RARA-AVIS: Re: The popularity of the Private Investigator

From: dj_bassett ( dj_bassett@yahoo.com)
Date: 19 Feb 2006

--- In rara-avis-l@yahoogroups.com, "jimdohertyjr" <jimdohertyjr@...> wrote:
> Doug,
> Re your comments below:
> > I don't think people are really looking for "realism",
> > anyway. While it's true that the busy little forensic
> > details of "CSI" and similar shows seem to be part of
> > their appeal, and while there's always been a small
> > diehard group of fans obsessed with authenticity in
> > their police procedurals and the like, in general I
> > think people look to fiction to escape their reality.
> As one of those who is "obsessed" with authenticity in the police
> procedural, I take some exception to that comment.
> The reason procedural readers like procedurals to be accurate is
> because the sub-genre is defined by the accurate depiction of the
> profession of law enforcement. If it doesn't do that it's not
> delivering what it's supposed to deliver.
> That's not obsession. That's simply a reasonable expectation.

The statement to which you take "some exception" seems to me to be a relatively innocous and accurate point, but to the extent it pricked you personally, I'm sorry.

I stand, however, by what I've said. I think there's a relatively small group of readers in all sorts of genres who are obsessed with authenticity in their fiction. There are military technothriller types obsessed with armament details, hard SF fans obsessed with the science, etc. I have never been sympathetic to such an approach to fiction and have said that often. I think at best such a pursuit is a silly distraction; at worst it misunderstands what fiction is, what it can and should do.

 And I think PI
> novels that DO try to accurately depict PI work in the same way
> police procedurals try to depict law enforcement, like Gores's DKA
> novels, appeal to readers who might be put off by the comic book
> heroics of a Mike Hammer or even the tarnished romanticism of a
> Marlowe.

If your point is simply that some people *do* like relentlessly authentic stuff, well, granted. I just don't think most people care about such things one way or the other. And I think it's a pretty silly reason to read a novel. But that's why there's a whole bunch of them for sale at Barnes and Noble.

The DKA novels may be scrupously accurate portrayals of PI offices of their time; I don't know, I don't know anything about PI offices. If you like them for that reason, great. But I've read a few of them and thought "87th Precinct knockoff". And I think that's a clearer understandiing of them. Which is my point: books are best understood as fictional constructs.

I seem to remember having this discussion with you some years ago. That one grew heated: I have no wish to cause strife here again. Let's just say we have a philosophical disagreement and move on, eh?

> Now, whether it'll be incarnated ever again as the
> > traditional "I get a hundred bucks plus expenses" and
> > a bottle in the bottom desk drawer is hard to say. My
> > guess is that he/she will probably be back again in a
> > big way, but not for awhile. My guess is that we're
> > living through an unsettled age and a PI needs to be
> > in a settled time, since his/her whole raison d etre
> > is to confront the corruption that undergirds the
> > seeming stability. (This is the same reason why spy
> > fiction, my other major interest, has somewhat receded
> > as of late. It too is predicated on stability.)
> I'm not sure that what you're saying about "unsettled times" bears
> scrutiny. The hard-boiled PI was conceived, born, and thrived,
> between the wars, during the gangsterism of Prohibition, the
> woes of the Depression, and the anxiety over the rise of fascisim
> Europe and Asia. What was particularly "settled" about that era?

Well, I was "guessing", or speculating. And that and a couple of bucks will buy you coffee at Starbucks. My guess, though, is that the PI's role is essentially a reactive one; he makes most sense as a figure who explores internal corruption of society. Think of all the PI stories which revolve around the rot beneath the surface of the wealthy, for instance -- Ross Macdonald made a career out of it. And that requires a certain kind of stable society to bounce up against.

As you say, the PI may be a creature of his era. I'm not sure that's true, exactly, but I think he may be a creature of certain kind of eras. And the question then becomes what distinguishes those eras?

> As for spy fiction, I've noted a rise, not a decline, in recent
> years. Nothing like the the levels of popularity seen in the mid-
> 60's, but certainly a spike. The sub-genre DID decline quite a bit
> with the end of the Cold War (a time of apparent "settled
> but took an upsurge with 9/11 and the consequent "War on Terror"
> (inarguably unsettled times).

I hesistate to get too involved in what would be a distraction from this board. Suffice it to say the Cold War laid down a schema that allowed spy novelists to thrive as a genre. To that extent, it was a "settled time" for it's authors. It seems pretty inarguable to me that the genre isn't what it once was, in part because the world isn't as coherent in that respect as it once was. Heck, they can't even figure out what to do with James Bond anymore -- certainly he made more sense with SPECTRE and the like. Though certainly there are still spy novels being published: interesting though that so many are historical in nature (Furst, for instance) or self- consciously retro (McCarry's OLD BOYS). doug

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