Thursday, February 08, 2007

The "lonely middle-aged detective" is growing old

I've come under withering attack for my comments about the loner detective. (OK, two readers registered mild dissent, but permit me my little fantasies, will you?)

One reader offered an incisive comment that I'll repeat here. It's from the Camilleri-loving Uriah Robinson at Crime Scraps, who calls the lonesome loner detectives a "sub-genre that has been done so well in the past that it has run its course."

It may have run its course, but it's enjoying an interesting after-life, sort of like the Roman Empire after the Germanic invasions.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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14 Comments:

Anonymous David J. Montgomery said...

This scenario has become something of a cliche, but as with anything else in writing, what really matters is what the author does with it. A fine writer can take a hackneyed premise and make a fine story out of it. It's all in the execution.

February 09, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I am am not putting this as a criticsm, merely a comment there is an interesting article in The Independent about Ian Rankin that begins:

"his idea for a crime novel involving a bitter and slight dysfunctional detective with a compellingly flawed character took off"

I think that is part of the Rankin magic and mystique because his admirers believe Rebus to be such an original creation!

February 09, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

David:

I haven't yet read Jo Nesbo, but his Harry Hole seems as if he could be an exciting example of the type.

And yes, what matters is what the author does with the type. Sometimes it's all in the execution, but I tend to like stories where the differences are in the conception. By this I mean stories where the author doesn't just start with the model of the loner detective, then do it a little better than other writers. That's what Ian Rankin does, I'd say.

For me, the memorable examples are those in which the author starts with the model and gives it a twist: David Owen's Pufferfish or Yasmina Khadra's Brahim Llob. John Rebus may be a more fully drawn character than Pufferfish, but to me he is nowhere near as interesting.

And there are more than enough hackneyed premises out there. I have in mind one novel I put down as soon as its protagonist looked in a mirror in the opening chapter and described his own haggard face. And the cliched protagonist does not have to male. I put down another book in whose opening chapter the protagonist described her small and messy apartment.

Enough already!

February 09, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah:

The dysfunctional or flawed detective is another popular motif, of course. And I have no quarrel with that assessment of Rankin; John Rebus took off, all right.

I suppose Rebus might be original in the sense that Rankin turns a lot of his psychological "back story" into front story, e.g., the material about Rebus' hellish military/espionage training in Knots and Crosses. But then, Rankin has a tendency to give subsidiary material so much weight that his novels can seem diffuse and plodding. All that stuff about the oil rig and the isolated lives of some of the witnesses Rebus looks for in Black and Blue is too much.

February 09, 2007  
Blogger sauron said...

Hi Peter,
do you know Durrenmatt?
I posted a book review of him.
By

February 09, 2007  
Anonymous Maxine said...

Well I like loner detectives. Most of my favourite detective stories feature characters who are mavericks, misfits, loners and people who just don't fit into the system. I think that is one of the main appeals of the genre, for me.

Rather that than High School Musical.

More seriously, though, isn't it the loners etc who solve the mystery because they are capable of "thinking outside the box" like the criminal? In many of these books, you get a sense of the hair's breadth between the detective and the criminal -- you sense how easy it would be for either of them to have fallen on either side. Thomas Harris, before he went totally off, explored this a bit with Red Dragon. Harry Hole, in the Jo Nesbro books you mention above, is another. Harry Bosch another. etc. Yes, give me loners and misfits rather than conformists any day.

I could do without other genre cliches, eg WIP (woman in peril), but that's for another blog post....

February 09, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Sauron:

Thanks for your note. I have only read a little bit of Durrenmatt. I'll look for your review, and I'll give myself a lesson in literature and Italian.

If you like Durrenmatt, you might also like another Swiss writer, Friedrich Glauser, who wrote superb crime novels in the 1930s featuring Sergeant Studer (I think his title is "Wachtmeister Studer" in German.) I have read that he influenced Durrenmatt. Bitter Lemon Press has published four of the novels in English translation. I don't know if they are available in Italian.

February 09, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comment, Maxine. I really have to read some Jo Nesbo now. Thank goodness for online ordering. The idiot chain stores are like Bruce Springsteen’s song “Fifty-Seven Channels and Nothing On”: Thousands of books, and nothing good. Last time I checked, my “local” Borders had no Nesbo.

Sure, and the loner aspect applies to police procedurals as well as to P.I. stories: the cop who goes up against his superiors. (Or hers, I suppose, though most of the female investigators I can think of are private investigators or amateur sleuths rather than police.)

I’ve never really thought about this issue until now, but I suppose that one criterion for evaluating an author’s use of the loner detective, complete with trappings (bad marriage, messy living quarters, etc.) is how he or she uses the motif: Is the loner aspect integral to the detective’s approach to detection, or is it just genre window dressing? Does it say something about the closeness of detective and criminal, as you suggest, or is it just that way because Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett said so?

Cliches – I think I may do a separate post on them. I’ll probably start with the detective who describes his aging face while looking in the mirror in the morning.

February 09, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Maxine's comment "characters who are mavericks, misfits, loners and people who just don't fit into the system."

That sounds like a lot of the people I have worked with over the years.

February 11, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Wish fulfillment on the authors' part, perhaps. A few years ago, before my current job troubles, I wrote the opening scenes of a crime story in which the protagonist has become a private investigator after quitting his job.

Then there are stories in which the protagonist is truly down and out, and not just prone to brooding over meals for one. Those have an element of redemption -- working one's way back into society, or at least establishing a tenuous connection with it, by investigating a crime, trying to right a wrong, and so on.

February 11, 2007  
Blogger Euro Crime said...

Peter - read The Redbreast before Devil's Star when you get your Nesbos. I think The Redbreast will be at the top of my best reads for 2007.

February 11, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks. I probably would have read Devil's Star first, since that just wrapped up a run as the featured book on the Oz Mystery Readers group.

OK, why read The Redbreast first? What would I miss if I did my reading the other way around?

February 11, 2007  
Blogger Euro Crime said...

I haven't read Devil's Star yet but The Redbreast is #3 whereas Devil's Star is #5 and from what I gather on Oz-Myst, the effects of a significant event in #3 are still reverberating in #5 so the impact and surprise of said event would be somewhat lessened. (Sorry this is vague and grammatically challenged but I don't want to give too much away!) I've asked the publishers if anymore Nesbos are planned for this year but they've nothing listed, so far. I was hoping for #4...

February 12, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Yikes, sounds like the reader is in danger of being left a bit at sea no matter where he or she jumps in. I can understand your vagueness; I get the same way when trying to discuss a novel without giving away a plot point.

Of course, reading a series out of order can produce the pleasure of an ah-ha! moment: You read book number three, and you say ah-ha! That accounts for the strange behavior in book number five.

February 12, 2007  

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