Re: RARA-AVIS: Has Dope (as in drugs) changed noir and PI?

From: Kevin Burton Smith (
Date: 07 Apr 2007

On Apr 6, 2007, at 8:26 AM, Bludis Jack wrote:

> I think so. Organized crime, semi-organized crime,
> disorganized crime, and drug dealing has made the PI as we
> knew him or her, almost obsolete on the mean streets.

I'm not sure I agree. Even back in the twenties, private eyes in fiction were at least partially a fantasy, a product of dime novels and cowboy mythology at least as much as anything happening in the streets.. For all his claims at veracity and a shimmer of procedural details, Hammett's eyes weren't necessarily any more "realistic" than Chandler's Marlowe -- or Christie's Marple.

It just felt "realer." Certainly, the major plot of THE MALTESE FALCON, stripped of all the sex, gunsels and gaudy patter, isn't all that far removed from a traditional whodunnit, right down to the concluding gathering of suspects.

Different sub-genres just demand suspension of disbelief in different areas. And often differ mostly in tone, not substance.

> In today's drug plagued cities, nobody gets a warning such
> as the one Sam Spade got and the ones that Phillip Marlowe
> got on a regular basis.

I'm not convinced criminals were ever all that courteous. Thugs is thugs. Do you think Capone announced to the boys he was going to line them up against a garage wall and chop 'em down? Or Robert Ford proclaimed his intentions to Mr. Howard?

Warnings? Sure, if they'll work. But in real life, if Marlowe stepped too far out of line, he wouldn't receive any warning -- he'd probably have been shot in the back while he was searching for the perfect simile.

> They just kill the snoop--not to
> mention the witnesses and sometimes the cops who are
> getting to close to pinning something on the local fief
> ruler.

I'm not so sure dope has changed much in crime fiction, really. Or at least not dope, per se. As crime changes, so goes crime fiction. If the crimes have become more brutal -- or are suddenly perceived to be more brutal, well, those wishing to write "realistic" crime fiction will get more brutal as well. It's the crimes that affect crime fiction, not the commodities.

Hell, the very existence of illegal drugs in the first place -- and the rise of organized crime (and the ensuing surge in political and police corruption) to serve the public's growing demand -- are what partially inspired the explosion of hard-boiled writing in the first place. For writers like Chandler and Hammett, the cosy world of Christie and Milne seemed too far removed from the hell that American society was becoming in the twenties and thirties, what with all those bootleggers and smugglers and gangsters running around, buying, selling or rubbing out anyone who got in their way.

Sound familiar?

What was Prohibition, after all, except the first War on Drugs?

And like its successors, it's a crock. The only ones who profit from the War on Drugs are the criminals, of course, and the mighty War Against Drugs industry (law enforcement, prisons, the legal system, arms manufacturers, etc.).

As long as it's treated as a "crime" problem and not a "social" problem a lot of people will make money from drugs, but the use and abuse of drugs be the public will not be greatly affected.

On the other hand, dope has changed private eye fiction in another way. It's given several modern private eyes something to do in their spare time besides cook or play chess. Or drink.

Kevin Burton Smith The Thrilling Detective Web Site

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