A Maltese, if you please

Kevin’s post about Dashiell Hammet’s classic The Maltese Falcon gives rise to the question, how is the hard-boiled detective these days?

In the Forties, this character had several recognizable traits; he was American, he smoked Chesterfields, he was a guy. His dingy office above the Boulevard of Broken Dreams blinked neon; he spoke on the phone with his feet on the desk and called his secretary Doll.

Bogie personified Sam Spade in the film version of the novel. Everyone lied to Bogie; in return, he squinted and did what he had to do. His partner was dead, the cops were on him like a cheap suit and the Wonderly dame had him walking intio walls. She’s lying, Bogie, we cried from the balcony, can’t you see she’s just no good.

The detective genre has exploded beyond the confines described above; gender doesn’t matter anymore, nor does race or nationality. From Boston to Botswanaland, we’ve got noir or least descendants thereof, still doing what they gotta do, falling for the wrong guy or gal, finding partners dead in vacant lots off Bush Street in the fog.

Does it get any respect? It should. It’s literature when it’s well done. Resurrection Men by Ian Rankin comes to mind as a great novel, genre or not. Walter Mosely elevates the game, as do others who bring craft and dedication to their work. But if you measure respect by the lists of the major publishers, the hard-boiled crowd seems underrepresented. Even as the mystery-suspense genre expands, the bulk of the books coming out are soft indeed. Intead of a steely eyed PI, we’re more likely to encounter a mom in a sweater who finds Uncle Max dead beneath her azaleas. Our heroine puts aside her gardening gloves and sets out to find Max’s killer. Diane Mott-Davidson provides funny titles like The Grilling Season and recipes. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll peel onions; not to pick on Mott-Davidson or the flood of similar titles, but it makes me yearn for the good old days when cul-de-sacs were just dead ends.

Maybe the change reflects the demographics of suburban versus urban, affluence instead of breadlines and post-war gloom. I suppose if Bogie or his lookalike appeared on most streets in America today, he’d be arrested or, at the very least, thanked for not smoking.

It doesn’t look good for traditional noir, yet the books that stand out tend to be dark, infused with moral dilemma. Writers like Archer Mayor, Harlan Cobain and Richard Price work the patch pretty well; Barbara Saranella, SJ Rozan, and Laura Lippman do too. Janet Evanovich has a good thing going with Stephanie Plum. Maybe it’s not exactly noir, but she lives in Trenton and that’s worth something.

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