Friday, July 5, 2013

One in the Eye

By Russel D Mclean

I still can’t say when it will be published (for a number of reasons) but the other day I put to bed the latest draft of the fourth McNee novel. If you don’t know the books, McNee is a private investigator from Dundee, Scotland. When I started writing the books, I remember the author Steven Torres asking if there were any other Scottish PIs. At the time I couldn’t think of any. Today, I still can’t. I sometimes wonder if that’s because the UK is so in thrall to the police procedural (and especially Scotland, where the admittedly excellent Laidlaw series kickstarted the modern movement so hard, we find it hard to escape the Inspector’s long shadow). But when people ask me why I chose to write about a PI, I have to point them towards my influences. So here are the five most influential (to me) PI novels that I have read:

           1) WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES by Lawrence Block – It was my dad who introduced me to crime writers, and one of the biggies at the time was Lawrence Block. As Dad said, Block wasn’t just writing about colving crimes, he was writing both about New York and about alcoholism. This particular book changes everything for Matt Scudder. His alcoholism is final properly acknowledged, and the closing of the novel is a stunner. The mystery and crime elements are very well handled, but really this book shows how the PI novel is about so much more than just solving a crime and how the detective can be affected much more deeply than a cop, who is assigned a case rather than actively choosing to pursue it. Block and Scudder were my introduction to PI fiction (as an adult) and I haven’t looked back.

      2)  THE GOODBYE LOOK by Ross MacDonald – You could probably blame Ross MacDonald for the family theme that runs through the McNee novels. MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels were obsessed with family secrets, which is perhaps no surprise given his focus on psychological motivations; who else can affect you more deeply than family? The Goodbye Look was the first MacDonald I read (and it was far from the last), and it blew me away. This one finds Archer employed to discover why a son would be involved in a burglary perpetrated against his own parents. But Archer soon uncovers decades worth of secrets and lies linked to an old kidnapping. MacDonald really added a psychological depth to the pulp template, and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Hammett and Chandler, which is why it was a terrible shame he was so hard to find in the UK for a long time (although Penguin Classics have now re-released the books).

       3)  THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler – Anyone who says they don’t like or appreciate Chandler is lying or trying to hard to find a reason to disparage him. Yes, Chandler’s plots are often a little unclear (he tended to move from set piece to set piece, each scene more important than its place in the whole) but by God, its all about the writing. And no one has bettered Chandler. He is the reason for all the wisecracking heroes, all the glib humour in crime fiction. And with The Big Sleep he instantly creates a hero who would become something of an archetype. Encoded in every PI (and many cops) following Chandler is the DNA of Philip Marlowe.

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars…

      4) The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett – Hammett’s own experiences as private eye served to inform his fiction, and with the Maltese Falcon his hard edged experiences clearly inform the character of Sam Spade. It’s a tough novel on many levels, and its interesting on re-read to see how Hammett doesn’t really let us too deep inside the character’s heads, preferring instead to let their actions do the talking. He’s a tougher read than Chandler in some ways (he’s a lot less warm) but he’s every bit as rewarding. As with Marlowe, Spade would go on to influence generations of PI characters.
5)   Hammett by Joe Gores – this 1975 novel took the tricksy task of blending real life and fiction by making Hammett the central investigator. It’s a brilliant novel from Gores (who would later write the official prequel to the Maltese Falcon, authorised by the Hammett Estate, and one of the few novels of its nature that really invoked the atmosphere of the works on which it was based) and his fictional recreation of a real life figure feels absolutely real. Its become a kind of forgotten gem, and I’m not sure if its still in print, but if you can get a hold of it, you really should: it’s a great novel about crime and crime fiction and works both as a thriller and as a kind of meta-commentary on the history of the genre.

Are there modern writers you should be reading, I hear you ask? Oh, yes, there have been some great eye novels past the 90s, but the books mentioned are the ones that really influenced me before I was published. So if you’re looking for more modern eyes, check out Sean Chercover’s Ray Dudgeon books, Reed Farrell Coleman’s Moe Prager novels, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone novels and Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series. And while I bemoan the lack of Scots eyes, check out an Irish eye in Jen Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels, an ex-con who thinks he’s an eye in Ray Banks’s Cal Innes series and our own Jay Stringer’s brilliant Eoin Miller books.


Dana King said...

Interesting timing: i stayed up late last night to watch THE MALTESE FALCON. I appreciate it a little more every time I see it, and it's on my TBR pile. Again.

Brian said...

Thanks for the reminders of great books I haven't read in years. There are others I could add but these are enough.