When it comes to genre conventions, detective fiction has quite recognizable and consistent ones, the experiments of some authors notwithstanding. Since Edgar Allan Poe invented the species in the mid-1800s, a reader has generally known what she is going to get from most detective noir. These expectations cohere in the figure of the narrator, the private eye, who is usually male , usually a bachelor (albeit one intriguing to oft-untrustworthy dames), usually a cynic (perhaps even a melancholy one), usually based in a city, usually on ambivalent terms with the police (of whom he was perhaps once an officer), and usually more interested in solving particular crimes than in generalizing about What It All Means in some grand existential sense, or serving a general narrative that does that.
The detective’s universe is amoral yet explicable, provided one is reasonably unsentimental—provided one is ready to be disappointed by the weird, selfish motives, rationalizations, and acts of human beings. (In many ways the genre is an ongoing response to capitalism, Darwin, and Freud. Then again, so is everything.) For the most memorable private eyes, in fact, disappointment is a flavor from the past: they have already seen too much to be let down by anything people do with or to one another. The detective’s unstated moral task is to not become like other people even while watching them closely.
The unfortunate side result of this conventionality is that there’s a lot of crappy, formulaic detective fiction out there. Hacks can churn the stuff out quite easily, like pornography or L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry. Genuinely good writers are those who play with and re-imagine the genre’s strictures while keeping things entertaining, which is another central demand of the form.
If I had to pick a G.O.A.T. detective writer, I would bet the house on Ross Macdonald. Born Kenneth Millar in 1917, “Macdonald” reached literary maturity in the 1950s, when he started publishing books centered on the detective Lew Archer. (OK, the first Archer novel is technically from 1949, but Macdonald’s first great book, The Drowning Pool, dropped in 1950.) These sold well and received some praise from thoughtful critics, especially Eudora Welty, but his rep as a master primarily developed after his death in 1983. Man got laurels in the grave.
Lew Archer is certainly tough-minded and pessimistic, and ready to put his body into defensive action, but he isn’t hard in the idiomatic sense. He isn’t violent or foul-mouthed; he doesn’t have much of a temper, doesn’t appear to dislike women, and doesn’t have any deep sins in his past.
Instead, Macdonald makes him something of a wandering, reluctant poet. Or, like, if Montaigne were a private dick. The narratives that enmesh Archer are driven largely by his sensitivity to the world and his ability to off-handedly describe it in striking terms. Often he thinks and talks (to himself) like a sad aesthete; Archer is a writer who doesn’t write. The moral superstructure of Macdonald’s novels consists not in appeals to higher ethical, political, or social powers, to some crux of Good and Evil, but in the humanist clarity and tonal beauty of Archer’s responses to a world after God.
We can see this by looking at 1963’s The Chill, one of the best mid-century examples of the detective form. A handful of Archer’s remarks provides a sense of the book’s prose quality and the vigor of its characterizations and settings, which in turn lend it legitimate ethical weight. Enjoy some lapidary fragments.
Still her black eyes were alert, like unexpected animal or bird life in the ruins of a building.
Some men spend their lives looking for ways to punish themselves for having been born, and Begley had some of the stigmata of the trouble-prone.
Spiders had been busy in the angles of the rafters, which were webbed and blurred as if fog had seeped in at the corners.
Black grief kept flooding up in him, changing to anger when it reached the air.
He wore a plaid waistcoat, and he had the slightly muzzy voice and liquid eyes and dense complexion of a man who drank all day and into the night.
It became drab and impersonal like any room anywhere in which murder had been committed. In a curious way the men in uniform seemed to be doing the murder a second and final time, annulling Helen’s rather garish aura, converting her into laboratory meat and courtroom exhibits.
Time seemed to have slowed down, dividing itself into innumerable fractions, like Zeno’s space or marijuana hours.
I could hear her breathing as if she was struggling up to the rim of the present.
In wine was truth, perhaps, but in whisky, the way Hoffman sluiced it down, was an army of imaginary rats climbing your legs.
The light that filtered through their turning leaves onto the great lawns was the color of sublimated money.
The receiver crashed down, but he went on talking. His voice rose and fell like a wind, taking up scattered fragments of the past and blowing them together in a whirl.
I got a quick impression of him: a man of half-qualities who lived in a half-world:he was half-handsome, half-lost, half-spoiled, half-smart, half-dangerous. His pointed Italian shoes were scuffed at the toes.
Her broad sexless body made her resemble a dilapidated Buddha.
The road left the shore and tunneled among trees which enclosed it like sweet green coagulated night.
His eyes came up to mine, candid and earnest as only an actor’s can be.
The long slow weight of prison forces men into unusual shapes. McGee had become a sort of twisted saint.
The kind of fiction we call “literary” has two distinguishing features. First, its language strives to challenge but delight: to be beautiful. Second—without which the first feature is nearly pointless—such fiction consistently explores what a meaningful human existence might look like, whether or not some deity or judge is watching, whether or not meaning can actually be achieved and not just struggled toward. For Archer, for Macdonald, for many serious modern novelists, God’s house is empty; it probably always was. There is only the consolation of truthful language and scrupulous work. Archer uses one to frame the other. That labor is done in the face of much “fear and loathing,” a phrase (echoing Kierkegaard) that appears in this book years before Hunter S. Thompson popularized it.
Dig Macdonald. And look at that paperback cover!
1. Though not always male. Martin Amis’s Night Train (1997) is a good example of a noir novel with a female lead.