In an essay provocatively called "The Slow and Agonizing Death of the Private Detective", crime novel fan and critic William Ahearn argues that private-eye detective fiction is dead:
The private detective is as dead as a two-dollar steak and would somebody please get a shovel and bury the stiff.
That’s an incendiary way of putting it, and I’m sure that devotees of contemporary private eye fiction will be scandalized by both the content of the claim and Ahearn’s dogmatic expression of it.
However, in the main I agree with his statement and endorse its tone.
Private eye fiction today is, well, pathetic compared to what it was during its 1920s-1940s heyday. The conditions that made for its rise are long gone, and the genre is not sufficiently elastic to accommodate the contemporary world.
There is nothing wrong with that, and the world would be a better place, I think, if authors would give up on what doesn’t really work and instead move ahead creatively and find the next thing that does, some style that fits contemporary realities—or return to the frankly romantic and fantastic roots of the style and stop pretending that their chosen form of romance is more realistic than others. It is not, and the pretense is both annoying to sensible people and quite obviously crippling to those who write the stuff.
In fact, the attempt to evolve the private eye tale in order to create superficial relevance to contemporary concerns is precisely what ruined the form. Ahearn correctly traces this to Ross MacDonald, creator of the hugely popular Lew Archer mysteries, although he was merely exemplary of the rot that set in after World War II, not the essential cause of it:
Anthony Boucher started spreading the news about Ross Macdonald’s Target in the New York Times Book Review. Boucher said the book was "the most human and disturbing novel of the hard-boiled school in many years." And there the troubles began. Lew Archer—Ross Macdonald’s private detective—had feelings and with that observation, Boucher would influence a generation of upcoming writers with a private detective as the hero.
Ahearn’s astute observation is that with MacDonald the private eye becomes the focus of the genre, as opposed to the suspects, victims, criminals, locations, and society itself. Before MacDonald, private eye fiction writers strived to make their detective characters interesting, to be sure, but the private eye’s motives were a given—we understood why he (nearly always a he) was out there hunting down the criminal or criminals.
The detective’s motives might not be entlrely pure, and certainly they were seldom wholly selfless, but they were presented as basically rational given the situation. They were not the matter to be analyzed. Nor were the detective’s feelings. There was a great, big world outside the detective that was much more important than the momentary emotions of a single individual, and the way to find the meaning in that world was to figure out was who did the murders and why. Thus Ahearn writes:
The hardboiled detective stories—the real ones—were always about where they took the reader. It wasn’t about the detective.
Hence, although Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler created a couple of fairly complex and definitely memorable detective characters—Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, respectively—the real interest of the stories was not the psychology of the two men but the mean streets through which they had to walk. They were our window into a world where the conventional moral code is not honored, and hence a world that shows us the value of that moral code:
Sam Spade, Doghouse Reilly and all the unnamed ops and dicks were witnesses. Our witnesses. We saw the degradation, greed and foibles of humanity through their eyes. They were never supposed to be our friends or dinner companions. They were paid to sink into the depths of the human sewer and get whatever their client wanted whether it was a black bird, a woman named Velma or the disturbed daughter of a dying general. We didn’t know much about them because they weren’t the kind of people that you knew, only the kind of people that you paid. They were vehicles to another side and critics and intellectuals could create all kinds of mythological precedents and psychological manifestations of the collective unconscious about them but I don’t.
Personality, and especially psychology, have taken over the detection genre and ruined it. What used to be fascinating and delightful about mystery fiction was where it took you—Dashiell Hammett’s Poisonville, Doyle’s London and Baskerville Hall, Christie’s small English towns, Gardner’s San Francisco, Fredric Brown’s Chicago—and the people you met there—Caspar Guttman, Col. Sebastian Moran, General Sternwood and his daughters, the League of Frightened Men, and so on.
Instead of a vehicle for observation and reasoning, the private eye became a device for evoking sympathy and pity:
Back in the day, private detectives were—as Raymond Chandler described Phillip Marlowe—errant knights. They drank whiskey, black coffee, had affairs with dangerous partners, ate rare steak, had more black coffee with scrambled eggs and sat in cars on stakeouts eating takeout or whatever they found under the seats.
Now, the modern private detective is seeing a therapist, going to Alcohol Anonymous, is on a diet or having a personal struggle with chocolate, or is getting messages from their cat, dog, the weather channel or a dead grandmother. They all have some depressing event that haunts them or some contrived block or problem that could spell either disaster or another session with the therapist or the tarot reader or the Amway distributor.
Referring to James Lee Burke’s celebrated Dave Robicheaux series, Ahearn identifies the smarmy, manipulative nature of this allegedly hardboiled, realistic form of writing:
the books are repetitive and filled with sympathy-inducing and manipulative devices that prey on base emotions and knee-jerk—almost sympathetic—responses. If he isn’t haunted by his alcoholism, his dead wife or the child he pulled from a sunken plane, it’s a senior moment where he forgets how to make a po’ boy sandwich or when to water the worms in his bait shop.
What is behind all of this, which Ahearn does not identify, is moral and philosophical relativism and a belief in determinism.
The authors of these tales are reluctant to admit that there are quite often fairly simple issues of right and wrong in the world outside of the shibboleths of progressive politics. Hence, they cannot confidently create character by describing what people do and allowing readers to judge for themselves.
Instead, in telling their essentially mawkish, soap-opera-level stories, the authors describe people not by what they do but by what they have. Ahearn mentions a novel by popular author Dennis Lehane (author of Mystic River) as exemplifying both the sentimentality and superficiality of modern-day private eye fiction:
[T]he character is defined by descriptions of his car, his gun and some sorry ass infatuation with his partner who is—of course—beautiful and in a destructive relationship that he desperately wants to save her from. Cars, guns—and stereo systems, for that matter—are not indicative of character. That is not character; that is clutter.
Ahearn seems to sense that there is a philosophical problem behind the decline of the genre, although he cannot put his finger on it:
It isn’t about bad writing (although there’s plenty of that) it’s the utter and total lack of any kind of point of view on the part of the author other than descriptions of the characters and the locale. Which is why so many mysteries that I’m reading lately have become so forgettable.
What he is describing, of course, in mentioning "the utter and total lack of any kind of point of view on the part of the author" is moral and philosophical relativism. However, he is surely to be commended for identifying the things that have gone wrong with the genre.
The point is that the distinctiveness of the detective is not what’s wrong with contemporary private detection fiction, but that these writers are forced to believe that people are defined by what they possess, not what they do. Nearly everything in the genre, from the most hardboiled tales to the serial killer subgenre to the prissy cozies, reflects this inability to admit, or even recognize, that people actually make choices in life and that it is these choices that reveal character and make for real drama.
The choice of what kind of automobile to drive does say something about a person, but not nearly as much as what they do when confronted by the fact that their spouse is having an affair, or that a coworker is embezzling money from the firm, or that a real estate developer intends to use corrupt local officials to grab up their home at a deflated price in order to put up a strip mall.
To write wisely about such things, however, requires some moral courage, the willingness to judge things and stand up for what is right. Using them instead as cheap ploys to make readers feel sympathy for your characters is much easier, but it is, as Ahearn points out at great length, both unsatisfying to any reasonably deep person and contemptible on its face.
The literary problem will not be solved, you can be sure, until the philosophy behind it fades away.