Masters of reinvention
The tropes of the P.I. novel may have been exhausted long ago, but the genre isn't dead. Hardly, as succeeding generations of mystery writers have shown.
By Sarah Weinman
Los Angeles Times
March 16, 2008
For the next 12 months, libraries and communities across America will be reading Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel "The Maltese Falcon," the newest selection of the National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read. Such a choice, even the NEA admits, is something of a surprise, if only because as endowment chair Dana Gioia notes, "Hammett's private-eye classic . . . is so much fun to read, it might be hard the first time through to realize how deeply observed and morally serious it is."
Multiple reads of "The Maltese Falcon" not only highlight its ambiguous and gritty pleasures, but also show how much it holds up -- and, indeed, is reinterpreted -- in today's times. (South Florida Sun-Sentinel crime fiction critic Oline Cogdill's essay on the novel explains this in excellent fashion.)
The bar Hammett set for private-eye fiction was so high that his novel, along with those of Raymond Chandler, are the standard against which all subsequent P.I. novels are measured. Many of its tropes -- trench coats, femmes fatales, the eleventh-hour emergence of a gun -- have long since become standardized, calcified and outright dismissed. No wonder the death of the P.I. novel has been declared with such regularity. No wonder so many readers prefer to ignore current incarnations of the genre and return, again and again, to the singular voice of Sam Spade as he declares he won't play the sap for anybody.
And no wonder the P.I. novel has continued to survive. Instead of straight detective fiction, crime novels now explore greater social ills. Instead of operating in a purely hard-boiled landscape, there are now novels, such as those in Alexander McCall Smith's delightful "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series (more on that subject next month), that focus chiefly on life's smallest and thus gravest concerns. P.I. fiction, then, is far from dead, but rather undergoing the slow, steady process of reinvention.
Declan Hughes' detective novels truly embody the "slow and steady" aspect of reinvention. His owes a literary debt less to Hammett and Chandler than to Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer books, family melodrama disguised as P.I. fiction. Hughes, a noted Irish playwright, writes about his hometown of Dublin, where corrosive secrets and generations of lies play out with melodramatic payoff. If anything, "The Price of Blood" (William Morrow: 312 pp., $24.95) -- Hughes' third go-round with private eye Ed Loy -- tips its narrative hat to Sophocles and other purveyors of Greek tragedy.
Of course, all the P.I. tropes are in full evidence as Loy's investigation into the underbelly of the racehorse-owning Tyrrell clan unfurls to catastrophic effect. Loy's weakness for beautiful women -- this time, the shuttered and secretive Miranda -- connects him to the case in a most personal manner. He gets beaten up and warned off the investigation and ends up being misdirected by what's actively and passively hidden, not to mention his own demons. Hughes, however, knows his turf and understands how to move his pawns across a chessboard suffused with the ill luck of the Irish.
Connecticut-based screenwriter David Levien seems less influenced by older P.I. practitioners than by the modern urban crime novels of Dennis Lehane and Robert Crais.