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Ralph Hitchens

I agree with everything you said about Jesse Stone and Spenser. But why can I not help myself from reaching for the latest one from either series (& the Sunny whateverhernameis series as well) as soon as I see it on the new book shelf at the library?

Mary

Ever read George MacDonald Fraser's "Flashman" series? Flashman is full of real flaws -- he's a bully, a womanizer and a coward, almost completely selfish, ready to lie and betray to save his own skin -- but he somehow manages not to be completely hateful, perhaps because he's almost completely honest about his own nature. It's an odd place to be in when you're reading: Flashman will be reliably but tolerably brutish for several chapters, then will show some honesty, insight and sympathy towards others, making him more likeable, then he'll turn around and do something horrible that shocks you out of sympathy again.

DuWayne

I cannot say I have read Parker, by the sound I'm not missing much. I think the best two detectives I have read that fall into that catagory are; Andrew Vachss, Burke and even better, Dennis Lehane's, Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie.

Burke is just plain bad, probably closer to Stone, except that the reader is the one who feels that he is ultimately a "good" man.

Gennaro and Kenzie are good people who are human. They struggle with the evil they are faced with in the world and don't always avoid fallign into it. In one book they actually shoot a child pimp in cold blood. But you always know they are "good", they just struggle not to be overwhelmed by the evil.

I also think that Elmore Leonard does some great detectives and criminals who fit that catagory. In "Out of Sight" one of the criminals is actually a lot better person than many of the people chasing him, and one of the Marshals after him, while being a good person, ends up sleeping with him.

i really have to say I enjoy your reviews of books and tee vee quite a lot, thanks for putting them out here. . .

Kevin Wolf

Yes. As I was reading this I thought, There's a lesson here related to American politics.

Lance, the very term "hero" has become overused, diluted and suspect. At least for me. You're right that its meaning has changed, and probably not for the better.

I don't see that process slowing any time soon.

Linkmeister

Hmm. I guess Travis McGee would fit the Spenser model too.

Exiled in New Jersey

In "The End of the Affair" Greene's character Maurice(?) hires a private eye to shadow his lover. The man is assisted by his young son, "Lance", 'named after Lancelot, the finder of the Holy Grail' according to the gumshoe. Greene's 'hero' cannot leave well enough alone, and points out that it was Galahad who found the Grail, Lancelot ran off with Guenevere.

burritoboy


I think that if you want to have a series of detective novels (with the same detective over and over), it's going to be very hard to make the central detective a realistic character. The simple need to have a SERIES of novels is going to generate the following restrictions:

The author needs to have a detective who's appealing enough that people want to read the next book. Note that David Goodis, Jim Thompson and Cornell Woolrich do not have repeating characters.

A detective who's realistically drawn would probably be too boring for a series - most detectives don't get interesting cases (most of the cases PIs have are easily solved divorce or insurance fraud stuff), many of the cases are not solved, nor are the crimes really interesting. It's a boring, grinding life that doesn't pay that well.

Most police and PIs are fairly boring people that can handle the routine and are usually not overeducated (detectives who regularly spout Renaissance poetry are not very common). They're not living the high life with hot and cold running dames, friends in high society (or are friends with supergenius professors), high levels of extramarital affairs, etc.

jethro

Sufferin' Jaysus, Robert Parker novels are what a man reads to rest his mind from the rigors of watching baseball on TV.

Not half so complex or psychologically subtle as the average Red Sox-Yanks game.

More on the order of the beer commercials that punctuate ballgames: they're male Harlequin romances, for heaven's sake, sheerest fantasy, and in Parker's case anyway, witty as well.

But they don't stand up to analysis.

Love 'em, as I do, but don't hurt yourself trying to think about 'em.

blue girl

I really like this Jethro person.

'specially the part about him pointing out Mannion reads male Harlequins.

Jennifer

"Mannion reads male Harlequins"

I have to say I enjoyed that one as well not to mention the fact that Jethro compared the Parker novels to beer commercials and we know how Lance feels about beer commercials. :)

Falstaff

Maybe it's me, adding color and depth to books I haven't reread in too long, but didn't Spenser once upon a time have more flaws?

I seem to remember him in Godwulf Manuscript, say, or especially... oh, hell, memory fails me titlewise; the one where he goes out to L.A. to protect the T.V. anchor and ends up (to his rather overwrought chagrin) boinking her instead.

...holy crap, Jethro's right.

Anyway, maybe I'm analyzing poorly or not enough, but it seems like Spenser's more flawed in the earlier novels than the later ones.

(As opposed to how he is in Potshot, say, where it's the writing that's flawed, not Spencer. ;)

Excellent, excellent post, Lance. Well done.

burritoboy

"More on the order of the beer commercials that punctuate ballgames: they're male Harlequin romances, for heaven's sake, sheerest fantasy"

That's simply not true - well, it may be true now, but it's certainly not the case historically. The hard-boiled mystery / crime novel was - and sometimes still is - a significant literary and political statement. Left politics was clearly a major driver (if not always the major driver) for such writers as Hammett, Thompson and Himes (and Ambler in the thriller genre). Expressing the angst of modern times was a major driver for such writers as Goodis, early Willeford and Simenon. High levels of literary excellence was certainly a goal for all of the above, and certainly for Chandler as well.

Mudge

I did a paper in college about Sir Kay. He was Arthur's senschal, head of the household. In the early, generally Welsh, versions, he was very powerful. As the knights became more involved, Kay became more of a caricature, a jestor of sorts. I always felt a bit sad for him.

jethro

No, it's not true of all genre detective novels. But it is true of Parker even at his best, who, to repeat, I can't get enough of.

I gave one to my son, who's in recovery. He thought I was condescending to him. Au contraire. I pointed out that the reason I have a million private eye novels around the house is that I've read 'em all.

Going upstairs to finish one now. Don't even know the title. Remaindered hardcover with a hangman's noose on the cover. Just the thing for a tired Tuesday night. A smartass crack, a discreet roll in the hay with Susan Silverman, possibly a necessary killing...

Life is good.

DuWayne

RE; Burrito boy v Jethro

Both of you are right. There were bad crime novels filled with gratuitous sex and violence 100 years ago and today. There were and are crime novels that reach the heights of fine literary achievment. I love the phrase "male harlequins," it is a brilliant and apt descriptive of what pervades much of crime fiction. The point I would make is that it always has. I had the pleasure of finding a collection of Ellery Queens that had a solid run from April 1962 - February 1978. A guy had donated them to my favorite used bookstore - the owner took them soley to give them to me. I have read pulp fiction shorts and novels spanning back into the late 1800's - it pays to goto junk shops and used book stores. Teh net result is that about the only change in the genre over that time is the language. Some of them written over a hundred years ago were very graphic in both sex and violence - not so many as today, by todays standards but the principle applies. . .

Linkmeister

DuWayne, I was given this book, "Hard-boiled Detectives," as a gift on my cousin's 40th birthday (we weren't allowed to give her things; she had gifts picked out for us). It's a collection of 23 noir-ish stories from Dime Magazine. Good fun, and the sex and violence is pale in comparison to today (even to today's television it's pale).

Lance

Ralph: why can I not help myself from reaching for the latest one from either series (& the Sunny whateverhernameis series as well) as soon as I see it on the new book shelf at the library?

I'm the same. There's a new Sunny Randall coming out next month. Blue Screen. I already have it on reserve.

jethro: Sufferin' Jaysus, Robert Parker novels are what a man reads to rest his mind from the rigors of watching baseball on TV.

Jethro, did you see Monday's post?

bb, You're right about realistic detectives, and that's sort of my complaint about the "flawed" detectives like Stone and Harry Bosch. That's why I prefer the more lighthearted types, Archie Goodwin, Stephanie Plum, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Spenser. Mysteries are essentially comic in nature anyway, they might as well be comedies.

But as for vices vs. "flaws," let's not forget that the detective who started it all is a cold, heartless, drug-addict.

Mary, Shakespeare's Sister has pushed me into reading the Flashman series. I'm in the middle of Royal Flash. Flashy definitely has some vices.

Falstaff, thank you. And, yes, Spenser used to be more of a regular human being and less of a superhero.

Mudge, for some reason I always identify with Sir Kay and I was glad that John Boorman gave him a good death in Excalibur.

Exiled in New Jersey

Lance, see if you can find the film version of Royal Flash. Richard Lester made it about 1974, and like his Musketeers films, it is great fun with a great cast: Malcolm McDowell as Flashman, Oliver Reed as Bismarck, Alan Bates but for some reason I draw a blank on who played Lola Montes and I am too lazy to go to IMDB. Probably make a great family night at the movies.

For a flawed detective and his reformation, get the Lawrence Block Matthew Scudder series: begin with When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes.

It always seemed to me that Spenser was the definitive PC detective: Black sidekick, and a big baaaaaaad one at that, Jewish girlfriend, cooks, does windows and all the sensitive things. No wonder when he was brought to television the bland Robert Urich played him.

Downpuppy

I gave up Spenser around 1990 - there was one about the peril of Chinese immigrants that turned my stomach. So all I have to say is that it's really simple - a series detective can't be a tragic figure, because a tragic figure has to die.

The series I follow now are Lieberman by Kaminsky & Stephanie Plum (Evanovich, since you plugged her already). By Plum #11 she's getting her car blown up every third page - which defines moral complexity in detective fiction pretty well for me.

burritoboy


To be honest, I have only ever been really able to stomach only two detective series:

Judge Dee (Robert v. Gulik)
Sano Ichiro (Laura Joh Rowland)

Strangely, neither detective is a very complex or complicated character.

Patrick

This reminds me of a book I read a long time ago, Love and Occident, by Denis de Rougemont. The author offers his genealogy of the concept of romantic love in the Western world, including the celtic tales like Tristan and Isolde, the Cathars and the influence of manicheists eastern religions, etc. One of his points, probably pretty common, is that at the beginning it's always tragic, the characters always die of encountering passion. But in the popular psyche that little detail is left out, and people vie for an ideal without its consequences, and get disappointed when reality does not match the fairy tales and happy endings.

Anne Laurie

Lance, you forgot Ross MacDonald's Lew Harper, and for that matter John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee (who IIRC was actually tagged as "a tarnished knight in battered armor" on the 1960s paperback covers). These two series seem to have been where a lot of baby boomers first found out about dee-teka-tif novels, and their influence shows up in some of the weirdest places. Specifically, I just finished the latest of Earlene Fowler's quilt-titled mysteries, which should be as far from the whole Hard-Boiled Dick genre as you can get without ending up in Miss Marple territory... but her explicitly-Baptist, cattle-ranching, married-to-the-local-chief-of-police series heroine is named Benni (Albenia) Harper! And in DELECTABLE MOUNTAINS, a yuppie who names his son after Travis McGee turns out to have a small but key role in a murder incidental to the theft of a cultural heirloom.

Njorl

"I can’t pinpoint when that view of heroes changed or explain why it did. But it was still alive enough in the 19th Century when Robert Louis Stevenson came up with Alan Breck Stuart, the swashbuckling hero of Kidnapped and David Balfour. "


Maybe there were always stories with perfect heroes. Maybe even most stories had perfect heroes. Maybe they just didn't get repeated, because while they might be pleasing to their intended target, they have no legs.

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