William Denton ( buff@pobox.com)
Date: 09 Apr 2003

Mr. Smith said, "There were so many great series launched in the seventies that were really hitting their stride about then. Pronzini, Parker, Block, Hansen and the like had already demonstrated there were new ways to use the genre, and in their wake (and perhaps at least partly inspired by them, or at least by Parker's commercial success) a whole bunch of new voices (Grafton, Paretsky, Mosley, Burke, et al) entered the genre in the early eighties." (Mosley's DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS was published in 1990, though!) I'd add James Ellroy and Loren Estleman.

Mr. So, I noticed, runs a mailing list called DetecToday, "Dedicated to the new wave of mystery writers (male or female, mid-1980s - present) carrying PI tradition into the future. We also discuss offshoots of the hard-boiled, loner, cynical attitude popularized by fictional PIs. Featured authors include Crais, Lehane, Coben, Connelly, Rozan, and Seranella." What, if anything, have they decided over there about hardboiled detectives in the 1980s? Where did they come from? Where did they go?

I read LABYRINTH (1980), by Bill Pronzini, the sixth Nameless Detective mystery. One thing that struck me about the book was the self-conscious anachronism of the detective. He sits around reading pulp magazines, sarcastically quoting newspaper articles that call him the last Frisco lone-wolf private eye, and tells reporters that his secretary, Effie Perrine, will get back to them. I can't remember the later Namelesses I've read, but I presume this just gets stronger. Loren Estleman's Amos Walker is out of his time, and later in the series he acknowledges it. This self-reflexivity might bother some people, but I like it.

Was it in the late seventies/early eighties when the split happened, people realized the contemporary hardboiled dick was a fantasy, and they either had to modernize him or write historical novels? Ellroy ended up going the historical route; Paretsky modernized and made it a her, but I don't think her stuff is actually hardboiled. Some writers, like Willeford, went to police stories--the police are the only ones you can take seriously as investigating murders now.

One more thing: it's interesting watching technology change through the decades. In LABYRINTH, Nameless recently gave up on his answering service
(like Lew Archer always used) and has an answering machine. He's constantly checking on it and using pay phones to call people who are never in their office. Fifty years earlier, the Continental Op had a suspect whose alibi was that he was in New York the day before and he couldn't get back to Frisco in less than 18 hours ... by airplane. Twenty years later, everyone's cat has a cell phone and technology has made many old plots and situations impossible.


William Denton : Toronto, Canada : http://www.miskatonic.org/ : Caveat lector.

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