Soft-Boiled

Detectives aren't what they used to be

By Stephen Budiansky

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.

But what really gets these fellows wanting to open up is the subject of confronting their drinking problems. In earlier J. P. Beaumont novels, such as Until Proven Guiltyand Trial by Fury,Beau downs a lot of bottles of MacNaughton's, a cheap Canadian whisky—pretty understandable, you'd think, given that he has just had to kill his own wife in self-defense after it turns out that she is the murderer. But then Beau discovers AA, and we're in for it. He tells us in Payment in Kind,

Anyone who thinks the Alcoholics Anonymous program is a walk in the park hasn't sat down to do Step 4, which entails making a searching moral inventory of yourself, or Step 8, which involves making a list of all the people you have wronged in your lifetime, people to whom you ought to make amends while you still have a chance.

Mercifully, Beau is on Step 8 already, so we manage to duck the moral inventory. But having just been given a full account of Beau's feelings of hostility and resentment toward his grandparents, who he believes kicked his mother out of the house when, at age sixteen, she became pregnant with him, we can guess where things are heading. Subsequent novels offer plenty of opportunities for Beau to share his feelings about what AA means to him. When Beau visits a club for alcoholics called Club 449, he orders an Americano and informs us that page 449 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous"deals with acceptance." He spends a lot of time commenting on how hard it is to find a parking place in Seattle, and how bad the traffic is these days.

Detective Dave Robicheaux seems to be made of sterner stuff. He has bigger worries than parking and his struggle to overcome feelings of prejudice against marginalized groups. He gets shot at and beaten up with a bracing regularity, and wends a trail through an assortment of roughneck dives, strip joints, and encounters with corrupt cops, drug kingpins, and southern-Louisiana thugs (including a hair-raisingly sadistic former tonton macoute) that would do Philip Marlowe proud. Being tortured by having his head held underwater in a bathtub (in The Neon Rain) brings back some bad memories of Vietnam, but he seems to recover with remarkable aplomb: he mows down an impressive gang of bad guys without a pause for inner reflection. Pretty soon, though, he's dropping references to "sobriety." Sure enough, he's in AA too, and showing how he can sling pop-psychology insights about "denial" with the best of them.

Being a "recovering" alcoholic is almost getting to be a requirement for being a fictional detective, as much a part of the standard issue as Marlowe's .38 and office bottle. The current roster of sleuths in AA also includes Anna Pigeon, the park ranger who solves murders in Nevada Barr's detective novels; Matt Scudder in Lawrence Block's series; and Maggie Elliott in Elizabeth Atwood Taylor's Murder at Vassar.Inspector Rebus isn't actually in AA, but we learn in The Hanging Gardenthat his friend Jack has "helped Rebus get off the booze" and has told him he "could phone any time he liked"; the star of Lilian Jackson Braun's "The Cat Who ..." series is also conspicuously on the wagon.

The phenomenon of detectives in AA is baffling. The aim is probably to make them more human. But this definition of "human" seems to be taken directly from a culture in which the measure of honesty is the degree to which one gets in touch with one's feelings and confesses to weakness. (Philip Marlowe, in contrast, is clearly in denial.) Though the action and plots of contemporary detective fiction are as escapist as ever, the heroes seem to have been plucked from what in children's fiction is called "problem stories"—epitomized by the Berenstain Bears series, in which the moral lesson is always that it's okay if (pick one) you have a physical handicap, you have a bad dream, you are afraid of going to the doctor, your family has to move, your mother gets a job. The point of reading such stories is to affirm the dull and boring ways in which we cope with our dull and boring problems. Yet the appeal of the classic detectives is that they defy society's conventions. Why are the creators of today's detective fiction trying so hard to make their heroes just like everyone else—or, worse, like everyone on a talk-show sofa?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/11/soft-boiled/305943/