RARA-AVIS: (unknown)

From: JIM DOHERTY (jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 02 Sep 2009

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    Re your comments below:

    "I disagree. Dain Curse was all about the mystery. Actually several mysteries which all built up into the one big one."

    The puzzle aspect was there, true. But that wasn't what the story was about. The story was about, "How's the Op gonna keep Gabrielle alive long enough to figure out what the hell's going on?"

    "It's been too long since I've read Red Harvest so I can't comment on that, but the Continental Op stories I've been reading of late were all centered on the underlying mystery of the case."

    You may have a point about some of the short stories, but even when there was a puzzle, the emphasis wasn't on the mystery, but on the dangerous world the Op had to navigate through. "The Gutting of Couffignal," for example, is less about who's pulling the bad guys' strings, than how's the Op going to get through this dangerous night so he can figure out who the string-puller is and nail him.

    And many of the stories don't really have a puzzle aspect at all. There's no question whodunit in "The House on Turk Street." The question's how the Op's going to get out of the bad guys' clutches. Similarly, the sequel to "Turk Street," "The Girl with the Silver Eyes," does not present the Op with any question as to whodunit, but how to nail the person whodunit.

    "Dead Yellow Women," "One Hour," "The Whosis Kid," and "Corkscrew" all either eschew puzzles completely or subordinate the puzzle to the dangerous situation in which the Op finds himself.

    "Spillane's 'I, the Jury; was centered on the mystery. As was 'One Loney Night,' 'The Big Kill' and 'Kiss Me Deadly.' Yes, there was danger involved, as there was in Chandler and others, but the novels were structured around solving the mystery."

    You're talking structure; I'm talking EMPHASIS. The point wasn't figuring out whodunit. It was getting out of the dangerous situation. In ONE LONELY NIGHT, arguably Spillane's best . . .


    . . . it isn't even clear until the end that there IS a whodunit involved. The whole point is, find the spy ring, and find out where the senator's traitorous, blackmailing brother is. When it turns out the McCathyesque senator IS the traitorous, blackmailing brother, it's a total surprise at least partly because the reader had no idea (as he does throughout, say, an Ellery Queen or an Agatha Christie) that there's a puzzle to be solved. Just (as in a DICK TRACY story) that there's a villain to be pursued.


    "All of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer were similarly structured around revealing the mystery novel lays out."

    Yeah, but Macdonald was deliberately trying to move away from the action-style detective story.

    But even allowing that you're right, consider Spenser, who's been around now for three and a half decades. PROMISED LAND was about some half-assed ultra-feminist terrorists; no whodunit there. THE JUDAS GOAT was about actual terrorists; it was an extended international chase in which the only puzzle was figuring out where the bad guys were, not who they were. LOOKING FOR RACHEL WALLACE wasn't even about that; it was more of a long debate about male honor codes vs. feminist compassion disguised as a PI novel, and the bad guys (it did have bad guys didn't it? They kidnapped Spenser's client making it necessary to rescue her during some major league blizzard, right?) were almost incidental to the proceedings.

    The most recent of those books first appeared 28 years ago.

    Sure, there are plenty of PI novels and stories that absolutely depend on the puzzle. Bill Pronzini's Nameless, for example, is particularly adept at locked room mysteries. Brett Halliday's Mike Shayne is also a surprisingly cerebral sleuth.

    My point isn't that PI stories are bereft of puzzles. Only that the action thriller element, whether or not it's built around a whodunit plot (and quite often it hasn't been, going all the way back to the beginning), is hardly a major evolution for this sub-genre.



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