(Curiosity) Setting and Hardboiled Detective Fiction

I was listening to some lectures on the detective novel on the plane, and the dude really had some neat points. (Go figure.)

But first, for background, you have to know that American detective fiction, sometimes labelled “hardboiled,” grew out of the English detective novel, which tended to be very genteel. The detective in the English stories, for example, was always protected by law and custom. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot was never really in any danger from the murderers he was perpetually confronting. (Imagine elderly Miss Marple trying to solve a murder in Phillip Marlowe’s world and you can see the difference.)

To be clear, an American, Edgar Allen Poe, actually invented both the detective novel and the gentleman-detective, which is why the label “hardboiled,” which distinguishes Depression-era (and later) fiction from its predecessors, is probably more apt. Here we trade Poirot and his bourgeois obsessions for men like Ned Beaumont, the intensely moral but ruggedly individualistic streetwise womanizer who operates on his own moral code even when working outside the law — which became the paradigm for the action movie star, the “loose cannon” TV cop, and so on. But then, we know all this.

What I thought was interesting was where the lecturer noted that most of these stories — from The Maltese Falcon to Blade Runner — take place in L.A., and that there’s a reason for that. The rugged individualist, whose ancestors fled to this country to get away from the falsely genteel Old World, with its religious persecution and class oppression, must in turn flee the East Coast as the population rises and it becomes a miniature version what was left behind. So the rugged individualist goes to the frontier, figuratively, and we get cowboy stories.

But as the frontier is pacified by the railroad, there are fewer and fewer places to go. Eventually, he can’t go any further. The West coast, and Los Angeles in particular, is where he has to make his last stand against the corrupt society that has now fallen in on him. And the geography of the place perfectly fits this narrative — Southern California is so superficially beautiful, with the weather and all. It’s the perfect literary backdrop for stories seeking to create a contrast between truth and fiction, appearance and reality. (Of course, Vegas could also work, and Magnum P.I. seemed to get on okay in Hawaii, but those are all variations on a theme.)

Thus the hardboiled detective is really another incarnation of the great American myth of the rugged individualist, from the minuteman to the cowboy and so on, one who is presented in American detective fiction as a dying breed — a man who refuses to “sell out” and so is always struggling for money, a man who always finishes the case, who always figures out the truth even when he can’t bring the politically connected Big Fish (paradigmatically, Trump) to justice, and so on.

Of course, society never stops coming, especially after the advent of the computer, and by the turn of the millennium, our mythical individualist had nowhere else to flee, except underground, and so he’s either a half-man struggling (badly) with the perils of domesticity, like the guys in True Detective, or else he drops out entirely and becomes the cyberpunk warrior, a man literally on the run from an oppressive and totalitarian society that is now so corrupt it barely keeps up the pretense, a society that seeks to crush him at every turn, a society where he can only operate as a criminal (Kaneda), an outcast (Case), or a mental patient — or all three, such as “Jack” from Fight Club, on whom Elliott from Mr. Robot was based.

It’s interesting that what we’re seeing now are a lot of nostalgic repetitions of the myth, stories where the protagonist — someone solidly inside the system, someone less uniformly male, someone who would have been the rugged individualist if they hadn’t been co-opted by society — makes a discovery about how things used to be, and so lives in that world for a time, which is a bit like pulling a photo from a box or a relic from a museum. It’s not real anymore. It’s a ghost, no longer alive, and so eventually it has to go back in the box.

Eventually that will get old, which raises the obvious question, what will come next?

cover image is from the ultra-violent manga Sun-Ken Rock