RARA-AVIS: Social Studies

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 31 Jan 2008

Jim wrote:

> His work certainly has staying power, but to describe
> the designation "police procedural" as "quaintly
> inadequate" suggests that a police procedural can
> never be a "progessively social study of people in a
> particular time and place."
> In fact, it strikes me that it's in the police
> procedural, the most rigorously naturalistic of all
> mystery sub-genres, that you are MOST likely to find
> such studies.

Well, that might depend on how generously or strictly you define police procedural. If it's to include everything from Charlie Chan, Dell Shannon and Helen McCloy to anything where a cop (or cops) is the central character (Ellroy?), it may be a very hard slog indeed.

The private eye novel could just as easily claim to be the sub-genre that best gets under society's skin, if you consider Chandler's LA or even Spenser's Boston. But that's a false argument. I don't think it's the genre that necessarily does the talking, but the author.

> It has been observed, for example, that Ed McBain's
> depiction of NYC in his 87th Precinct series, for all
> that he pretends that the place isn't NYC at all, is
> the best sustained literary examination of that city,
> and its people, anywhere in fiction.

Observed? Possibly by a very selective audience? I think at one point, in his prime, it may well have been the case, but I think McBain's latter books felt out of touch and removed; a little too much 1950s Isola and not enough 1990s-and-beyond New York. They may have sustained, but I'm not sure they were always the best. I think, for example, that Lawrence Block's depiction of New York in the last few decades, particularly in the Scudder series, rings more true to me and brings the Big Apple more alive than any of McBain's books of the time. I forget which book it was, but Scudder walks home one night, a miles-long wander with the sun coming up while he ponders the case, and meanwhile reflects on what he sees, how it's changed, how he feels.

And I think that "feeling" is pivotal -- McBain's view is essentially a deadpan one; nuanced but ultimately blunt reportage, cut-and-dried observations by rote (yeah, yeah, "Isola is a lady..."). Whereas Block's eye is equally sharp, but like the best writers, there's another layer going on. Think of MacDonald's Florida or Macdonald's SoCal or Burke's Louisiana. These places come alive, and we see them not just through the narrators' eyes, but through their hearts as well.

> One could say the same of Ellroy's Los Angeles in the
> '50's,

One could, but I think they'd be wrong. Ellroy goes too far the other way -- it's all heart and no eyes. For all his strength's, Ellroy's 1950s LA is a misogynist wet dream, an intentionally impressionistic wallow in a pit so relentless and hate-filled and virtue-free, it's almost a cartoon. It would be like saying Quick Draw McGraw was the
"real" depiction of the Old West.

I've enjoyed many of Ellroy's books, but I've never felt they really nailed their time and place; just a small cancerous slice of it
(although it does give him an excuse to say "faggot" and nigger" and
"kike," which impresses the mouth-breathers a lot).

What the best crime fiction can do well, regardless of sub-genre, is to expose -- through the "eyes" of its detective -- a myriad of social, ethnic and cultural worlds. The detective who breaks out of the self-enclosed circle of the traditional mystery (which loves desert islands, snowbound passenger trains, locked buildings and rooms, isolated little villages, etc.) is free and able to go anywhere those mean streets lead, be it the Sternwood estate, some hick town in the mountains or that "shine bar" in FAREWELL, MY LOVELY.

If Hammett gave murder back to the people who commit it for a reason, Chandler gave us a whole world for them to hide in -- and a detective able to follow them wherever they go.

He could be a cop, he could be a private eye, he could be a she -- like, say, a retired porn actress trying to get out of a bad jam -- but ultimately it's what they see and feel and report back to us that matters, not what sub-genre cubbyhole we try to jam them into.

Kevin Burton Smith Thrilling Detective Web Site Holiday Issue New fiction from Sundeson, Narvaez, Stodghill and Max Allan Collins. Plus.... the THRILLIES!!!

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