Monday, July 16, 2007
Out of the Past
Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Raoul Whitfield, and Paul Cain... hard as nails; accustomed to pain.
Ross Macdonald, Jonathan Latimer, Jim Thompson, Horace McCoy... black of humor; strangers to joy.
David Goodis, James Ellroy, Lawrence Block, and Richard Stark... do their best work in the noir dark.
Joe Gores, Ed McBain, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke... down these mean streets they go to work.
Maybe you can forgive the dumb rhyming; I just decided that all the names--a selective sampling only--got boring when presented simply as a list. The point is: where would American mysteries be without hardboiled detective stories and dark crime books?
I for one wouldn't be reading much. I say thank God for all the tough guys (and gals) who chased the frontier as it moved West, who built the country town by town and acre by acre, and who then eventually showed up as heroes of various sorts in the pulps. Back in the Twenties and Thirties those dime mags were full of high spirits and low deeds, rugged characters and rotten criminals. And Black Mask struck gold with tales of private eyes and railroad dicks and ornery reporters, giving birth to an entire industry that's still going strong 80 years later.
In fact, our American style of semi-literate detecting, whether by shamus or cop (or now forensics expert!), has found willing readers and author acolytes all over the world, from Scandinavia to Australia, from Sicily to Thailand and beyond.
I've collected hardboiled detective fiction for fifty years, and that's why the bookstore I had was (and on-line still is) called MisterE Books. My Master's degree in Lit? Pshaw. I'd rather read Joseph Shaw's picks for Black Mask, Ian Rankin's Rebus roaming Edinburgh, and the latest Arkady Renko novel by Martin Cruz Smith.
One day a few years back, I amused myself writing a ballad about one not-too-bright hardboiled p.i., and here it is, my tribute to the world as seen by Hammett and Chandler and Macdonald and so many more:
It was an undercover op:
me and this leggy dark-haired frail.
Said she could use a private cop
could keep his trap shut, stick a tail.
I prize my rep--flip, hard-boiled dick
quick with the gat, head like a sap.
Who pegs a ritzy dame that slick
to set me up to take the rap?
"We never sleep," I bragged. "This eye's
your boy from here to Poisonville."
"I go for guys," she says, "crack wise;
so leave us give these mugs the chill."
We cruise top spots that price me woozy,
check out the waltzers' brand of hooch.
In the clinches the kid's a doozy:
we drop the caper, swap a smooch;
she's class, all silver masked in black.
I feel like the heel among gumshoes.
Next thing I know we're in the sack,
investigating without clues.
Now, I'm no crummy keyhole peeper;
I know my way around a bed--
ready to fire my Little Sleeper,
high-caliber, with special lead.
But this babe calls a spade a spade.
Moves like a dip. Tricks on the pick-up.
Countering all my plans best laid,
flops me unfit for frisk or stick-up.
Caught dead to rights, I need a stall;
yawning, "We aim to please." "My eye,"
she yaps; "this time, you take the fall."
Too late: I'm out, the wrong goodbye,
down for the count, the wee-small shift.
A long ways off I hear a hissing:
"You owe me one, you lousy stiff!"
But I'm out chasing persons missing--
dreaming I'm on the trail of Truth,
notched with an itchy trigger finger;
competent op, so cool and couth
lucre escapes, but ladies linger...
Awake, she's gone. A mash-note greets:
"Farewell, my loser"... the kiss-off; terse.
"A man must go down these mean sheets;
no reckless dick, or vice versa."