RARA-AVIS: Name Your Poison

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 24 Aug 2006

Jacques Debierue asked:

> What exactly does the real present-day PI do? Surely he can't be doing
> much "divorce work", or chasing the proverbial "missing daughter"?
> Does he even drink or want to? Does he have or need an office, or does
> he work from home and his SUV? Who hires him?
> I ask these things because life has changed so much since the classic
> era of the PI with bottle, pretty and/or motherly secretary, hostile
> cops (except for one who remains grudgingly loyal), etc. etc.

Well, you do realize it was always a fantasy, right?

Fiction is not real life. Fiction has to make sense of some sort. Real life doesn't operate under those restrictions.

Even Hammett's so-called "realism" was pretty much a romanticized and tidied-up version of life in the Pinks (a quick perusal of his article "From the Memoirs of a Private Detective" is mostly tall tales and bullshit), just as Chandler's take was a romanticized version of the lone wolf operator.

Despite the claims of "realism," most hard-boiled fiction is every bit as much of a fictional construct as the rosiest of cozies -- it's just that the disbelief is suspended in another area. When reading fiction, we always have to suspend a certain amount of disbelief -- some genres may ask us to suspend more disbelief than others, but ultimately all genre preferences simply boil down to which poisons and how many of them we're willing to swallow.

But who cares if the trappings have changed? In Hard-Boiled Land, the cops are still hostile and daughters still go missing. Fortunately, the streets are just as mean as they ever were. And whether he's got a cellphone in his pocket or a pencil and notebook, and an iBook back at the office or a long-suffering secretary, eventually, down those mean streets a man must go. Even if he's a woman. Or gay. Or black. Or even -- GASP!!! -- non-American.

So yeah, the bits and pieces may change and the detective himself may not be your grandfather's detective, but some things never change. Justice must still be done, and one person can make a difference, if they're hard enough and true enough.

So whether it's Marlowe looking for yet another lost young girl, Archer probing into some 40-year old family scandal or some new kid on the block looking into some fake AIDS drug scam or a missing rap musician , a lot of people will be willing to follow the detective.

Actual realism isn't the driving factor for fiction -- it's the illusion of reality (peppered with an occasional universal truth) people buy into.

I mean, God help a world where there are adults who actually think something like I, THE JURY is "realistic." I recently re-read it in prep for a local mystery readers group I moderate, and I tell ya, I ended up shaking my head in disbelief so many times my neck is sore. I, THE JURY is as convoluted and artificial as any cozy ever written.

But what the hell -- it's still a great read!

Pure popcorn, as the Mick might say.

Kevin Burton Smith The Thrilling Detective Web Site http://www.thrillingdetective.com

RARA-AVIS home page: http://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/
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