Here's the deal, sweetheart.
Want an all-American literary form that celebrates the individual and confronts that endless tension between civilization and violence — all while keeping you turning the pages, breathlessly waiting for the hero to kiss the dangerous dame and/or for the gun to go off?
We got your tough detective novels right here.
This year we'll see a strikingly rich crop of new ones, and it shouldn't be a surprise. The genre had its first glory days in the Great Depression; when times get tough, reading about tough guys can be reassuring.
Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) and Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) gave the hard-boiled detective story form in the 1930s and '40s. They borrowed from all over the literary map: Westerns, pulp magazine crime stories, realist fiction, classical hero myth. The genre goes by several aliases: tough detective story, hard-boiled mystery and noir.
By any name it's one of the most popular of American genres, its language and its protagonist terse and tough, its plot a high-speed collision on a dark night of old sins, fresh blood and Judgment Day. As Chandler wrote, "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand."
The usual suspects
Chandler and Hammett have countless literary descendents (not to mention the detective's ubiquity in movies and TV), and some of this year's novels are by the usual suspects, the contemporary authors who meet and sometimes raise the bar set by the masters.
In May alone, there will be new books from Michael Connelly (The Scarecrow), George Pelecanos (The Way Home) and Lee Child (Gone Tomorrow). Ace Atkins (White Shadow) has an upcoming novel, Devil's Garden, based on the notorious Fatty Arbuckle case and featuring Hammett (who worked the case in real life as a Pinkerton detective) as its protagonist.
Others come from unexpected sources. Denis Johnson, winner of the National Book Award for the Vietnam epic Tree of Smoke, has a wild detective story, Nobody Move, coming in April. Literary legend Thomas Pynchon will publish a psychedelic '60s private-eye tale called Inherent Vice in August.
There are plenty of reasons literary novelists have been drawn to the tough detective novel. It may be escapist pop lit, but it pivots on a modern version of the archetypal hero, as Chandler (who died 50 years ago this month) wrote in an essay called The Simple Art of Murder in 1945:
"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness."
The detective hero does one other very important thing: He tells us the real story. In a world of illusion, where anyone might be lying or posing or deluded, the detective works to piece the truth together.
In times like these, making sense of the world is no mean feat.
Colette Bancroft keeps her unfinished dissertation on the novels of Raymond Chandler in a dusty file cabinet, under her extra bullets. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.
Three terrific novels offer a sense of the range of the tough detective novel in the 21st century.
Joe Gores, 'Spade & Archer'
The most old-school of these books is Joe Gores' Spade & Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Among Gores' 16 previous novels is Hammett, a 1975 thriller based on the writer's life.
Spade & Archer is a crisp homage to Hammett's quintessential hard-boiled detective, Sam Spade, the narrator of The Maltese Falcon. When John Huston filmed it in 1941, he had the good sense to change almost nothing — and to cast Humphrey Bogart, perfectly, as Spade.
Gores' novel picks up the clues to Spade's past scattered through Falcon and weaves them into a series of cases as Spade sets up his detective agency in San Francisco in the 1920s. He hires his smart, saucy secretary, Effie Perine, while she's still a teen taking typing classes. He spars with Miles Archer, the former partner who stole his girlfriend, Iva, while Spade was off serving in World War I. As he investigates what seem to be unrelated cases, he discovers the first rule of the detective novel: Everything is connected.
Gores does a delicious job of invoking '20s San Francisco, capturing Hammett's clean style and tucking in surprises, like the book's last page.
Paul Tremblay, 'The Little Sleep'
Paul Tremblay's The Little Sleep is an homage, too, but a much more twisted one. The title, of course, echoes Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, which introduced his wisecracking knight errant, Philip Marlowe. (The 1946 film version of that one starred Bogart as well.)
Tremblay echoes Chandler's plot, too, but in place of a case that involves nude photos of rich bad girl Carmen Sternwood, we get a contemporary story involving nude photos of reality show contestant Jennifer Times.
Any tough detective works hard to dig out the truth, but Tremblay's protagonist works harder than most. The "little sleeps" of the title are Mark Genevich's narcolepsy — a condition that causes him to pass out unpredictably, like in the middle of a conversation with a client, and even to hallucinate.
That might sound like a gimmick, but Tremblay gives the detective story a wildly absurdist spin, and Genevich's sardonic, self-deprecating voice complements it perfectly. The plot turns out to be a classic — all about those old sins we think we get away with, but don't.
Walter Mosley, 'The Long Fall'
One of the best contemporary writers of detective stories is Walter Mosley. In his bestselling series of books about Easy Rawlins, Mosley took Los Angeles, the city Chandler had staked out as the tough detective's territory, and made it his own.
Mosley, who writes in many other genres, ended the Rawlins series with the 10th book, Blonde Faith, to fans' dismay. But he couldn't stay away from the detective story.
The Long Fall (which could be another Chandler echo, of The Long Goodbye) is being advertised as "the first Leonid McGill mystery," and Mosley's fans are likely to hope for many more.
This time the setting is New York City (a rich canvas for Mosley's concern with race), and the man is Leonid McGill. He's a guy with a lot of baggage, past and present, a former criminal turned more-or-less legal private eye, stuck in a loveless marriage, worried that his favorite son is following in the wrong set of Dad's footsteps and nagged by "the sensation of slipping further down into the sandpit of my own sins."
Instead of a spare, dusty office and a cheeky secretary, this 21st century tough guy has a fantastical suite in the art deco Tesla Building and Zephyra, a "telephonic and computer personal assistant" who carries a minicomputer in her purse while she's clubbing.
He also has all the moves he learned as a boxer and a way with a simile Marlowe would envy: A prostitute spells her name for McGill "like a third-grade teacher who had lost patience before her current crop of students were ever born."
McGill takes on a simple case, tracking down four young men with nothing more than their nicknames. That's a piece of cake. Who wants them and why, and how far McGill will go to find out, is the kind of tough detective tale that keeps readers coming back.