Soft-Boiled

Detectives aren't what they used to be

What strange epidemic has taken hold of our detectives these days? I'm referring to the detectives who inhabit the pages of novels, and all I can say is that they are not the men (or women) they used to be. Consider, for example, these two quotations, the first from the private investigator Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's classic The Lady in the Lake,the second from Detective Inspector John Rebus in Ian Rankin's Strip Jack.Two detectives relaxing after a hard day at the office—or, rather, a hard day driving around Los Angeles or Edinburgh, as the case may be, in pursuit of criminals. But what a difference a half century makes.

I peeled off my coat and tie and sat down at the desk and got the office bottle out of the deep drawer and bought myself a drink. It didn't do any good. I had another, with the same result.

He lay down in the foaming bath and closed his eyes, breathing deeply, the way his doctor had told him to. Relaxation technique, he'd called it. He wanted Rebus to relax a bit more. High blood pressure, nothing serious, but all the same ... Of course, there were pills he could take, beta-blockers. But the doctor was in favour of self-help. Deep relaxation. Self-hypnosis.

Foaming bath? Deep relaxation?The only time Philip Marlowe ever experienced deep relaxation was when someone knocked him over the head with a tire iron, which, come to think of it, was fairly frequently. Marlowe didn't go around fretting about sissy stuff like high blood pressure either. It took something serious, like being sapped twice with a blackjack, choked, beaten around the jaw with a gun barrel, shackled to a bedstead, and shot up with heroin and scopolamine by the bad guys, before he would admit he was suffering from a health problem—and even then he'd refuse to see a doctor. His course of treatment following that particular incident was, as usual, manly and direct: "I reached for the bottle and stood it near me and waited for the heat to get to my heart. My heart began to pound, but it was back up in my chest again, not hanging on a shoelace." Now, that's self-help.

It's not that modern detectives have become wimps, exactly. But even the men of action among them are becoming depressingly like the rest of us: they are self-absorbed; they worry about secondhand smoke; they redecorate their apartments; they try to make sure to get enough exercise and eat right; they experience "stress"; they talk about their "relationships" ad nauseam. Marlowe went to college and can quote Shakespeare, and underneath his tough-guy exterior he is honest and decent and sensitive. But he chose a life that takes him—and us—into a demimonde of lowlifes, crooked cops, blackmailers, sudden death. He has run away from his own past (which he scarcely ever discusses), from bourgeois life with a wife and children ("I'm unmarried because I don't like policemen's wives" is as much as he ever explains), and we get to run away with him. Of course he drinks too much. Bad food and loneliness? They come with the territory: "I gobbled what they called the regular dinner, drank a brandy to sit on its chest and hold it down, and went out on to the main street." Of course he is ruining his health with his hours. Of course he is being dragged down by the foulness of the company he keeps—the drunks and pushers and the burned-out old men and the rich and powerful hypocrites. Of course he is lonely without a wife or a girlfriend. He just has the decency to shut up about it. The reason an old-fashioned detective like Marlowe or Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer doesn't talk about his private life, we sense, is that he doesn't have one, and would just as soon not be reminded.

The 1990s detective can't shut up about anything. It's hard to go even a few pages without being assaulted by a confession of inner feelings. We get to hear about the very hard time Inspector Rebus has deciding whether to move in with Patience Aitken, who doesn't actually love him but wants to offer "her solidity, her protection." James Lee Burke's New Orleans detective, Dave Robicheaux, was in Vietnam "in the early days of the war," and this has left him with a sizable reservoir of musings about personal anger, which he taps frequently. The Seattle homicide detective J. P. "Beau" Beaumont, created by J. A. Jance, is practically a walking self-help manual. "Abusers are controllers," he explains to no one in particular, when he isn't explaining his lack of a father figure as a child. When a gay stagehand is murdered in Taking the Fifth,Beau gets to tell us about confronting his homophobia. As it happens, Beau has just designed and furnished his very nice condominium with the help of an interior decorator who is—believe it or not—homosexual. "[He] was a nice guy who had forced me to come face-to-face with some of my own deep-seated feelings of intolerance," Beau explains.

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