RARA-AVIS: Saint with a Gun

From: Michael Robison ( miker_zspider@yahoo.com)
Date: 01 Mar 2007

Timothy J. Lockhart wrote:

Bill is the author of "Saint with a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye," an excellent nonfiction book about the PI genre.

***************** Glad you liked it. I thought he started out with a false assumption and everything that proceeded from it was suspect. If I recall correctly, the following review of it didn't get posted back when we did the criticism month. It needs reworking, but it's probably not going to happen.

SAINT WITH A GUN, by William Ruehlmann

Aaron Stein writes in the foreword to Saint With A Gun, "William Ruehlmann has done a penetrating analysis of just what it is that this public wants and has come to interesting and chilling conclusions about what the want indicates of the character of that huge public." The book, then, is not primarily a literary critique, but instead a social critique. Rather than concentrate on the literature itself, his main concern is the debunking of what he perceives as an erroneous noble image that the reader has of the PI character. More accurately, his thesis is that the American reader of hardboiled detective fiction is suitably represented as a beer-drinking beer-bellied slob in a sweat stained undershirt, only occasionally putting down a well thumbed Mickey Spillane to rise from the couch to get another beer and perhaps beat the wife or sexually abuse the daughter.

When Ruehlmann takes a break from demeaning the hardboiled reader, he is capable of producing an intelligent and perceptive summary of the history of the genre. Traditionally Poe has been granted the honor of the first detective story with Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841, and Ruehlmann does not deprive him of this, but he takes a step back in time to mention the influence that Vidocq and his detective Memoirs
(1828) had on Poe's writing. He notes that Vidocq's influence was not limited to Poe, but also extended to Victor Hugo, Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Besides serving as a long-standing template for the classic locked-door mystery, Poe's story established themes that are still seen in current day mysteries, such as a smart and eccentric detective, incompetent police, and the detective's lesser assistant.

In a nutshell history of detective literature, Poe's Dupin is usually followed by Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes but Ruehlmann points out that, as Vidocq's nonfiction Memoirs preceded Poe, so Pinkerton's nonfiction preceded Holmes. Allan Pinkerton is better known for his famous detective agency, but starting with The Expressman and the Detective in 1875, Pinkerton put out a series of detective books that would later form a firm foundation for the hardboiled detective genre. Twelve years after Pinkerton's first, Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887. Ruehlmann notes some of themes in Doyle's work that both follow tradition and establish a new paradigm. Like Poe's Dupin, Holmes is eccentric and celibate, with his escapades documented by an admiring accomplice. Holmes is far more active, and far more colorful. Unlike the dispassionate Dupin, whose interest in the mystery goes little beyond the solution, Holmes exhibits a controversial concept of justice which introduces a new theme into the genre, sympathizing and sometimes protecting the criminal from discovery or prosecution.

Van Dine's first Philo Vance novel was The Benson Murder Case (1926). Ruehlmann notes that Philo looks like Sherlock Holmes, thin and tall, and shares his elitism. Vance is an expert in oriental prints, tapestries, and ceramics. Like Dupin and Holmes, his cases are relayed in the first person by a lesser colleague. Stout's Nero Wolfe appeared on the scene a few years later in Fer-de-Lance (1934). Wolfe does not share Holmes gaunt frame, but he does have a strong leaning towards the eccentric. When Wolfe came on the scene, the hardboiled tradition was firmly rooted, and Wolfe has a hardboiled assistant Archie Goodwin as counterpart to his own effete personality.

Ruehlmann observes that although neither Van Dine nor Stout are commonly associated with the hardboiled genre, there is a dark side in their writing that reflects the ruthless vigilante spirit of the more hardcore hardboiled. Both Philo and Nero show an open disregard for the law in collecting evidence, and a more ominous habit of choreographing deaths of undesirables. This happens through allowing or encouraging suicide or else setting them up to be murdered by another criminal. For most readers this introduces a satisfying level of ambiguity that blurs the lines between the detective and the criminal. Ruehlmann finds this disturbing, evidently preferring literature with a more definitive line drawn between those wearing the white hats and the black.

The chapter "Kid From Cyanide Gulch" plays a key role in the book. In it he discusses several of the classic hardboiled detective authors, their influence on the genre, and the themes that they invoked. He begins by crediting Black Mask magazine with the birth of the genre with stories by Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett in 1923. Daly's writing was poor, and he is unknown beyond a small circle of hardboiled fans, but his stories were very popular, and his ultra-tough detective Race Williams summed up the hardboiled creed perfectly: "Right and wrong are not written on the statutes for me, nor do I find my code of morals in the esays of long-winded professors. My ethics are my own."

Ruehlmann is at his best when discussing Hammett. This is because they both share a deep-rooted cynicism, not just for the world the detective inhabits, and not just for the degree of change the detective can hope to effect, but also for the morality of the detective himself. He makes his case by referring to two of Hammett's most powerful novels, Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. In Red Harvest an unnamed detective often referred to as the Con Op, short for Continental Operative, is called to a small Western town where his professionalism disintegrates into a bloody personal vendetta. In The Maltese Falcon, Ruehlmann rightfully questions an overwhelmingly strong current of uncritical admiration for the integrity of detective Sam Spade, suggesting that this is not the reading that Hammett intended. Ruehlmann recognizes that a refusal to succumb to sentiment allows Spade to triumph over Brigid, but his suggestion that this leaves Spade empty misses the mark. Also dubious is his statement that in the end, Spade's hardboiled philosophy fails him.

In a fast drive-by of Hammett and Chandler, there appears a lot of similarity, tough detectives operating in a tough world populated by tough criminals and tough women. But under closer inspection, Ruehlmann points out some significant differences. First, he notes, that where Hammett's detectives are professional, Marlowe is idealistic. This is a little vague, but his comment that Chandler's writing has an element of redemption is on target. He cites Ralph Partridge's comment about Chandler's detective Marlowe: "He is the perpetually crucified redeemer of all our modern sins." Second, although Hammett's detectives are loners, Marlowe goes beyond this, suffering from a profound sense of alienation. Ruehlmann notes that Marlowe is alienated from the poor by eccentric tastes. He smokes a pipe, quotes the diaries of Pepys, and listens to classic music. He is alienated from the rich by his lack of money. This alienation is distilled into a bitterness that increases from novel to novel, reaching a shrill peak in The Little Sister. Ruehlmann's analysis of Chandler has its high points, but it has gaps, too. He declares that The Big Sleep is not a romantic novel, but after several pages of commenting on what it isn't, he can't seem to decide what it is. He either chooses to ignore or overlooks the important themes concerning sexuality.

More so than any other hardboiled writer, Spillane has invoked the hatred and invective of the critic for the pure mythic rage of Mike Hammer. After all the self-righteous pontificating in the beginning pages of the book, it is surprising that Ruehlmann is able to rationally describe and analyze Spillane's Mike Hammer novels. Ruehlmann even goes so far as to say that in
"Hammer there is the same strong moral line," with its roots in "Bible Belt fundamentalism." Ruehlmann continues to amaze by comparing Spillane's work with the Bible: "The powerful rhythms of Spillane's recorded rage show a stylistic debt to the King James text." He continues to heap on the praise with "...it would be a mistake not to call him a craftsman; he writes with a sense of pace and a breakneck style." It appears to be a complete turnaround from his earlier stated mission as vilifier of the detective image. A footnote to the chapter includes a personal interview that Spillane granted Ruehlmann. Only the lowest of sceptics would suggest that Ruehlmann would compromise his high morals in trade for an interview.

The saga continues with the haunted families of Ross Macdonald. Ruehlmann breaks no new ground here, but he does have a curious response to Lew Archer's pessimistic and cynical question: "Was this the promised land?" Ruehlmann answers: "It used to be, but things happened." This tracks with the rather thoughtless cliche that the human condition is becoming progressively worse. When, one might ask, were things better? During the World War of the 1940s? The Depression of the 1930s? Maybe the lawlessness of the Prohibition years? World War I? Sinclair Lewis's meat packing plants of the turn of the century? Maybe Ruehlmann longs for the nostalgic peace of the pre-bellum South.

In Saint With a Gun, Ruehlmann is able to occasionally deliver the goods, but he always stops short of a solid understanding. His commitment to cliche, weak critical reckoning, and logical fallacy do nothing to improve his stance. Although this can be found in the details throughout the text, it is also well reflected in his main thesis, that the particular character of the American public can be judged by the detective literature they read. The first weakness that becomes obvious is that all the assumptions of what the American public derives from detective literature are made by critics who consider themselves well removed from the unwashed masses. Maybe he didn't take the trouble to consult with the actual public he maligns because of the noisome nature of the task, or maybe he just couldn't get them to come to the phone because they were busy working on junk cars in the backyard or were in town for some recreation, drinking at the local Dew Drop Inn, shooting stop signs, and beating up queers.

Ruehlmann spends the majority of his book pointing out defects in the character of the fictional American detective, but the problem with this is that its significance in the support of his thesis is based upon a faulty premise that he glosses over early in the book. It is one of the valued pleasures of literature that one can place oneself in the shoes of someone else and view the world through their eyes, and fiction that cannot develop this empathy is less than successful. Ruehlmann's premise that reader empathy with a character implies tacit approval of his actions extrapolated out into life is ludicrous. If this was true, then any literature with characters of less than pure motive and action would be immoral. As absurd as this seems, it comes very close to Ruehlmann's thesis, and Ruehlmann makes an ironic full-circle swing back to roost on a prudish branch right next to the fundamentalists that he shows so much contempt for.


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