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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Hit and Run

A private investigator arrives at a murder scene. The weapon: not a bullet or the gun that fired it, but "the blunt square shape of the front of a car" traveling fast enough to have "become airborne . . . before slamming into its victim."

Though not stated as such, these observations clearly belong to Matt Selden, private-eye, as he takes in the scene, "pull[ing] his coat closer around him." We don't have to wonder what sort of coat he wears. As befitting the grand tradition of hardboiled crime fiction into which this snugly falls, it has to be a trench coat, one with the lapels flipped raffishly up and that has no doubt seen better days, as has its haggard, cynical owner.

Without even having read beyond the second paragraph already I feel I know Matt, or know his type. I've met him many times before in books and movies. He is Sam Spade in Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. No stranger to violent crime or danger, he's been known to engage in a little of both himself now and then—for the sake of his clients. He's cocky, tough, a bit on the flip side—but not without principles, or a heart. He may not always get his man (or woman: the hardboiled school doesn't discriminate on the basis of sex); but his batting average is better than that of the cops with whom he shares a common goal, but with whom he nonetheless always finds himself working at cross purposes.

Pioneered in the 1920s by Carroll John Day and popularized in the '30s and '40s by Chandler and Hammett, the hardboiled genre—referred to less than generously by some as "pulp fiction"—remains hugely popular to this day. Part of that ongoing success may be owed to the genre's timelessness and versatility. After all, as long as there are criminals and crimes, someone will need to solve them—or try. That may explain why the genre has attracted writers as otherwise unlike each other as John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Walter Mosley—and others whose titles dominate bestseller lists, each of them giving the hardboiled theme a different twist.

Here, the "twist" seems to be that Matt Selden, private eye, is also a man of the cloth. "No," Matt replies when a burly police sergeant also at the scene sneers "Ah, Jesus" at him, "just one of his faithful ministers[italics mine]." It's not the first time that a fictional man of the cloth has slummed as a detective. In the early part of the last century English novelist G.K. Chesterton published 52 short stories starring Father Brown, a priest who moonlights as a Sherlock Holmes-like detective. Unlike his hardboiled successors, Father Brown exemplified the quiet humility of his other calling, and seldom spoke except to utter something profound. More recently Fr. Brad Reynolds and Andrew Greeley (himself a priest) have given us mystery-solving clergymen.

Though Hammett was an exquisite stylist (whose dialogue was so strong to arrive at a screenplay for The Maltese Falcon director John Huston supposedly had his secretary strip everything else out of the book), and beautifully-crafted hardboiled novels exist, to succeed at the genre gorgeous prose is by no means a prerequisite. "Adequate" sums up the style of most such novels.

Here, the prose is better than adequate. "Death had come airborne and metallic" draws me right in; there's a wisecracking, poetic edge to it that, I soon learn, is a product of the protagonist's steely cynicism. However hardboiled, the prose still makes room for atmosphere ("The first rays of the sun sparkled on the spire of the stately old church") and convincing detail ("His eyes narrowed as he saw a change in the color of the bitumen"). The trails of blood drifting away from the corpse are likened to the tendrils of a jellyfish. Though I regret the lack of faith in the reader that has the author assuring us us that the tendrils are of blood, still, the description works. With similar efficiency via a brief exchange of dialogue the author effectively renders the strained relationship between protagonist and beat sergeant.

Mean, lean, and clean—almost (but not quite) slick: befitting of a genre of which we've come to expect no more or less.

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