Saturday, July 25, 2009

"To say goodbye, is to die a little."

"I do not care to be in love with myself and there is no longer anyone else for me to be in love with.", "The Long Goodbye"

For me, a detective has to be logical and rational. At the end of the book, I want the detective to tell me who the murderer was and how he commited it. The more logical, the more rational, the more mathematical the explanation, the better. A + B = C and therefore X has to be the killer. Especially Ellery Queen's early novels excel in the logical deductive explanations (for example, to include even more letters, in The Tragedy of Z).

And then, we have the hardboiled detective. With the private eye as the protagonist. Slow investigations are not his thing, he'll go out and hunt for clues in the city wilderness. He faces danger and will be double-triple crossed several times during the story by everyone, he will fall in love with some smart dame, but he'll probably not end up with her and with some optional bits of social criticism here and there, the detective will in the end solve the case, usually by a healthy mix of (verbal) violence and his sharp wits and tongue. It is a detective all right, but it could hardly be further away of the logic school than this. And that's why for me, hardboiled detectives are very low on the read list. Actually, I had not even read one till last week. Except for that one book that started out as a classic detective in a great setting, but cheated me with a hardboiled solution.

But I digress, so, Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, featuring his private eye detective Philip Marlowe. It managed to confirm everything I thought about hardboiled detectives. Which is partly good, partly bad. The bad for me is that hardboiled detectives aren't about challenging the reader, they are about following the quest of the knight/detective in search for his Holy Grail (which might be in the form of anything), vanquishing all kinds of small bads on his way there. A hardboiled detective story is just a knight's tale. There are no great puzzle plots to be expected here, no fact A + fact B = fact C mathematical explanations. Just a piling up of trouble. I suspect a lot of readers of the logic school might have the same 'problem' with hardboiled detective fiction.

The good though is the atmosphere of a hardboiled detective story. Which is very, very awesome. You'll get sucked in right away because of the piling up of trouble. It is a knight's quest and because you'll never know what's around the corner you keep reading. And in the case of Chandler, it's also written very good and very, very quotable. Witty, flowing dialogue that everybody should've read once in his/her lifetime. And I guess, the lack of a complex puzzle plot makes it more accessible for readers not acquainted with detective fiction.

Still, I think the genre works a lot better in other media than books. Because I have been enjoying the genre in movies a lot (also heavily influencing film noir). The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart as private eye Sam Spade hunting for the titular bird is a great movie. Matsuda Yuusaku as the private eye Kudou Shunsaku in Tantei Monogatari ("Detective Stories") managed to inject the hardboiled genre with a healthy dose of comedy, which made it a great show. Games? Even better. Grim Fandango is one of the best and one of the best quotable games ever. Period. Tantei Jinguuji Saburou ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou"), a long Japanese adventure game series featuring a private eye situated in Shinjuku, Kabuki-chou (where else?), even manages to slip in some Golden Age puzzles within its hardboiled stories. For me, the hardboiled genre benefits greatly of audiovisualization (...that's probably not a real word) and it's then when I can forget it's not a 'proper detective', as the atmosphere is just too great to ignore.

Naturally though, if we would combine the best parts of all detective subgenres in one story, the Earth would instantly cease to exist.

Today's song: 大内義明 (Oouchi Yoshiaki) - Ballad of the Silver Bullet


  1. Not read a hardboiled mystery before, but aren't you forgetting about Rex Stout? ;)

    My first real hardboiled detective was Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon", commonly hailed as the greatest detective story ever written, mainly for it's so called realism. The story has some strong points that somewhat justifies its reputation: it's a fairly well written story with memorable characters (Sam Spade is a great anti-hero). Realistic? Not really. I mean... the plot revolves around gangsters hunting for the lost treasure of the Knights of Malta, not to mention the battle of wits in the last few chapters! Great read, yes, but not any more realistic than Christie or Van Dine.

    Not that is a bad thing, cause detective stories were never meant to be realistic in the first place! :)

  2. I keep forgetting I've read "Some Buried Caesar", it really left no impression whatsoever (I did listen to many radio plays though). Of course, having both Archer and Wolfe kinda divides the books in both a 'classic' mode and a 'hardboiled' mode, however, neither mode is really anywhere as good as pure 'classic'/'hardboiled' books in my opinion.

    Haven't read "The Maltese Falcon", but if the movie adaption is somehwat like the book, realism is not to be found. Great dialogue, yes. Great movie? Yes. The whole hunt for the MacGuffin realistic? Not really.