We’re getting deeper into the Crime Fiction Lover filing cabinet. This week, The PI Case Files brings you three more American greats in the genre including the private detective who started it all. Read on as we continue our series looking at the 12 greatest private eyes in crime fiction. Just click on each file image to see it in greater detail.
Lew Archer is an insomniac, or at least he is driven to work his cases incessantly. Thus author Ross Macdonald has him operating in a time frame which, if not exactly ‘real-time’, is close to the ‘unity of time’ beloved of classical and Shakespearean tragedy. Physically, he is tough enough to survive bruising encounters, but he is a martyr to his own sense of compassion for the broken souls he encounters in his professional life.
Archer might be the younger brother of Philip Marlowe (see next week’s files). He operates a decade later on, in the same place – Los Angeles – but often in its suburbs rather than its deep, dark centre. He’s more vulnerable than Marlowe, and perhaps less resilient. He has a failed marriage behind him, and watches on, often helplessly, as a new brash generation goes about making its own mistakes.
Archer’s place in the Pantheon of great fictional private detectives is assured because of his humanity. He isn’t just a snarling, cynical, wise-cracking thug. Instead he listens to his conscience and empathises with the misfits and malcontents he meets, certainly to the detriment of his own psychological health. Macdonald’s prose is often poetic but never fanciful, and probing without being self-indulgent or introspective.
In The Moving Target (1949) Lew Archer negotiates the mean streets of Santa Teresa (Santa Barbara) in search of a missing oil tycoon. The book was filmed as Harper in 1966, with Paul Newman in the lead role. William Goldman wrote the screenplay. In The Drowning Pool (1950) he’s drawn away from the big city into the downbeat but complex mileu of Southern California. Archer starts by investigating blackmail, but events take a turn for the worse. Again, Paul Newman starred in the movie version (1975) but the plot was radically different from that of the novel.
Look for Lew on Amazon
It could be said that Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is the most convincing and enduring black detective in crime fiction. Virgil Tibbs appeared in John Ball’s 1965 novel In The Heat Of The Night, which was memorably filmed with Sidney Poitier in the lead role, and Walter Mosley himself has created a handful of alternatives to Rawlins – notably Fearless Jones, Socrates Fortlow and Leonid McGill. But in truth, Rawlins bestrides them like a colossus.
Easy moves at a relaxed pace. He saw extreme violence while serving with the US Army in World War II, so little shocks him or throws him off kilter. He’s wearily accepting of the casual racism he encounters in post war LA, but will only accept so much. He has the reluctant respect of his contacts within the LAPD but would be bemused, if not astonished, to find that in 2013 America has a black president.
Why are the Easy Rawlins books so good? “It’s the poetry, stupid.” Don’t take that out of context. Bill Clinton’s speechwriters borrowed that memorable quote in 1992 as Clinton sought to unseat Bush. Read a Mosley novel – any one – and you will come up with a hundred quotable lines, philosophical, painfully perceptive, but burning with a fierce light. Rawlins may be at the bottom of the pond , but he is not about to give in without a fierce battle.
Each Rawlins book is colour-coded. Devil In a Blue Dress (1990) is set in the Watts area of Los Angeles in 1948. Rawlins is back from the War. He is broke. He accepts a job. He must find a young white woman who has put herself beyond the pale with her preference for black men. In Red Death (1992) Rawlins encounters communism, civil rights, espionage, government corruption and an increasingly complex sense of national and racial identity. After apparently being killed off our hero re-emerges and he stumbles through a totally alien landscape – the counter culture of late 1960s California – in Little Green, published earlier this year.
Easy Rawlins on Amazon
Spade is unique. No body of work contains him, just The Maltese Falcon and two short stories. Yet he is the life-spring and the source for all the hardboiled PIs who followed – Marlowe, Archer, and Spenser. Bogart immortalised the character in the 1941 film of the Falcon, and despite several re-writes and pastiches he sits on the top table of fictional PIs.
Spade is disenchanted, utterly self-serving, but with a certain code of honour. His partner, who he disliked intensely, has been killed, and so Spade reluctantly assumes the mantle of avenger, because that is what is expected of him.
No other PI in the history of crime fiction has achieved immortality on the strength of just one full length novel. Would Spade still be up there with the greats without the help of John Huston, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr, Ward Bond and, last but not least, Humphrey Bogart? Too hard to call. I have my own views, but what do you think?
It has to live or die with The Maltese Falcon. San Francisco between the wars, an ancient treasure, modern greed and sharply etched characters – who are not always what they seem to be. If it isn’t on your shelves, then it should be.
The Maltese Falcon on Amazon
Read the rest of the series…