My most recent novel, The Fifth Heart (released in March 2015), is about an odd 1893 American adventure and mystery that includes both Sherlock Holmes and author Henry James, so over the past year or so I've been giving more thought than usual to what we readers of mysteries and detective fiction really enjoy most in such books.
A preparatory re-reading of all of Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories and novellas, combined with watching (for the first time) all of Jeremy Brett's Holmes programs, reminded me that even when the mysteries were improbable to the point of silly—a poisonous snake trained to wriggle through a ventilator grill, kill, and then, when summoned by music, return, drink its saucer of milk, and be put back in an aerated safe?—we often still remain satisfied with the experience. It depends more, I've arbitrarily decided, upon the glimpses of our detective’s (or detectives’, counting a faithful helper) private life than upon the believability of some adventure.
s, not the breakfast) by the often slovenly Holmes), another day without a distraction or call to action from a client, nothing of relevant interest in the various newspapers, Holmes's bedroom full of toxic chemicals bubbling but ignored.
These are the boring days we love to share with the two almost middle-aged bachelors. It was on a day such as this, perhaps finding escape from the boredom in his 7% solution (rather mild even by Victorian standards) of injected cocaine, that Holmes shot the V—for Victoria of course—in the wall of his flat. It's during such "boring" interludes that we get the best glimpse of Holmes's mantel with the Persian slipper holding his cheap shag tobacco and his mail impaled by a dagger whose history intrigues us without another word being said.
Having had my own short-lived tough-guy series about a paroled former P.I. named Joe Kurtz (Hardcase, Hard Freeze, Hard as Nails, sometimes referred to as my "Viagra series" by some of my more vulgar friends), I know certain "tough-detective mystery fiction" tricks to avoid if you want your character to be relevant, or at least believable, for more than a very few years.
One of the mistakes authors of detective series make is to nail down their main character in time, often by having him serve in a particular war. Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, who literally evolved from the comic-book character Mike Danger, served in the South Pacific in WWII, but it's hard to imagine Hammer in one of these WWII oldsters' final reunions that we see frequently on the TV news these days. Of course, Hammer's "private, personal, emotional life" was restricted to a sort of love for his secretary, Velda, and never-diminishing rage at criminals. Mike Hammer believed in Justice, not the Law.
My favorite tough guy of all time was Richard Stark's (aka Donald Westlake's) character of Parker (no first name) the thief. For the early years of the series, Parker's "personal life" was under assumed names in Miami or Puerto Rican hotels between his heists. He stole when the money got low. The ultimate loner, Parker never worked alone and after a few years, his readers grew to know his old accomplices (such as Handy McKay or Alan Grofield, the actor with his own continuous mental soundtrack playing), almost as family. But the new fellow heisters in Parker's life almost always had one guy who made the mistake of trying to double-cross his cohorts, including Parker. But Parker never allowed anyone to get away with double-crossing.
I had mixed feelings when Parker picked up a permanent woman in Claire. Previously, Parker had been an early-’60s IBM punch card computer with a gun. “Don't shoot me, I'm just the messenger!” one unfortunate individual from the Outfit whined. “Now you're the message,” said Parker, raising his gun (not a direct quotation, but lines that capture the feel of Parker-the-thief Richard Stark narrations). At the last second the man tried covering his face with his hand, as if that would stop a bullet.
After Claire, Parker was still Parker but some rough edge had been filed off, at least in the private side of his life. Claire provides the later Parker with things we know he doesn't need: a home tucked on a small lake in southeastern New York state, someone to come home to, someone to talk to, and occasionally someone to rescue.
Parker was in his thirties in the early 1960's, but after 1974's incredible Butcher's Moon, Parker books disappeared for 23 years. Parker had wisely skipped the rest of the 1970s, all of the '80s, and most of the '90s, but returned in 1997's Comeback as if he hadn't aged a day. (In every book, someone describes Parker essentially as a "sculpture by a sculptor who liked ropy muscle and veins in the arms.") Only now, as the series was renewed—before Donald Westlake's too-early death in 2008—Parker was kicking out the windshield of a crashed Lexus rather than an Edsel, Pontiac, or DeSoto.
In 1973, I met another one-name tough guy via paperback and began following him, this one a Boston P.I. named Spenser. Robert B. Parker "grounded" Spenser by making him a former lieutenant during the Korean War, as Parker had been.
The Spenser character already had a heart of gold in the early novels: "I'll do this case and take these bullets in the chest pro bono because the little girl doesn't have a friend in the world." But things began to cloud up for me when he met high-school counselor Susan Silverman and they entered into a "we might as well be married" relationship.
Boston and Susan Silverman keep changing and being rebuilt around Spenser. She gets a Ph.D. and becomes a psychiatrist, constantly pop-analyzing all of Spenser's clients and deadly opponents, which finally made her insufferable to me. However, Spenser has stayed the same across the decades. (Susan Silverman finally ran away from Spenser, taking up with a gangster-killer, of course, and Spenser had to go out to the West Coast to "save her" by piling up more dead bodies than in any five of his other books combined.) Then they got "Pearl, the Wonder Dog" whom they call "our baby" and allow to sprawl between them on the bed after they make love. Parker the thief, if treated the way Susan Silverman or Pearl constantly treat Spenser, lapping him in the face, on the mouth (I mean Pearl, of course), would have put two .38 slugs in both of them, center mass, and called it a day.
I finally had to convince myself I was reading the new Spenser novels when they came out just in the hopes that Pearl the Wonder Dog would eventually die of old age. She finally did, but within pages, Spenser had driven to New Hampshire to buy a younger Pearl-clone/substitute whom the happy septuagenarian couple immediately named "Pearl" and carried on with the new "baby" without missing a beat.
I acknowledge that I try to forget that Spenser was an officer in the Korean War or that when Spenser was trying to become a professional prizefighter he fought Jersey Joe Wolcott (mentioned by Spenser even in the more recent novels) whose last public bout was in 1953. But when Susan Silverman says over the telephone to the traveling Spenser, "Would you like me to talk dirty to you now?" the niggling fact that the two are in their late ’70's does sometimes ruin the mood for me.
When Robert B. Parker died suddenly in January of 2010 at the age of 77, I was shocked and saddened at the news—his characters had been part of my life for more than 40 years—but I was almost equally as shocked at the speed with which other writers took up the Spenser series, Parker's Sonny Randall and Jesse Stone series, and his western novels. That's the sign of greatness in modern bestselling genre-fiction authors; they're allowed to die, but not to quit writing.
I caught the first James Lee Burke Dave Robicheaux novel and have stuck with him, the indestructible Clete, and the series of Dave's wives who rival Dr. Watson's, even though Dave goes through more constant existential angst than most armies going into battle. He was also an officer in Vietnam and dead members of his platoon used to visit him but they've faded away while Dave keeps going strong—other ghosts from his past and from the Civil War visit him regularly—with Dave and Clete recovering from multiple gunshot wounds as frequently and easily as some lesser detectives go through minor bouts with bumps on the head.
Because Burke's real-life daughter Alafair is now grown up and writing angst-filled mystery novels of her own, I have this deep fear that Dave Robicheaux's adopted daughter Alafair (also somewhat addicted to following gangster-killers into romance), will end up becoming the detective of the series.
Hieronymous ("Harry") Bosch also had his foot nailed to time's floor in the early novels by remembering when he was a tunnel rat in Vietnam. The gifted Michael Connelly reminds us often of Bosch's unspecified advancing age and imminent retirement, but one trial-balloon novel where Bosch retired became a sort of cold-case P.I. First-person narration of the novel (à la Spenser, Robicheaux, and the classic Hammett/Chandler books) was somewhat of a disaster, and Connelly had the good sense to send Bosch scurrying back to the L.A.P.D. and third-person narration. (The new stream-from-Amazon "Bosch" TV series may put Harry back a few decades when we get used to the actor's younger age.)
My favorite off-duty P.I. character of all time wasn't really a P.I.—it was John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, a salvage expert who took cases to find lost things, usually people. His life on the Busted Flush houseboat parked at Slip F-18 at Fort Lauderdale's Bahia Mar yacht basin, a boat won by Travis in a poker game, approached Sherlock Holmes's 'downtime' as the richest and most believable private life of any working detective.
The friendly, suntanned giant named Travis had more philosophical speculations and social and gender judgments than any other fictional P.I.-type character I know, and it's these mostly 1960s-based lamentations about the social and ecological decline of the Florida coast that nail McGee in time. If MacDonald saw the stretch of Florida now, some 40 years after the writer's death, he might have had Travis sing hallelujahs about the cultural and natural pristine shape Florida was in then.
The Travis McGee novels continued from 1964's The Deep Blue Goodbye to 1985's The Lonely Silver Rain, which, perhaps by accident, had the perfect grace note for the series to end on. Though Travis's past military service didn't nail him to some advancing age, the series suffered irreversible changes: sidekick Meyer's boat the Maynard B. Keynes getting blown up, the Alabama Tiger (usually offstage but his parties always audible) dying suddenly of a heart attack and his endless 24-hour boat parties ending just as abruptly; a certain elegiac air filled the later Travis McGee novels.
No, Sherlock Holmes and his creator had it right. As improbable as it was that such a vital man as Sherlock would retire (to beekeeping!) in his forties, it was right that the "new" Sherlock Holmes tales printed after the turn of the century were usually "newly discovered case studies" from the 1890s. Holmes wasn't nailed down to time; he was a pivot upon which the 1880s and '90s turned.
The fog curls against the windowpanes. Hansom cabs rattle by in the fog, the sound of their horses' hooves muffled by the fog. No new client arrives. Dr. Watson disappears into writing up his case notes. Holmes is plucking randomly, irritatingly, at the strings of his violin. On the steps outside their door, both men hear the familiar swish and light footfall of Mrs. Hudson bringing up their afternoon tea. Perfection. Time stops there.
But I love all of the other noir, P.I. characters I've mentioned (and many more, of course.) And as long as it was the original writer giving us the glimpses of that character's life outside of the adventures, I was eager to peek. And to listen. And to hoard up facts about the character the way a squirrel hoards acorns. And to enjoy them all.Order The Book From Mysterycenter