Friday, March 25, 2011

Detective Stories

I have been reading P.D. James, which has led me to think about detective stories. I would put her into the category of cozy mysteries. These are stories in which a crime in committed in a community that is pleasant and comfortable, cozy. The detective uncovers the criminal and reestablishes a moral norm. Ultimately, this is a conservative art form, about putting things back the way they were.

The tradition that derives from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett is far different. The society itself is corrupt, and the moral norm is provided by the detective. Per a famous quote from Raymond Chandler:
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective 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.
The detectives in these stories are like muckrakers. The point is not to restore society, but to expose it, and -- if possible -- change it.

The classic example of this kind of story Hammett's Red Harvest, in which the hero more or less blows apart a crooked town. This is not a conservative art form.

My favorite contemporary writer of tough guy detective stories is the Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II, who is overtly leftist and funny as heck. In one of his books, An Easy Thing, the mystery is: who killed the Mexican Revolution, and what really happened to Zapata? An amazing novel. All of his books are worth reading.

In many tough guy detective stories society remains corrupt, and many of the bad guys survive, though there is usually some justice. Think of the movie Chinatown, which is a very dark version of a tough guy detective mystery, or The Maltese Falcon, either the book by Dashiell Hammett or the movie. The Falcon has more hope and more justice. I find Hammett's dark vision of contemporary society bracing. Polanski gives me the creeps.

I'm not sure where to put writers such as Tony Hillerman, who is describing life on Navajo reservations and the social problems faced by the Navajo in a largely white America. Life on the Rez is certainly not cozy. But it also isn't corrupt in the way that Chandler's LA is corrupt. Rather, it is damaged; and the problem is -- how can a new moral norm be created? How can the Navajo live well and honorably in the modern world?


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