BOOKS CHECKED OUT | By JANET CLAPP
One aspect of America’s literary heritage is the lone private eye in a shabby office, the tough guy who figures out all the answers. We’ve seen that man in movies like “The Maltese Falcon” and parodied on “A Prairie Home Companion” through the character of Guy Noir. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Hard-boiled fiction used graphic sex and violence, vivid but often sordid urban backgrounds, and fast-paced, slangy dialogue.” The world of those gumshoes is a dark one. Today’s political correctness was never envisioned by the original writers of pulp fiction; ethnic stereotypes and sexist comments were an ingrained part of the culture. Perhaps it is that depiction of another time and place that is part of the appeal to readers. Or maybe it’s the zippy conversations or the bleak view of humanity.
“The Thin Man”
by Dashiell Hammett
You’ve probably seen the movie or have heard of Nick and Nora Charles, the fictional wealthy couple in Depression-era New York City. Before marrying Nora and her fortune, Nick was a detective. Now he spends his days and nights drinking and partying. When a former client disappears, Nick unwillingly becomes involved. “So far, I had known just where I stood on the Wolf-Wynant-Jorgensen troubles and what I was doing — the answers were, respectively, nowhere and nothing — but when we stopped at Reuben’s for coffee on our way home at four the next morning, Nora opened a newspaper and found a line in one of the gossip columns … and when I opened my eyes and sat up in bed some six hours later, Nora was shaking me and a man with a gun in his hand was standing in the bedroom doorway.”
“The Big Sleep”
by Raymond Chandler
Meet Philip Marlowe, a private detective in 1930s Los Angeles. “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.” Hired by a wealthy businessman who is being blackmailed, Marlowe discovers the seamy side of humanity as he uncovers pornography and murder. “What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”
“When the Sacred Ginmill Closes”
by Lawrence Block
Matt Scudder is an ex-cop in New York City who spends his time going from bar to bar and occasionally trading some detective skills for money. “It was the summer of ’75, and in a larger context, it seems in memory to have been a season in which nothing very important happened.” When one of his watering holes gets blackmailed and another one is robbed, Scudder spends a little time investigating and lots of time drinking. “I swear to God, I don’t know how anybody ever figures anything out, myself included. I’ll watch a movie in which someone explains how he figured something out, fitting clues together until a solution appeared, and it will make perfect sense to me as I listen along. But in my own work it is rarely like that.”
“The Hours of the Virgin”
by Loren D. Estleman
In the cold and gritty city of Detroit, there’s a private investigator named Amos Walker. “Merlin was shouting and waving, in case I missed the overcoat. I’d have been nobody’s idea of a detective if I had. It was a shaggy gray-brown tent that reached to his ankles, heavy enough for a Siberian sleigh ride. The species it belonged to wouldn’t have any use for it in the Smithsonian. What it was doing wrapped around somebody like Merlin Gilly went with some story I was probably going to hear.” Although set in the modern day, this book has characteristics of early detective stories: somebody ends up dead, there’s a priceless treasure, a mysterious beautiful woman and the liquor keeps flowing. Wisecracking dialogue keeps the pace moving. “Let’s go someplace. These walls wouldn’t stop a noisy thought.”
At Rutland Free Library, you can find the books above and many more mysteries of all kinds. Who is your favorite hard-boiled detective?
Janet Clapp is an adult services librarian at Rutland Free Library.