Literary Detectives...

I like a good detective story.

In the Chandler style, preferably, but I'm open to pretty much anything except the 'little old lady' sleuths or the supercilious Belgian detectives with idiot sidekicks or the - no, let's go back to 'in the Chandler style.

Raymond Chandler set down his blueprint in 'The Simple Art of Murder' - you know, the one that goes "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean..." - and in doing so, created a whole new stereotype for the literary detective; a man apart, who will do the moral thing, if not the right thing, a sort of knight-errant for the modern age, pursuing his own quest with nothing more than a hat, a coat and a gun. He'll be a resourceful man with no liking or respect for authority, and not a team player.

In Chandler's time, stories were self-contained, and anything the author wanted the reader to know about the character and his history were revealed as the plot demanded. But stories began on page one and ended on page last, and characters would be wrapped up and put away until the next time, and the process would be repeated.

The mark of a good story was that you didn't care; you just enjoyed the reading of it and engaged with the characters as the plot developed. Money and time well-spent.

Today, however, authors have taken the genre further - Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels introduced character continuity and recurring characters - you knew that not only did Carella have to solve his case, he also had to help his kids with their homework and do his taxes and such - and you learned more about each character with every new story. Okay, police procedural rather than hard-boiled PI, but you get my point.

Robert B. Parker's Spenser series took the Chandler model and gave him a private life, while maintaining the PI aspect. He gave him a back story, which developed over the years and a set of regular characters with whom to interact.

Not especially a loner, Spenser exhibited many of the other traits of Chandler's Marlowe - a laconic style, problems with authority, a strong moral compass - that mark him as being cast from the same mould. It could be said of him that in many ways he's an outsider, in that the circles in which he finds himself are not necessarily his own; people try to impress him with their wealth and position, or expertise in a particular field only to find they've underestimated his intelligence, invariably a mistake.

Try The Godwulf Manuscript, God Save The Child, or Mortal Stakes for starters, and go from there.

By contrast, Loren D. Estleman's Amos Walker series, set in Detroit, is very much in the style of Philip Marlowe.

Walker is established early on as a Vietnam/Cambodia veteran who spent time as an MP before joining the Detroit PD training program only to quit with a week to go. He joined an ex-cop turned PI as an apprentice, inheriting the business when his partner was killed, and has been there ever since.

Like Spenser, Walker has a back story and cast of recurring characters; however, the similarity ends there. The characters in Walker's world serve no purpose except to help his case along. He has friends (if, as he himself says, you stretch the term until it creaks) whose purpose is to supply information, render favours, etc., for the usual quid pro quo of an arrest or a scoop. He goes back to his office at the end, pours a drink from the bottle in the drawer, puts his feet up and waits for the phone to ring.

Walker's not an automaton; he is pretty much a loner, but human for all that. He bleeds, he feels, and, occasionally, he loves, but in the end all that's waiting for him is the empty house in Hamtramck and some jazz on the stereo. He's been in business for nearly thirty years, and it's starting to catch up on him, but I figure he has a few good cases in him yet.

If you're interested, check out Motor City Blue, Angel Eyes and Every Brilliant Eye for starters. There's also a collection of short stories called General Murders that's a good starting point.

Michael Connelly's Hieronymus 'Harry' Bosch is a man on the outside. Orphaned as a child when his mother was murdered, a series of foster homes and juvenile institutions led the young Harry to the Army, where he served as a 'tunnel rat' in Vietnam, joining the LAPD upon his discharge.

Now a senior detective with LAPD Homicide Special, he has worked his way up from West Hollywood Detective Division by solving the sort of cases that invite political interference from on high, becoming a constant thorn in the side of certain high-ranking officials in the process.

Harry's successes, his dogged detemination in going the extra mile, have not been without personal cost, and at one point he even resigned the force, becoming a PI instead (interestingly, his first outing as a private operator was told in first-person, where previously the stories were in the third-person). This, of course, put him even more on the outside.

But where other characters are loners by choice or inclination, Harry Bosch has always struck me as someone who finds himself alone but is continually striving for a connection, invariably losing it or having to sacrifice it in the name of duty. Maybe someday, Harry, maybe someday.

Read The Black Echo, The Concrete Blonde and Lost Light - then all the others.

There's always a book by one of these authors close to hand, but that's not to say I'm not reading the work of other writers - I've just discovered the Moses Wine series by Roger L. Simon, as well as the Bernie Gunther books of Philip Kerr. Wine is a Jewish PI in 1970s LA (Richard Dreyfuss played him in a movie version of The Big Fix in 1978), while Gunther, described as 'Jack Bauer but with looser morals' is a detective in Weimar Germany and into the Nazi era. It's work to read, but worthwhile.

Also lined up is Hammett, by Joe Gores, a tale of 1928 San Francisco and a struggling author who goes out into the mean streets to find who killed his friend; and Stalin's Ghost, by Martin Cruz Smith, another in the Arkady Renko sequence so memorably launched with Gorky Park.

Should keep me going for a while - I may* even report back...


*but don't count on it :)


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