Those With Badges and Those Without Badges
Five Characters You Should Know More About…
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of heroes in crime fiction: those with badges and those without.
The inhabitants of the first category—cops, spies, prosecutors–have power, resources and information bestowed on them by the government. The state authorizes them to kick down doors, physically and metaphorically. They have a privileged view and panoramic knowledge of the landscape in which they operate.
The second category are the outsiders, the lone wolves. They rely on contacts in the apparatus of the state and networks in the private sector or the underworld. They must often improvise, reacting to events, piecing together the big picture. On the other hand, they don’t have to worry as much about laws and rules.
I like both kinds of protagonist and have used both in my books. Still, the outsiders have the special appeal of the underdog, the wandering knight, the solitary gunslinger. The classic example is the private detective. With exceptions such as Sherlock Holmes, private eye characters tend to be American. I’ve discussed with this European and Latin American friends: private detectives are probably less popular figures overseas because in other societies the state retains tighter control over badges and guns.
The outsider hero has universal appeal, however. Think of all the suspense stories, from Patricia Highsmith to James Cain, in which a civilian plunges involuntarily into a world of danger and has to use his or her wits to survive. Paco Ignacio Taibo, the Mexican author, once wrote: “A paranoid Mexican is someone who is sure he is being followed and about to get screwed, and he is right.” In noir fiction, we are all paranoid Mexicans.
I become fond of fictional characters for different reasons: the power of the description, the charm of the personality, the effectiveness of the voice. Some stick with me because I discovered them at a crucial stage of my life as a reader and writer. What follows is a short list of some of my favorite lone wolf/outsider heroes in mysteries and thrillers. I should add that I like the books they appear in, but they aren’t all necessarily great books. That speaks to the enduring strength of the characters.
- Philip Marlowe.
An orthodox choice, yes. But if you asked me to name top singers, I wouldn’t skip Sinatra just to be interesting. I consider Raymond Chandler’s private eye to be the best of his kind. I read my first Marlowe novel, The Little Sister, when I was about ten. The opening lines blew me away: the “reasonably shabby office at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor” on a clear bright California morning. The idle detective is trying to swat a fly–“shining and blue-green and full of sin.” The scene sets up the entrance of the bespectacled mystery woman from Manhattan, Kansas; it remains the overture of the series for me. Marlowe’s first-person narration defined the hardboiled genre. His wry, poetic, melancholy voice has somehow withstood decades of imitation and caricature. Chandler was born in Chicago (me too), but he lived in Ireland and England for nine years, returning at 24. I think the experience honed his talents for description and dialogue. He had distance on the society he observed, an outsider’s eye and ear. (When I moved to Los Angeles to work for the L.A. Times, I appreciated his depiction of California even more.) Marlowe is tough but restrained. He’s sentimental, but no sap. He’s both cultured and down-to-earth. Now and then he displays investigative skills, but his approach is more existentialist than Sherlock Holmes. Most of the time, Marlowe kind of roams around finding corpses and exchanging punches and bullets with bad guys. The character is a portrait of 20th-century American solitude: he’s a nomad who plays chess alone, drinks at bars alone, changes homes and women from book to book. You get to know him well, but you don’t really know much about him. Although Chandler wanted Cary Grant for the screen role, Bogart immortalized the detective in the Big Sleep. I think the ideal would be a composite of the two actors.
- Graham in Journey into Fear, by Eric Ambler.
This was not an easy decision. I could have gone with Charles Latimer, the increasingly obsessed and endangered crime writer in The Mask of Dimitrios (also known as A Coffin for Dimitrios), or Arthur Simpson, the pudgy British-Egyptian con man and police informant in The Light of Day. In any case, an Ambler character had to be high on the list. Ambler all but created the genre of international thriller in which a web of intrigue sweeps up an overwhelmed amateur. The setting of Journey into Fear is the early months of World War 2. The book brings alive the despair and tension of the era. Graham is a British engineer with the air of an “expensive dentist,” a “quiet, likeable sort of chap” overseeing a defense contract in Turkey. A gunman wounds him in an ambush. Col. Haki, a steely and urbane spy chief, reveals that German agents want to assassinate him in order to delay the development of naval weapons. The Turks decide to send Graham home incognito among passengers on a steamship. Of course, assassins and spies are on board too. Ambler is an understated storyteller who masterfully uses the structure of the voyage to develop the plot and the suspense. The reader sees the action through the eyes of Graham, experiencing his evolution from terror and self-pity to determination and courage.
- Liebermann in The Boys from Brazil, by Ira Levin.
Another book I discovered at a formative age. It’s a curious mix of science fiction and spy yarn, and remains entertaining even if it has aged a bit since 1976. The Liebermann character resembles real-life Nazi-hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal. A desperate phone call from Sao Paulo awakens him at home in Vienna one night. An American student says he has tracked down Dr. Josef Mengele, the fugitive death camp scientist, and discovered a mysterious Nazi conspiracy to kill 94 men all over the world. The American disappears, presumed dead. A skeptical Liebermann pursues the tip and discovers a diabolical plan to revive Hitler’s dream. The bold and ingenious concept at the heart of the plot–plausibility be damned–pulled me in. So did Liebermann, who is actually quite realistic. He’s elderly, infirm and grouchy, a shambling dilapidated bear of a man whose once-proud Nazi-hunting center has gone bankrupt. A reporter who does him a favor describes him as a loser who was once a winner. The remnants of this hero’s strength are concentrated in his prodigious intellect, his noble heart, and the stubborn moral force of his mission. The duel between him and Mengele is riveting and sometimes darkly funny: two formidable senior citizens going at it mano a mano with the specter of absolute evil hovering above.
- The Lunatic in Eduardo Mendoza’s comic mystery series.
Eduardo Mendoza is the respected Spanish author of serious historical novels. In 1979, during a period in which he was reading American mystery writers, he had a brilliant idea. He created an “investigator” who was a petty thief and certified lunatic locked up in a mental hospital outside Barcelona. The ultimate outsider! In the first book, The Mystery of the Bewitched Crypt, a police detective who knows the inmate from past entanglements makes the strange decision to recruit him to investigate a mystery. The lunatic goes about the mission as chaotically and uproariously as you might expect. Remember, though: he might be crazy, but he’s not stupid. This hilarious parody fuses the private eye genre with the Spanish literary traditions of the picaresque outlaw and the dark, grotesque genre of humor known as “esperpento.” The lunatic with no name is the narrator. He uses a formal and elaborate vocabulary that, in his mind, sets the right tone for the official chronicle of his adventures. The success of the series rests on this entertaining voice that is alternately sly, deadpan and bewildered. As he rediscovers the outside world, the lunatic encounters dramatic change because the Franco dictatorship has been replaced by a young democracy eager to make up for lost time. The plots in this series are convoluted, meandering and silly, but who cares? It’s all about the wild ride with the narrator. In the later books, the mental hospital releases him and he tries to become a respectable citizen, opening a seedy hairdressing salon. But he’s like a ragged and manic Marlowe: trouble is his business. It finds him one way or another.
- Bob Saginowski, The Drop, by Dennis Lehane.
We don’t want this list to be all dusty nostalgia, so here’s a recent example. The lonely bartender Bob Saginowski first appeared in a short story called Animal Rescue. Then Lehane expanded the idea into a gem of a short 2014 novel, the basis for the film of the same name. The book version fleshes out the protagonist, the story and the setting. Bob is a good but haunted man, all but dead inside, walking like a somnambulist through a neighborhood filled with ghosts. He lives alone in the house he grew up in, tends bar in a mob-connected joint, worships at a church that will soon be turned into a condominium development. One day, he finds an abandoned dog. The encounter leads to a tender, tentative friendship with Nadia, a neighborhood woman with scars of her own. Soon Bob, having finally made a human connection, will face a dangerous choice. He’s an archetypal character: the regular guy pushed too far, the reluctant gunslinger. Lehane paints him with spare and acute detail: his silences, his gentleness, his wariness. There’s a nice secondary character, the Latino cop Torres, who attends Bob’s church and investigates the violent events connected to him. In one of many great lines, the cop sums up our lone-wolf hero: “No one sees you coming, do they?”