Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Fletcher Flora, or Why American P.I. fiction from the 1950s is like Late Roman art

American P.I.  fiction
from the late 1950s.
American P.I. fiction from the late 1950s—and I know you'll agree with me on this—is like Late Antique art. Each grew out of a tradition that established enduring standards of perfection (Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in one case, Classical Greek and Roman art in the other). The weight of each tradition, part of the past yet still exerting powerful influence in the present, drove some of its inheritors into self-consciousness and bizarre exaggeration as they tried to create something new while at the same time remaining faithful to what had gone before.

Late Antique art
Fletcher Flora's 1958 novel Leave Her to Hell is as self-conscious as all get-out. Here are just a few examples from the first three chapters:
"The door was opened by a maid with a face like half a walnut . You may think it’s impossible for a face to look like half a walnut, and I suppose it is, if you want to be literal. But half a walnut is, nevertheless, all I can think of as a comparison when I think of the face of this maid."
"Nine times out of ten, when someone tries to describe a woman who is fairly tall and has a slim and pliant and beautiful body, he will say that she is willowy, and that’s what I say. I say that Faith Salem was willowy."
"I woke up at seven in the morning, which is a nasty habit of mine that endures through indiscretions and hangovers and intermittent periods of irregular living."
In the last two examples, especially, Flora has his hard-boiled P.I. narrator/protagonist question standard scenes of P.I. fiction (the description of the beautiful female client, the narrator/protagonist's description of himself) even as he lives those scenes. I'll save the rest for a dissertation, but for now, suffice it to say that a novel that questions itself and its conventions on every page (so far) is a compelling but hardly restful experience.. Here's the novel's opening:
"A woman wanted to see me about a job. Her name, she said, was Faith Salem. She lived, she said, in a certain apartment in a certain apartment building ... "
Now, let's go see what the rest of the book is like. In the meantime, what crime writers, novels, or stories have reminded you of a period or a genre from another art form?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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