Dixie City Jam, by James Lee Burke, New York: Hyperion, 367 pages, $22.95
Free Fall, By Robert Crais, New York: Bantam, 288 pages, $19.95/4.99 paper
"K" Is for Killer, by Sue Grafton, New York: Henry Holt and Co., 284 pages, $22.95
Black Betty, by Walter Mosley, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 255 pages, $25.99
Walking Shadow, by Robert B. Parker, New York: G. P Putnam's Sons, 270 pages, $19.95
Tunnel Vision, by Sara Peretsky, New York: Delacorte Press, 432 pages, $21.95
In his 1950 essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler showed nothing but contempt for the "logic and deduction" model of detective stories made famous by Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers. Chandler savaged the literary pretensions of those writers, mostly of British descent, who relied upon "the same incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poniard just as she flatted on the top note of the 'Bell Song' from Lakme in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests."
Chandler said Sayers and her clever colleagues wrote stories that "do not really come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction. They are too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world. They try to be honest, but honesty is an art. [The inferior mystery writer] thinks a complicated murder scheme which baffled the lazy reader, who won't be bothered itemizing the details, will also baffle the police, whose business is with details." Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett two decades earlier, reinvented the detective story with their hard-boiled style, detailing believable events that might happen to actual people.
Although Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and their literary descendants retain a large following, there are dozens of contemporary writers keeping the realistic crime novel alive. While the writers of science fiction, fantasy, and even romance novels create heroic individuals who inhabit ideal worlds, the author of the hard-boiled crime novel must formulate characters and situations that are constrained by reality. Readers who want to see heroism demonstrated in plausible settings—and get some fine storytelling in the bargain—can find plenty to enjoy in hard-boiled detective fiction.
With August Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe created the private "consulting detective" in literature; Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes immortalized the character type. But contemporary society is much removed from 1830s France or Victorian London. The early detectives were brought in after some chaotic event—usually a murder or robbery—disrupted the stable order of that time's proper society. For the most part, Dupin and Holmes, although technically private citizens, worked for the police or some other government agency.
By the time Hammett arrived in the 1920s, the world wasn't nearly so orderly. Crime bosses, bad cops, and corrupt politicians had disrupted "decent society," or prevented it from developing in the first place. The boom towns of the American West were easy targets for the rogues and charlatans who inhabited hard-boiled stories. Private investigators were called in because government authorities couldn't be trusted.
For his first novel, Red Harvest (1927), Hammett created the Western town of Personville, "an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.
"The first policeman I saw needed a shave. The second had a couple of buttons off his shabby uniform. The third stood in the center of the city's main intersection—Broadway and Union Street—directing traffic, with a cigar in one corner of his mouth. After that I stopped checking them up."
In this environment, any order a detective could restore might be limited to those few individuals within his personal contact. But Hammett didn't write morality plays. His protagonists are themselves corruptible. At the end of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade turns Brigid O'Shaughnessy over to the police for killing his partner—not because he believes murder is immoral but because a private eye can't remain in business if his partner's murder is unsolved. And Nick and Nora Charles try to obscure the moral depravity that surrounds them by sinking into an alcoholic haze.
Chandler's creation of Philip Marlowe added a new dimension to the hard-boiled story: the detective as individualist hero. The heroic detective, wrote Chandler, "must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it."
Philip Marlowe has sired many literary offspring, private detectives who live heroically in a corrupt society. Today's hard-boiled writers portray a world in which a semblance of order has replaced the chaos of Chandler's day. But it's a malevolent order, imposed by gang leaders, crime bosses, crooked cops, or venal public officials. And this malevolence has begun to seep into the lives of normal people—some wealthy, some not.
Today's heroic detective serves as the moral center of an immoral society: He (or in some important cases, she) is an efficacious individual whose very presence insinuates an element of chaos in the prevailing malevolent order; to be successful, he must disrupt the corruption around him so that some sense of rationality—not spontaneous order in the liberal sense, but some sustainable social structure—can try to reassert itself. The detective also lives by a personal code of morality that forces him to defy the statutory law when necessary. And he faces moral challenges that sometime supersede the mystery he tries to solve. As first-person accounts, these novels also give readers inside knowledge of the detective's thoughts and emotions.
Robert B. Parker, the dean of today's hard-boiled writers, was chosen by Chandler's estate to complete the unfinished Marlowe novel Poodle Springs. Unfortunately, Chandler dealt Parker a rotten hand: In the portion Chandler left behind, he had Marlowe marry and leave the mean streets of Los Angeles for the pampered wealth of the High Desert.
Parker has been on much more solid ground, however, in the two dozen novels featuring his Boston-based detective Spenser. At his best, Spenser is a prototypical hard-boiled hero: He says little, while remaining tough, literate, and funny. And Spenser lives by his own code of ethics. In Paper Doll (1993), for instance, Spenser solves a murder but refuses to turn in the killer because the victim, in Spenser's view, deserved her fate.
In Walking Shadow, Spenser serves as bodyguard to the head of a theater company on whose board sits Susan Silverman, Spenser's longtime love. The director believes he's being stalked, and the impoverished company hires Spenser as his protector, expecting Susan to foot the bills.
As Spenser tries to identify the stalker, he runs afoul of the leader of the local Chinese mob. For assistance, Spenser brings in his longtime colleague Hawk. And they enlist Mei Ling, a Harvard student, to serve as interpreter.
Spenser and Mei Ling spend an icy, unproductive day trying to elicit information from reluctant merchants in Port City's Chinese community.
"'Most of these Chinese people,' Mei Ling said, 'have never before spoken to a white person.'
"She was shivering. I didn't think it was so cold, but I didn't weigh ninety pounds.
"'They call that speaking?' I said.
"Mei Ling smiled.
"'It is very Chinese to be reticent,' she said. 'For many centuries Chinese people got only trouble from talking. We find saying little and working hard to be a virtue.'
"'Novel idea,' I said.
"'And, of course, despite the fact that I explain to them otherwise, many of these Chinese people think you are from the government.'
"'And if I were?'
"Mei Ling hugged herself as she walked. I could see that it was will, only, which kept her teeth from chattering.
"'Then you would make them pay taxes, or find that they were here illegally and make them leave. Our history has not taught us to trust our government.'
"'Most histories don't,' I said."
Unfortunately, Walking Shadow and other recent Spenser novels have violated Chandler's first rule of hard-boiled storytelling: Make your detective a credible character. Spenser isn't anymore. He is a Korean War veteran working in the 1990s, which forces Parker to deal with a 60-something detective who's supposed to exude virility and youth.
The hard-boiled series writer faces a paradox: keeping the main character alive (or else the series must end) while also credibly placing him in harm's way. Without a sense of physical peril, the detective might as well be Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poirot, solving mysteries without ever taking off his smoking jacket or leaving his drawing room.
Parker has also imbued Spenser and Hawk with invulnerability. (In the least plausible Spenser novel, 1992's Double Deuce, Spenser and Hawk clean up a gang- and drug-infested housing project with no other assistance.) The earlier Spensers featured suspense along with a sense of danger; now we get little more than crackling dialogue combined with superhuman feats of strength performed by characters who must be a few years away from collecting Social Security.
With Elvis Cole, Louisiana-born Robert Crais has created a detective who better fits Marlowe's mold than the '90s Spenser. Cole is a Vietnam veteran who lives in the Hollywood Hills, adores Jiminy Cricket, keeps fit by practicing martial arts, and occasionally strikes up conversations with his cat. (The cat doesn't have much to say.)
Most of the action in Free Fall, the fourth Cole novel, takes place in South-Central L.A. Cole finds out that, during a weapons sting, members of REACT, an elite LAPD unit, had beaten and killed a black pawn-shop employee. The police claim the death was accidental; the family contends it was a malicious act by out-of-control cops.
The REACT cops frame Cole and his partner, Joe Pike, for three execution-style murders. They escape from jail to protect a girlfriend of one of the cops from retribution by other REACT members.
"I called Charlie Bauman, a lawyer I know who has an office in Santa Monica. I called him at home. Charlie answered on the fourth ring and said, 'Hey, Elvis, how's it going, buddy?' There was music somewhere behind him and he sounded glad to hear from me.
"I said, 'I'm sitting on the floor in my living room, in the dark, and I'm wanted on three murder counts and a dope charge.'
"Charlie said, 'Shit, are you out of your nut?' He didn't sound so happy to hear from me anymore.
"I told him about it. When I got to the arrest and the questioning, he stopped me.
"'You should've called me. Never give up your right to an attorney. That was bush.'
"'I'm calling you now, Charlie,'
"'Yeah, yeah. After you fuck up.'
"I gave him the rest of it. When I finished, he didn't say anything for a while.
"'You assaulted a police officer, and you escaped?'
"'Pike and I. Yeah.'
"I didn't say anything.
"Charlie said, 'Okay. You've got to come in. Come to my place, and we'll go in together. I'm sure we can pull bail, even after this.'
"'What do you mean, no?'
"'I can't come in yet, Charlie. There's something I've got to do.'
"Charlie went ballistic. 'Are you fucked?'
"I hung up."
Cole has to rely upon the more-honest REACT members to turn in their rotten colleagues and on the top brass in the LAPD to prosecute the bad cops. It's not an uplifting story, but it's as smart and suspenseful as the best of its type.
Two female writers, Sue Grafton and Sara Peretsky, have created the most normal, believable hard-boiled detectives. Grafton combats the problem of the aging detective by limiting Kinsey Millhone's experiences to the 1980s. "K" is for Killer, the 11th in Grafton's alphabet series, is again set in Santa Teresa (actually Santa Barbara), California.
Kinsey is 32, twice divorced, drives a VW Beetle, lives in a converted garage, cuts her hair with nail scissors, and has lost her primary gig as an investigator for the California Fidelity Insurance company. Along with the other detectives in the genre, Kinsey's fierce independence and the profession she has chosen make it difficult to maintain long-term friendships, let alone romantic relationships. In "J" is for Judgment, she accidentally discovers that several family members live an afternoon's drive from her home, and spends much of the novel agonizing over whether she should make contact with them.
In Killer, while waiting to interview a nurse who knew the victim of the murder she's investigating, Kinsey sits in a waiting room glancing at a glossy woman's magazine. "Intellectually I understood that these were all highly paid models simply posing as housewives for the purpose of selling Kotex, floor covering, and dog food. Their lives were probably as far removed from housewifery as mine was. But what did you do if you actually were a housewife, confronted with all these images of perfection on the hoof? From my perspective, I couldn't see any connection at all between my lifestyle (hookers, death, celibacy, handguns, and fast food) and the lifestyle depicted in the magazine, which was probably just as well. What would I do with a fluffy mutt and containers full of dill and marjoram?"
Tunnel Vision is the eighth novel featuring Chicago private eye V.I. "Vic" Warshawski. Author Sara Peretsky is relentlessly P.C. and Warshawski wears her left-liberalism on her sleeve. For instance, Vic previously defended a friend's abortion clinic from Operation Rescue–like protesters. In this novel, she tries to solve the murder of an acquaintance who served with Vic on the board of a battered women's shelter. (One redeeming quality: Vic is a die-hard Cubs fan.)
But once Peretsky stops preaching and lets Warshawski start detecting, you can ignore the proselytizing. Peretsky writes a great page-turner.
As with Kinsey, Warshawski's independence causes trouble with those who care most about her. She refuses help from her boyfriend, police Sgt. Conrad Rawlings, even after her apartment is broken into and she is roughed up by the burglars.
In a heated conversation, Rawlings says to her: "'Vic, it seems to me you guard everything you do like you were protecting baby Moses from the Pharaoh, and when I learn of it by accident you grudgingly hand me a bulrush or two. I think the truth is you like to fly solo, girl. If someone's in your wing, even if it's a friendly plane, you'll shoot it down.'"
If you can get past Peretsky's political correctness, the V.I. Warshawski series is plenty of fun.
Walter Mosley and James Lee Burke may be the most literary writers of the genre. They have certainly created the most complicated protagonists. Bill Clinton says Mosley is his favorite detective writer, but that shouldn't dissuade you from getting to know Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins.
Rawlins is a World War II veteran who has settled in South-Central L.A. Over a few years he has amassed a small fortune in real estate, both residential and commercial. Yet he portrays himself as a common laborer, an errand-runner for Mofass, an older black man who dresses sharply, talks smoothly, and can impress white power-brokers more convincingly than the youthful, hot-headed Rawlins. Mofass is in truth Easy's employee, but they're the only ones who know it.
In White Butterfly, the third Rawlins novel, set in 1956, Easy's lies start to catch up with him. Easy's wife takes their daughter and leaves L.A. because he refuses to tell her how he earns his supposedly meager living. When Black Betty opens, it's five years later, and Easy is living with his adopted Mexican son Jesus, and Feather, the infant girl left orphaned by the murder victim in White Butterfly.
Living in South Central was no picnic, even 30 years ago. As Rawlins searches for a woman he hasn't seen in three decades, he's beaten by a Beverly Hills policeman, incarcerated without being charged with a crime, and stabbed with an ice pick by an unknown assailant.
Mosley pulls no punches: "John's bar didn't open until noon but I would have found him there if we hadn't had that appointment. Men like John and me didn't have lives like the white men on TV had. We didn't roll out of bed for an eight-hour day job and then come home in the evening for The Honeymooners and a beer.
"We didn't do one thing at a time.
"We were men who came from poor stock. We had to be cooks and tailors and plumbers and electricians. We had to be our own cops and our own counsel because there wasn't anything for us down at City Hall.
"We worked until the job was done or until we couldn't work anymore. And even when we'd done everything we could, that didn't mean we'd get a paycheck or a vacation. It didn't mean a damn thing."
Unfortunately, Mosley views everything through a racial prism. Although at that time people with the wrong skin color were no doubt treated by "proper society" as inferior, Los Angeles wasn't the Jim Crow South. Even so, Rawlins treats all white people with equal contempt. And Mosley offers only one sympathetic white character—a man with a black wife.
The cheerless environment Rawlins inhabits imparts a mood to these novels that resembles Hammett's world more than Chandler's. Rawlins possesses more integrity than anyone around him, but he refuses to trust anyone and has no problem deceiving his wife and his few friends. The hard-boiled hero, to use a cliché, must be the sort of person you would want to be trapped with in a fox hole. I'm not sure Easy Rawlins meets that standard.
James Lee Burke writes from the Louisiana bayou, in an atmosphere that is often as foreboding as Easy Rawlins's Los Angeles. And his protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, is a recovering alcoholic and former New Orleans homicide cop.
Robicheaux would be happy to spend all his time running the bait shop and fishing dock he owns in New Iberia. But he continually runs into mobsters, drug lords, and, in this instance, neo-Nazis. His single-minded pursuits of justice often place his family at great peril. While on a drunken binge in Heaven's Prisoners, an early Robicheaux novel, Dave lets a group of thugs break into his house and brutally murder his wife. Nonetheless, Robicheaux somehow overcomes his personal demons to be the most inspiring character of the contemporary hard-boiled school.
Burke adores the Louisiana landscape, and his descriptions of it are a recurring delight: "As the late red sun seemed to collapse and melt into a single burning ember on the horizon, you could see the neon glow of New Orleans gradually replace the daylight and spread across the darkening sky. The clouds were black-green and low over the city, dancing with veins of lightning, roiling from Barataria all the way out to Lake Pontchartrain, and you knew that in a short while torrents of rain would blow through the streets, thrash the palm trees on the esplanades, overrun the gutters in the Quarter, fill the tunnel of oak trees on St. Charles with a gray mist through which the old iron, green-painted streetcars would make their way along the tracks like emissaries from the year 1910.
"New Orleans was a wonderful place to be on a late evening in August."
Burke's secondary characters—Cletus Purcel, Robicheaux's hilariously demented former homicide partner, and Will Buchalter, the sadistic Nazi Dave must destroy—are so compelling they could be flesh and blood. Burke combines the elements of Chandler's best work: sparkling dialogue, marvelous descriptive writing, quirky but believable characters, and a heroic message set among ordinary people.
Though he was writing nearly a half-century ago, Chandler described a society that is only too familiar to us today: "a world where you may witness a holdup in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the holdup men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge."
The superior hard-boiled writers recognize that this world—our world—cries out for heroic individuals who can live up to Chandler's ideal: "He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in."
Rick Henderson is Washington editor of REASON.