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Gumshoes in a Hundred Sizes

"She said, ‘How on earth did he get here?’

As if all you ever do is sprinkle shamus dust and the police suspect of the year floats in." Shamus Dust

Well, isn’t there some magic to the best private eye mysteries? I mean, what are we all doing here if we don’t get the tingle from that spell? Agreed? Good. Now for the harder question of where the magic comes from. Harder? All right, let’s admit. Since gumshoes come in a hundred different sizes and flavors, and what works for me may not work for you, it’s impossible to generalize about what creates the enchantment. So I’ll keep to explaining the spell I’m under, and leave you to decide about yours.

A Real World Mystery

We’ll come back to the enchantment. First there are some practicalities to get out of the way. You see, I had a real-world story that interested me a great deal, a mystery in its own right; dating back, as it happened, to the years of the early Cold War. A reviewer lately described it this way, and I can’t do better: Imagine Polanski’s masterpiece, Chinatown played out against the bomb sites and grimy alleys of a freezing 1947 London. That was a very gracious compliment. But though the parallels are clearly there, I can’t say I saw them at the time. I was simply looking for a way to re-cast that Cold War story.

Invulnerability of the Powerful

In the end it wasn’t such a tough decision. The re-telling I had in mind would be driven by the greed and invulnerability of the powerful, deviant wealth, criminal sexuality, civic corruption at the highest level. And it descended into routine murder for the cover-up (hence the shades of Chinatown). What’s more, I planned for the story to move the real events forward five years or so to 1947, when - also  as it happens - the Marlowe novels of Raymond Chandler are at their best. All that being so, it seemed obvious to try giving the story a hardboiled treatment. Especially when those Marlowe mysteries had bowled me over from a tender teenage.

Hardboiled Treatment

Giving a story the hardboiled treatment has a pedigree. Robert Towne - who wrote that screenplay for Chinatown - for one. He’s an Angeleno and a Chandler enthusiast himself, who took the story of the California Water Wars, turned them into a gumshoe mystery and likewise shifted them in time (he forwards them by more than two decades to the late 1930s). Chinatown, it shocks me to realize, was hitting theaters in 1976. So let’s get up to date. Jonathan Letham’s Motherless Brooklyn is coming to theaters right now, re-written as a 1950s gumshoe thriller, this time by Edward Norton. Both movies are pastiches in their own way, complete with dress styles to die for.

The Chandleresque Private-eye

But visuals to one side, what is it about the hardboiled private-eye that’s still so magnetic to writers? Because in both these examples it’s simply a device that the writer can subvert to the end he chooses. (They’d better. Pastiche fast becomes deadweight if you don’t). And in both cases, their license to be subversive arrives as part of the package of first person narrative. In Motherless Brooklyn, it allows Jonathan Lethem to take his reader inside the head of his gumshoe, who’s living every second with Tourette’s syndrome, not to mention the murder of his mentor and boss. In Chinatown - where every scene unfolds through the eyes of gumshoe Jake Gittes - it allows Robert Towne to take the slow grind of high political chicanery and scale it for a fast-paced, close-fitting thriller. This gift of the Chandleresque private-eye, the ability to move your narrator through every level of a big, dark story and make it intimate, was principally what interested me. So much for the pragmatic. Time to get to the magic.

Lasting Appeal

None of this is to overlook the shortcomings of the hardboiled originals. Let’s face it - like the world it springs from - the hardboiled mystery doesn’t shine at creating rounded characters that aren’t straight and white and male. It’s striking how women of the same era in films noirs, for example, are often far more nuanced. Perhaps because in the end the roles actually brush up against a woman. Chandler, expensively schooled in Victorian and Edwardian London, is as blindsided as any in this department. And yet. His private-eye narrator Marlowe comes with other qualities that - for me at least - have lasting appeal.

Shaded, Complicated Decency

Let me put it this way. Watching The Third Man for its recent seventieth birthday restoration - or on any other pretext I can think of - who do I root for? For the knuckle-headed, purblind Holly Martins (I’m just a bad writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls…)? For the manipulative charmer and betrayer Harry Lime (In these days, old man, nobody thinks in terms of human beings.)? Well, neither actually. Over the years, I find I’m rooting for the clear-eyed, honorable and determined Calloway, who narrates the original story. He’s a Military Police Major in the movie. A Scotland Yard detective with a colonel’s rank in the novella. In both he’s a seen-it-all pro in a dark, disillusioning city, a rule-bender in uniform who’s yet untarnished, and fallible enough to make the monumental mistake at the heart of the story. Not a private dick, but with enough of Marlowe’s qualities to make the cut of shaded, complicated decency.

A Moral Center in the Mix

You see it attracts me, that Chandleresque notion of having a moral center somewhere in the mix. I like having a Marlowe or a Jake Gittes around, there to bridle at greed and entitlement when their purveyors steamroll the unprotected, and then be tough enough to enter the fray. Of course they’ll be on the wrong side of a lost cause. They likely won’t even be sure what winning would look like. But still - to steal from Mitchum - you know they’ll find their way to losing more slowly. More than that they’ll play it alone, on their own terms and by their own rules, and aim to keep their sense of decency intact, since they’ve worked it out that they’re lost anyway if they don’t. That’s an awfully old-fashioned way for anybody to think and behave, I know. And even more old-fashioned of me to find it admirable. So it’s pleasant to be reminded that the Chandleresque private-eye keeps alive and well, and that an audience can still thrill to his magic. Here’s looking at you, Edward Norton, for waving that spell again. I’ll be the one in the front row.

MAGIC EYE | PRIVATE-EYE: Gumshoes in a Hundred Sizes

Janet Roger in Mystery Readers' Journal Vol 35 No 4 Winter 2019


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