Category Archives: Commentary

COMMENT: “Tough”? Enough

As yet, I have not read any books in the blisteringly successful Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. I need to give one of them a try. But I’ve read enough about them to know that they aren’t detective novels. That’s just fine. There are many kinds of stories to tell, and by all accounts Child tells the Reacher story with high professionalism and considerable panache. What irks me, though, is the common habit of lumping that kind of story with the kind of story that revolves around a detective hero such as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. In the May 2010 issue of Esquire, editor-in-chief David Granger writes up a short notice on the 13th and latest entry in the Reacher saga, 61 Hours. In the piece (not available online), Granger writes:

I finished Lee Child’s new novel the morning that I read Robert B. Parker’s obituary. Parker wanted to be the heir to Raymond Chandler, who was the direct descendent of Dashiell Hammett, who, with the Continental Op, created the only genre of fiction original to America: the tough-guy novel.

In truth, there is no such genre. The Continental Op stories, along with Hammett’s other work and along with all of Chandler’s work, belong to the detective genre. In each instance, the protagonist in question (the Op, Spade, Marlowe) is a man hired either to manage some thorny problem or to find some hidden truth. To that job, he brings his intelligence, his resourcefulness, his knack for handling powerful men and difficult women, his oft-bruised sense of honor, and, yes, his “toughness.” But being tough is tangential to what drives him—and to what drives any story in which he appears. Spade and Marlowe are tough enough, and Spenser (the star of Robert Parker’s career-defining work) is more than tough enough. “Tough guys,” in the pure descriptive sense of that term, are everywhere in fiction: Who wants to read about a hero without grit, without fiber, without courage? Fictional gumshoes, however, bring something else to the literary table.

ToughGuyClipArt.jpgGranger has one thing right: There is a “genre of fiction original to America” that evokes, explores, and extols toughness for its own sake. It’s called the Western. Going back to James Fenimore Cooper if not further, and extending through the films of Clint Eastwood and beyond, the Western story derives its core energy from testing the mettle of its protagonist. It thrusts a lone, brave man into a setting where the forces of civilization hold little or no sway, where dangers natural or man-made will threaten him, and where he will need to “tough it out.” Occasionally, elements of the Western invade other genres. In the Continental Op novel Red Harvest (1929), for instance, the Roaring ’20s town of Personville (known as “Poisonville”) has reverted to a state of frontier lawlessness, and the Op becomes a Western-style vigilante gunman. And Eastwood, in his Dirty Harry movies, found a way to export the highly al dente persona of his Man With No Name from its Spaghetti Western homeland to effete, modern San Francisco. By the same token, a decent number of so-called Western tales are actually detective stories that happen to be set in the Old West. What makes a story “a Western” is not its tumbleweed backdrop, but its overwhelming focus on the physical and moral strength of its hero—on “one tough guy.”

Jack Reacher, as best I can tell, is fundamentally a Western hero. In fact, it’s often in the wide-open spaces and out-of-the-way places of the great American landmass that he opts to display his toughness. Here’s the brief synopsis of 61 Hours that appears on Lee Child’s Web site:

Winter in South Dakota. Blinding snow and an icy highway cause a bus crash; inside are elderly tourists on a jaunt and one lone hitchhiker [Reacher] sprawled in back, taking up room enough for two men. Good thing he’s there, because something nastier than the weather is on its way and a threatened prison riot is merely the beginning.

And here’s the synopsis of the first Reacher novel, Killing Floor:

The electrifying debut novel which introduces Jack Reacher, a drifter and ex-military policeman; a man of action unafraid to take justice into his own hands; a man of intelligence and cunning. Shortly after Reacher arrives in the sleepy town of Margrave, Georgia he’s arrested for murder. The next three days’ events leave everyone stunned. Unable to walk away from the situation, Reacher must unravel the mystery before a team of killers make him the next victim.

Although he might have a “mystery” to “unravel” in at least some of his adventures, Reacher appears to operate mainly as a vanquisher of evil, not as a solver of puzzles. He’s an avenging force that comes out of nowhere to deliver justice in a locale otherwise ruled by chaos. His modus operandi calls to mind not the humble Op, but the Lone Ranger. Both of those iconic figures, like the Eastwood character, are “men with no name” of their own. But the Op is a working stiff, an organization man who carries the name of his employer, the Continental Detective Agency. Reacher is a former Army MP, but that gig hardly defines him. What does seem to define him is his absolute independence from any claim upon him aside from that of his self-chosen mission. True, he doesn’t wear a Lone Ranger mask. But one hallmark of his persona is an “off the grid” lifestyle that makes it impossible for people to know where he comes from, or where he has gone. Again and again, he simply turns up, ready to do a tough job that desperately needs doing. (Who was that tasked man?)

On occasion, the troubled town that Reacher comes to save is Chicago, say, or New York—as in Gone Tomorrow:

A subway ride in the dead of night ought to be a safe trip when you’re built like Jack Reacher, but not when there’s a bomber on board. If you’re thinking Reacher’s not going to get involved, then you don’t know Jack.

Substitute “stagecoach” for “subway” and “bandit” for “bomber,” and you have one of the hoariest narrative tropes in the Western-story tradition. To judge from that quick synopsis (copied in full from Child’s Web site), Gone Tomorrow treats its urban setting as merely another blank canvas on which Reacher can paint his heroism. He might venture into the big city, but whether he’s inclined or equipped to engage in city life remains a moot question.

Now, again, I haven’t read that novel, nor have I read any other installment in the Reacher saga. And, of course, it’s no more valid to judge a book by its marketing copy than by its cover. But the marketing choice here is telling: What sells Reacher to Lee Child’s readers is precisely that Lone Ranger mystique—the mythic image of a man, unsullied by the complexities and compromises of civilization, who nonetheless brings order to the land.

The tough guy, hero of the Western and of its modern urban variants, is in flight from organized social life. At high noon or “in the dead of night,” in a dusty cowtown or beneath the streets of a mighty metropolis, he stands alone. The detective, hero of the genre in which Hammett and Chandler flourished, is a very different fellow. He works within a recognizable social order, no matter how repellent it might be, and uses his smarts to make his way through it: Detection is, among other things, the art of navigating that order. Although he might view civilization with discontent, he accepts its terms as the basis on which he must negotiate the challenges that life—and his often morally compromised clients—bring to him. For the detective, being “tough” comes in handy, but it’s not essential. The one thing needful to him, rather, is tough-mindedness.

SherlockMovieMedWide.jpgOne reason why I enjoyed the Guy Ritchie movie Sherlock Holmes (2009), featuring Robert Downey Jr. as the Great Detective, is that it celebrates both sides of the character that Arthur Conan Doyle created: the refined intellectual who wears a smoking jacket and plays the violin, and the bare-knuckle brawler who mixes confidently with “the criminal classes.” I have nothing against toughness, physical or otherwise. The scenes in which Downey-as-Holmes slugs it out against assorted toughs and goons, first in the ring and then in the backstreets of London, make for thrilling cinema. But equally thrilling to me are the scenes in which Ritchie uses super-fast editing to convey the lightning-quick nature of Holmes’s deductive reasoning. Ritchie’s film also does a good job of ensconcing Holmes within the great city that he calls home. He knows its every brick and cobblestone, and he also knows its men with mutton-chop whiskers, its women in crinolined skirts. No one would call Holmes a social animal, but he’s no lone wolf, either. His prickly yet profound friendship with Watson (played here by Jude Law) marks his character no less indelibly than does his craving for mental stimulation, or for cocaine. And, despite his notorious misogyny, Holmes inhabits a world in which women play a central role. Like the Holmes fashioned by Doyle, the Holmes depicted by Downey finds in Irene Adler a woman (“the woman,” played by Rachel McAdams) who functions as his equal in plying the secrets and snares of London life.

Another trait that distinguishes the detective from his Western-genre counterpart, in fact, is that “he” can be a “she.” Although the pantheon of famous fictional detectives consists mostly of men, female sleuths have steadily joined their ranks. Detective heroines like Sue Grafton‘s Kinsey Milhone and Sara Paretsky‘s V.I. Warshawski follow more or less naturally in the proud, weary footsteps of Spade and Marlowe. They’re tough gals, colloquially speaking, but they’re also women of the world, and that world is a fully realized social realm in which taking the measure of people has a value on par with taking a punch. A Western-story heroine is a theoretical possibility, too. And yet, to entertain that possibility is to undermine the foundations of an entire genre. In West of Everything, a critical study of “the Inner Life of Westerns,” Jane Tompkins argues that the Western genre “created a model for men who came of age in the twentieth century. The model was not for women.” The standard Western narrative, she explains, “emphasiz[es] the importance of manhood as an ideal”:

It is not one ideal among many, it is the ideal, certainly the only worth dying for. It doesn’t matter whether a man is a sheriff or an outlaw, a rustler or a rancher, a cattleman or a sheepherder, a minor or a gambler. What matters is that he be a man. That is the only side to be on.

Tompkins traces the genre’s emergence to a reaction against women’s perceived domination of American culture during the late 19th century. Iconic novels such as The Virginian (1902), by Owen Wister, and Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), by Zane Grey, offered readers a vision of escape from the cloying effects of soft bourgeois living and “feminized,” overly pious thinking. “The Western plot turns on … external conflicts in which men prove their courage to themselves and to the world by facing their own annihilation,” Tompkins writes. Here, as she puts it, is the implicit message of such tales:

American men are taking their manhood back from the Christian women who have been holding it in thrall. Mercy and religion, as preached by women and the clergy, have stood in manhood’s way too long, and now men are finally rebelling.

The problems that a detective confronts often stem from a crisis of civilization, but rarely do they involve a crisis of masculinity. And that crisis—the one that arises when people worry that “being a man” and “being civilized” are contradictory propositions—is what the Western genre addresses.

EsquireMay2010.jpgWhich brings me back to Esquire. It’s a great magazine, and like all great magazines it has a strong point of view, a clear outlook on the world that it invites readers to share. Under Granger, Esquire has become a magazine animated by the conviction that there is no aspect of the eternal crisis of American masculinity that irony, wit, and stylish design cannot resolve or at least neutralize. Choose any area of human concern—health, cooking, cars, politics, the sexual orientation of Neil Patrick Harris—and Esquire will find a way to cover it that walks a Wüsthof knife edge between metrosexual consumerism and a celebration of old-school manliness. (The May 2010 issue includes a fashion photo spread in which Harris, an openly gay man, poses as a loutish “lady-killer” who offers advise such as this: “Learn as little as possible about a girl. It merely slows down the breakup process.”) A mere six pages after Granger’s piece on “the tough-guy novel,” the magazine presents a feature titled “How to Treat Your Face.” In a single glossy page, the article manages to provide an exhaustive list (I hope that it’s exhaustive, anyway) of 12 treatment options, starting with “Facials” and “Moisturizer,” moving through “Serum” and “Toner,” and concluding with “Placental Face Cream.” It’s all good, though: The correspondent who compiled this roundup of regimens is, according to the author cutline, an “Ironman triathlete” who just incidentally owns a pair of styling salons, one in New York and one in Miami.

In the Esquire worldview, efforts to keep the “tough guy” mythology alive have an enduring appeal. We readers of the magazine like to see signs of the hard man who, we just know, lurks inside our tender, well-cleansed skin. Extreme fictional heroes of the Jack Reacher variety, like the stars of an extreme sport, send up flare signals of the kind that we’re looking for. (Different men read the signs differently, however. About the Reacher series, Granger writes: “[O]ne of the constant joys of these books is the relish with which Child conveys the intensity of hand-to-hand combat.” In my book, though, narrative descriptions of violence are a constant bore.)

Genre, like gender, is an entity that’s largely defined by its boundaries. Yet policing those boundaries too diligently almost always causes headaches (and, in the case of gender, it often causes heartache as well). In making my point about the detective genre and the Western genre and the putative “tough guy novel,” I don’t mean to prescribe or prejudge what any writer does within any particular tradition. Like the relationship between manhood and individual men, the connection between a literary category and an individual literary practitioner is contingent and complex, if not downright elusive. But I do mean to mark this territory in one crucial spot: Just as there’s more to being a man than being tough, so there’s more to Hammett and Chandler—and all of the private-eye writers who have come in their wake—than telling stories about “tough guys.”

No doubt there’s also more to Lee Child’s work than his publisher’s copywriters allow, or than Granger lets on, or than I’m aware of. Granger notes, for example, that “Child lovingly obsesses over how things work, whether it’s how extreme cold … affects the human body or how jet fuel is best conveyed to the bottom of a Pentagon-like structure.” So maybe Jack Reacher is a thinking man as well as a tough guy. Maybe I’ve been unfair to him.

Tough luck.


Posted by on May 17, 2010 in Commentary, Hard-Boiled


COMMENT: A Book by Any Other Name

ShakesBigTall.gifToday, the world celebrates the birthday of William Shakespeare—the “Stratford man,” born in 1554, who ostensibly wrote the 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and assorted other works in verse that make up the most lauded body of literature by a single hand in all of history. (I’m one of those who doubts that the guy from Stratford actually wrote all or even most of the plays and poems attributed to him. My vote goes to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. But, for the purpose of this post, that’s neither here nor there.)

Shakespeare also died on this day, in 1616.

Death figured prominently in the Bard’s writing—as a haunting yet often unspoken presence in his love poetry, as an unavoidable plot device in his work for the stage. So it’s not surprising that those who write detective stories have frequently taken language from Shakespeare to create titles for their own works. Barbara Paul, herself a crime novelist, features on her Web site a compendium of book titles that later and lesser writers have extracted from the Shakespearean corpus. Borrowing from Paul, I’ve listed some of those titles below. (See the full post.)

As that list demonstrates, most of Shakespeare’s plays have provided inspiration for at least one mystery title, with Hamlet and Macbeth serving as especially rich sources of title-worthy phrasing. One book even garnered two titles from the same passage of Bardic verse:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

The original British edition of Agatha Christie‘s There Is a Tide bore the title Taken at the Flood, but her American publisher—as it did often, and often inexplicably—thought that it knew better which cover line would grab the attention of U.S. readers.

The vogue among mystery writers for Shakespeare-spawned titles seemed to crest in the 1940s, when the genre attained a certain cultural maturity (or, arguably, a certain level of pretension). More recently, though, another trend in titling has emerged that signals a regression from maturity. A Feta Worse Than Death, Sew Deadly, You May Now Kill the Bride—the cutesy pun has overtaken an expanding swathe of the mystery publishing field. The plague mainly afflicts books in the “cozy” subgenre, for perhaps obvious reasons. (Here’s a list of some other titles in this vein.)

Now, I’m a pun-loving guy. But a cutesy pun has no place on the cover of a novel that seeks to derive entertainment from the fact of death; it gives the game away. Titles drawn from Shakespeare’s work strike just the right note, finding a balance—on the edge of a bare bodkin, one might say—between the thematic seriousness and the contrived theatricality that together give detective fiction its core identity.

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Posted by on April 23, 2010 in Commentary


COMMENT: About “Only Detect”

A few quick notes (to be included in the “About” page) on what I’m doing at this site:

Here you’ll find reviews of books—most of them detective novels—that I have read over the years. I will be posting them according to no particular logic and in no specific order. My choice of books to read follows no particular logic, either. Clue-driven puzzle mysteries (think Agatha Christie) and attitude-driven hard-boiled tales (think Dashiell Hammett) appeal to me equally. I do gravitate toward older books, and toward books set in “olden” times: “History” and “mystery,” I believe, rhyme in more ways than one. But I also dip into recent works fairly often.

PinkertonLogo.jpgIf there’s a common denominator to my reading tastes, it’s my attraction to detection, by which I mean: the work of trying to find the otherwise hidden truth behind a series of events. At its best, detection as a literary trope highlights the romance of reason, the drama of discovery, the struggle for a solution to the mysteries of life and death. A detective story, as distinct from a thriller or a tale of mystery and suspense, places at its center a detective—a figure whose quest for knowledge, rooted either in passion or in professional necessity, drives the narrative forward toward a conclusion.

The title of this blog, “Only Detect,” is meant to echo a famous dictum of the novelist E.M. Forster: “Only connect.” In this play on words, too, there is reason as well as rhyme. What, after all, does a detective fundamentally do? He or she connects those proverbial dots—call them “clues”—that others have failed to connect. When Sherlock Holmes probes the dark corners of Victorian England that lie shrouded in propriety (no less than in fog), when Philip Marlowe walks his mean streets (without himself being mean), they might not connect emotionally with people in the way that Forster had in mind. But they heal the disconnections that trouble us all in other ways.

Without getting too pretentious about it, then, I hope that these reviews push back some against the common idea that a detective story is “only a detective story.”

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Posted by on March 24, 2010 in Commentary