Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Two Enjoyable Private Eyes

Some reading I did recently reminded me that a lot of the pleasure that comes from reading private eye novels lies in how enjoyable it is to just spend time with an investigator with an interesting personality.  Don't get me wrong.  A PI novel always benefits from a strong plot, dextrous writing, evocative scene-setting, and so forth, not to mention the need for compelling secondary characters. But the enjoyment that comes from sort of hanging out through an investigation with a PI who has a distinctive voice and personality can in itself be a strong one, and this was certainly true of two books I zipped through last month.

The Old Dick, by L.A. Morse, as its title might indicate, is something of a parody of a PI novel.  Published in 1981, it is told by Jake Spanner, a 77-year-old retired private investigator living in Los Angeles. When we first meet him, he is living modestly in his small house, spending his time reading bad PI novels and trying to avoid a widow next door whose cooking is atrocious.  Soon enough, he gets lured against his better judgment into some intrigue by a guy about his age who he once helped bust and who is just out of jail.  What ensues after that is a funny semi-misadventure of a detective tale that gets, in the classic tradition, more and more complicated as it goes along. The plot is solid. But what most carries the book and keeps the reader turning the pages is Spanner's voice, crotchety and often self-mocking, somewhat cynical and jaded, but still engaged with life enough to care about things like the truth and perhaps even justice. It's a book sort of in the vein of what Robert Benton did with The Late Show and Art Carney's Ira Wells character. Without tipping over into farce, the book parodies and yet does full justice to the PI novel form, and I just liked spending a few days with Jake Spanner and seeing the world through his aging eyes. Fun book. 

Charlotte Carter's Rhode Island Red, published in 1999, is the first of three books about Nanette Hayes, a young saxophone-playing street musician in New York City who gets caught up in a murder that takes place in her apartment after she takes in, for a night, a fellow apparent street musician.  In this book, the plot is pretty good, nothing spectacular, but Nanette is a complex and highly entertaining main character, conversant as she is in jazz music, Arthur Rimbaud, Jean-Luc Godard and cinema in general, and a number of other things. She is sexually active and likes to drink. She never does not speak her mind. As a musician and poetry translator scraping by in New York, hanging on barely to her tiny apartment, she is resourceful and even cunning when need be, and though she is not, strictly speaking, a professional investigator, she takes on the role of the amateur PI without missing a beat in her life. I have to say, too, that as a New Yorker, this picture of a time not too long ago in the city but far enough back to be a different era has its nostalgic value for me. To be a bohemian and able to survive in NYC; it never was easy but was it once a bit more possible than it is now?  Whether it was or wasn't, Rhode Island Red makes it seems as if it was, and Nanette Hayes is your compelling guide through a particular music-obsessed underworld. I'd follow her other places and certainly intend to finish the series. I should add that there's a superb in-depth piece about Charlotte Carter and the peripatetic life she has led by the estimable Michael Gonzalez that was written a few years back and that you can find here: https://catapult.co/stories/rhode-island-red-a-novel-by-charlotte-carter. It's definitely worth a read.

Jake Spanner and Nanette Hayes. Two very different people investigating crimes who I had a great time accompanying as they poked about in dark and mysterious places.

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