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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Knights and Detectives

Raymond Chandler, in The Simple Act of Murder, pays due homage to Hammett: ‘He gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons,’ he said. ‘Not just to provide a corpse.’ And in the same essay he goes on to describe the newer modernist hero:

. . . down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. . . He must be the best man in his world and a good man for any world. . . The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.’

But Chandler delineated this formula in 1950, more than half a century ago. Since that time the crime and detective novel has undergone many changes and revisions in order to keep pace with the changes in the real world and within the world of the novel at large.
For my part, when I begin a novel I am certainly not looking for a hero who is ‘the best man in his world and a good man for any world. . . .’ I am looking for a character who is ambivalent, a character who is living his life while he is also trying to identify himself and his place in the world.
This man or woman, this twenty-first century fictional hero is an outsider, not necessarily by temperament but because he or she has been mauled by the multinational giants of commerce or politics or media, either directly or indirectly. He or she is severely alienated, yet hanging on to his or her humanity with grim determination. This fictional hero is always a representative of freedom. The criminal, on the other hand, is never free; he or she might be evil or sick or mad, all are possible. But whatever his or her malady the criminal will be stuck on something, unable to move beyond his preconceived obsession about the structure of his environment. These criminals, in fact remind us of the classic detective who was popular before Hammett and Chandler, the individual who never challenged the existing order and therefore, by default, supported and encouraged it.
The detective novel of the twenty-first century has gone further: it is about subjectivity because we live in a time when objectivity is no longer a valid concept. We know, finally, that the events of our lives are not merely objective facts but that they are interpretations, ours or someone else’s. There is no meaning in an objective fact. Meaning only comes into the picture with interpretation, through imagination.
Which leads us to another development and diversion from the classic and hard-boiled formulas. The modern detective is in an ethical dilemma. He doesn’t make judgements like Hammett’s or Chandler’s detectives did, or if he does make them in a moment of weakness he will return later and rethink the situation, he will battle against his own guilt. This is because he is lost in an existential sense; he cannot make moral judgements of others until he has discovered himself. In this area he refuses to exert his will-power. His real job, his essential task is concerned with self-detection, with the unearthing of identity.
As an aside here, it is interesting to look at the confusion of comfort and oblivion that affect two very different fictional policemen. I refer to Ian Rankin’s Rebus and Colin Dexter’s Morse. Both of these men are loners, they don’t normally make meaningful relationships and when they do they can’t maintain them. Both, also, spend significant quality time in their respective rooms, Rebus with booze and Rock’n’Roll records and Morse with booze and classical music. Rebus lives in squalor while Morse keeps his immediate environment tidy and clean, but neither of them are capable of any meaningful inward journey. They are in flight from themselves and their empty lives and seem incapable of interpreting the metaphors of their profession. While we respect their stubborn bravery and especially Rebus’ grit and despair at the loss of his humanity, we still wish that one or the other of them would break out of his ego and get to grips with the world of relationships. That they would forget for a moment all that romance and chivalry of the medieval knight, which was, of course, the formula of the classic detective novel which dominated the early twentieth century.

One Response to “Knights and Detectives”

  1. That’s a fascinating deconstruction of the motives behind the modern detective novel. Your insights will add enormously to my reading pleasure I’m sure. Many thanks.

    jb says: Thanks, Bill. But I’m still trying to work out what our fascination with crime is all about.