My Detectives are Soft Boiled

Over time I’ve grown weary of the hard boiled detective.   It wasn’t always so, I grew up addicted to the exploits of Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, the Continental Op, and others of their ilk.  “The Big Sleep” and “Out Of The Past,” are still amongst my favorite films, and “The Wrong Case,” is one of my favorite books.  But, at its heart, the hard boiled genre is made up of colorful characters who don’t like each other and the cynicism of these works, no matter how wry and entertaining, wears thin – for me anyway.  Moreover, the us against them mentality found in most hard boiled stories strikes my as especially unappealing in today’s world of Ferguson-style cops and countless innocents wrongly delegated to death row.

Agatha Christies’ Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot, and certainly Sherlock Holmes, are far from hard boiled, but they also don’t seem to have much affection for the human race – they fall into the category of the analytical detective, where villains and witnesses are simply pawns in a game of crime, which serves solely to stimulate the “little gray cells,” of a celebrated sleuth.

Possibly the most well-known soft boiled detective is Columbo, who often grows quite fond of the people he eventually puts away.  ( I imagine, however,  that with his reliance on entrapment and circumstantial evidence his conviction rate is pretty dismal.)   The recently cancelled “White Collar,” also features two soft boiled detectives as the leads, as does “Granchester.”

The soft boiled detective strikes me as more suitable to our current times where grays seep into black and whites and corrupt them.  The world is more overtly complex now, more filled with doubt and uncertainty, and a soft boiled detective, who can appreciate his adversary’s point of view, makes a more suitable standard bearer for modern justice.  My three detectives, No Sin, Monica Marshall, and Zephyr Davies are not always nice people, in fact they can be absolute monsters, but ultimately they like each other and most of the people that they encounter – even Monica who would be horrified by this appraisal of her personality.

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Writers are expected to have opinions, and I’ve got plenty.

For instance, I often state that a story is a trip with a destination.  I came to this realization after a writer friend of mine critiqued some of my work by proclaiming with a maximum of exasperation, “It’s not a story!”  When I asked him to elaborate I got a lecture about a beginning, middle and an end, a rising narrative building to a climax, and several other “clarifications,” which left me thoroughly confused. I realized that I had to come up with my own definition and I arrived at the trip with a destination.  The destination, however, must be specific and physical, it cannot be a feeling of self-acceptance, or a new awareness of one’s place in the universe.  Furthermore, “physical,” is not limited to a spot on a map – it can be a swimming pool or the back seat of a car.

The best destinations promise to answer questions that are really interesting and provocative, questions that people really want answered.  Often the destination is reached, sometimes it’s not, which also provides an answer to whatever question the writer has posed.

An obvious physical destination comes from “The Wizard Of Oz,” the destination being Dorothy’s Kansas home – will she get back or won’t she?  However, destinations can change along the way, after all, in the beginning of the story the destination is Oz itself.

One of my favorite destinations is set up in “The Godfather.”  The destination is the big chair behind the Godfather’s desk and the question is, who will be sitting in it when the story ends, and more profoundly, will the son be corrupted by the father?  As the tale unfolds it becomes clear that Michael is the candidate to sit in the chair, and ironically, the story will have a happy ending if the destination is not reached.  The destination is reached by Michael, and the story ends tragically and powerfully.

It’s important not to mistake a situation for a story.   Five characters, beautifully drawn, full of angst, desire and contradictions, all sitting in a subway car – this is a situation.  However, if one of the characters intends to hang themselves when they get home, or another has finally mustered the courage to go up and talk to that special someone who always gets off at their stop, then you have a story.  Ironically, if a clear and compelling destination is set, the story can wander, take all sorts of detours, even slow down for reflection and the reader will still feel that they’re going somewhere interesting – whereas if the destination is never stated the narrative can head straight to the finish at breakneck speed and the reader will be impatient, distracted, confused and bored.  One of the unintended flaws of many of today’s popular character-driven novels is that there is no story.



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eyes (10aaccfacepupil)


Why do I like mysteries? Atmosphere has a lot to do with it, entering a world of fog and darkness and startling possibilities.  Problem solving is another draw, not just in being able to guess “who done it,” but in pursuing the smug satisfaction that comes from successfully predicting the moves of another author, particularly a good one.  Ironically, a greater pleasure comes when the author outwits me; humbling as it is, I love it when the outcome of a story is not at all what I anticipated.  (That is, when the author plays fair and sets down a trail of clues that were right there for all to see.)

Ultimately, though, life is a mystery, and a good mystery story allows me to explore scenarios that frighten and fascinate me, which gnaw at my curiosity and cause me to wonder how I would hold up if confronted with such a reality.  All of us wonder how we would react in the face of danger or tragedy,  and a well written story allows us to experience a terrible event without actually living through it.

Of course, any fine novel allows the reader to experience harrowing events, but there’s a tradition to mysteries that offers another element.  The protagonist in the most dearly loved mysteries solve their crimes, outwit evil-doers and face malevolent forces with style – often with good humor – at least with a spirit of gritty, world-weary romance.  In this way, mysteries are inspirational, providing an aspirational blueprint for facing and enduring the worst that life has to offer.



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