RARA-AVIS: Re: corpses

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 03 Sep 2006


Re your comments below:

"However, the hardboiled investigators were most assuredly not of that class. This gave the narrator, in both cases the first person investigator, an outsider status from which to comment on the upper class."

This presupposes that the hard-boiled protagonist is always a 1st-person narrator (usually true, but not always), and that we will, therefore, see everything through his eyes, and that the detective in the traditional mystery is always upper-class (often, but not always, true).

Sam Spade, perhaps the most famous character from the ouvre of the man who "gave murder back to the people who commit it for reasons," was the hero of a very objective 3rd person novel, and we were never privvy to his observations.

And there are any number of popular, well-known sleuths from the traditional mystery who are as much outsiders as any hard-boiled PI or cop.

G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown, for example, a Catholic priest from humble origins in a protestant, and occasionally virulently anti-Catholic, country is as much as outsider, in his own way, as the Op, or Spade, or Marlowe.

Earl Derr Biggers, thoughan American using American settings, used, like S.S. Van Dine, the "British model" in his mysteries. His series character, Charlie Chan, though an American citizen and technically the equal of the upper-class suspects he interacts with, is a non-white who was a servant prior to becoming a detective. Both his ethnic background and his "servant class" origins make him as much an outsider in the "upstairs" world he operates in as any hard-boiled hero.

"On top of that, the classical mystery was mainly British (yes, I know Van Dine's were set in the US, but they were written to the British model, at least the one I've read) where a person's class is more set from birth (with less interaction between classes, at least during the time of the classical mystery, if not still) than the myth of class mobility would have us believe it is in the US."

That's largely true, exceptions like Van Dine, Biggers, and Ellery Queen notwithstanding, but again, it doesn't mean that it's impossible to create a realistic, believable character within that framework, or that it's necessary for people born to the the purple to be viewed through the prism of a sardonic, cynical lower-class gumshoe for them to have believable motives to murder, or believable reasons to be murdered.

What you said, originally, and what I agreed with, was that the reason Hammett, and his followers, seemed to give murder back to people who committed for reasons other than to provide a corpse was that they too the trouble to create characters who were believable, whatever their class, so that their motives were believable.

At the same time, however, I don't think we can conclude that good characterization is something that's exclusive to the hard-boiled or noir schools, nor that bad characterization is inherent in traditional mysteries.

There are, after all, hard-boiled crime stories with bad characterization, bad plotting, bad writing, etc, and there are traditional mysteries that are a pleasure to read because the characters are credible, the writing sparkiling, the plot well-constructed, the setting well-realized, etc.

At the time Hammett was first writing, the traditional mystery, in the hands of many who wrote them, were little more than prose puzzles with indifferent characters. Hammett's plots, at least boiled down to the bare basics, were not all that different from those in traditional mysteries. There was a crime, an essential clue that only the Op saw, and a solution that the Op explained at the end.

What Hammett did, that was done so seldom in the traditional mystery (at that particular period), was create characters you could believe would do these things, and describe the events with such style that, as Chandler put it, he wrote scenes that "seemed never to have been written before."

It wasn't a question of class, or plot structure. It was a question of approach and talent at charaterization.


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