Duck Duck Book

16 – detective novels
04.6.2005, 12:05 am
Filed under: fiction, misc.

A general comment on detective novels:

The best and most captivating of fictional detectives types work like one imagines real detectives do — by some opaque and stultifying process, which may or may not be an actual strategy. Reading the story, it often seems like the detective is just doing whatever comes into her head, and it’s hard to see the method in the madness.

I have never understood what V.I. Warshawski or John Constantine or Kate Fansler or Arkady Renko or Philip Marlowe are thinking when they make a move — I’m always thinking things like, “No, no, are you crazy, don’t go to the small town police station and confront the local cops! They’ll beat you up!” And then I’m right and the detective gets the shit kicked out of her, but she shakes it off and the mystery is solved in the end anyway.

I understand that there are many kinds of work which are absolutely opaque to people who don’t know them from the inside. And I do not understand what detectives do. I know that a lot of what they do is boring research (which I do understand, believe me), but when it comes to the action, I’m completely in the dark. Any method, strategy, or professional practice that a detective might employ would naturally be completely foreign to me.

So I’ve been thinking, perhaps what makes these excellent but completely imaginary detectives seem so real is just this — they’re written so that their actions don’t seem logical. And the actions of real detectives, I bet they’d seem illogical to me too. No, I cannot think like Kate Fansler, or like Arkady Renko. Not at all. Which may be why I love them so much.

[I don’t mean to be a hopeless name-dropper. V.I. Warshawski is a Chicago private eye written by Sara Paretsky; John Constantine is an English trenchcoat-wearing magician featured in the comic book Hellblazer and in other comics by many different authors, but created originally by Alan Moore for the series Swamp Thing; Kate Fansler is professor of literature and amateur murder-solver living in New York City and written by Amanda Cross, nom de plume of the late and great Carolyn Heilbrun; Arkady Renko is a sometime Moscow police detective written by Martin Cruz Smith; and Philip Marlowe, who should be familiar to you all, is the archetypal hard-boiled detective written by Raymond Chandler, also late and also very great.]


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