RARA-AVIS: Re: Harry O & Rockford: Literary Influences Coming and Going

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 24 Aug 2003

Mario wrote:

>The fattened up and softened up PI novel has done little to
>further the genre. It has gained it some readers, but at
>what price?

The genre's continued existence and vitality?

And what would furthering the genre entail exactly, then? Surely fencing it in with some iron-bound definition that allows no deviation is not furthering the genre, but locking it in place (and, unfortunately, throwing away the key...)

You see the fattening and softening up of the genre; I see a genre expanding its territory culturally, geographically and socially to cover a far wider range of topics than people like Chandler or Hammett or most of its early practitioners could likely have imagined, yet with the best of it still heeding to the basic tenets Chandler's own "down these mean streets" manifesto.

Sure, a lot of so-called modern "P.I." fiction fails to make the grade, and much of it is -- surprise, surprise, I agree -- is too soft, too fat. And some of it's been too cartoonishly, self-consciously hard. But that's the way it's always been.

The good old days is a lie. Always has been. Anyone who's bothered to go back and actually read copies of the sacred Black Mask or beloved Gold Medals knows that many of those stories were actually disappointingly sub-par. And that was the cream of the crop. There's a danger in using the past as a yardstick for everything, or of looking at it through rose-coloured shot glasses. Which is how powerful but woefully uneven pulp writers can go from under-rated obscurities to over-rated demigods in less than twenty years.

I guess it depends on what you want from the genre. Some people want books written in 2003 to read like it's 1959. Or 1939. Others want more modern detectives. I think any genre that doesn't evolve eventually becomes a museum piece.

Which is fine for some folks -- I like visiting museums myself, but I wouldn't want to live in one. So I also enjoy books that reflect their times.

What I don't always enjoy are modern novels that self-consciously ape the past, without any real understanding of what made those books kick. Rubbing the reader's face in excrement or tossing in every single politically incorrect phrase or tasteless scenario their little, repressed peabrains can think of doesn't make these faux-retro hard-boiled novels tough or authentic -- just sort of pathetic, like a short man trying to start a bar brawl to prove his masculinity.

>I was thinking about this while picking up Block's_Hope to
>Die_ and reading a couple more chapters. Technically good
>writing, but with a clear tendency to the common
>denominator, to a comfortable composite of (what I assume
>are) generic reader preferences. I mention Block because he
>is one of the best current PI writers. If the best are
>doing this, what can we expect from the genre as a whole?

Hmmm... I thought HOPE TO DIE was probably the weakest of the series. On the other hand, I found its predecessor EVERYBODY DIES was neither soft nor fat. It could have been a little leaner, perhaps, but I feel that way about a lot of books. And while I share your apparently high opinion of Block, I think of him as more of a great writer who also does a P.I. series, as opposed to a great P.I. writer. So I'm not sure if he's a good example to use. In fact, I'm not sure if any one writer's a good example to represent a whole genre -- we're too close to them right now, and we lack the perspective of time.


Kevin -- # Plain ASCII text only, please. Anything else won't show up. # To unsubscribe from the regular list, say "unsubscribe rara-avis" to # majordomo@icomm.ca. This will not work for the digest version. # The web pages for the list are at http://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/ .

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