by William Marling
The prototypical LA detective was invented in San Francisco by Dashiell Hammett. Whether his name was The Continental Op or Sam Spade, he was hard-boiled, with a blue-collar attitude, edgy repartee, and a close connection to his setting. Hammett used him to portray the city, its political corruption, its fog and docks and hills, its cab drivers and efficiency apartments. By 1925 the Op was already a working stiff who suffered for his drinking bouts. With a few changes, he became Sam Spade, the iconic hero of The Maltese Falcon (1930).
In this novel and The Glass Key (1931), Hammett showed that the detective novel could be political allegory, cynical love story, or tale of tragic friendship. “Once a detective story can be as good as this,” wrote Raymond Chandler in “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944), “only the pedants will deny that it could be even better.”
Los Angeles crime writers also drew inspiration from Raoul Whitfield, who moved to LA in 1929, drawn by the aviation and film industries. He developed Mel Ourney, an ex-con and sometime detective whose search for stolen emeralds combines geographic sweep and dubious morality in Green Ice (1930), and Ben Jardinn, who tracks the killer of a conductor killed while leading a concert in the Hollywood Bowl in Death in a Bowl (1932). Using the pen name Ramon Decolta, Whitfield also created Filipino detective Jo Gar, one of the first ethnic detectives. Another important precursor was Paul Cain, whose Fast One (1932) featured Gerry Kells, a minimalist version of Sam Spade so terse, so tough that one critic wrote he seemed to have been created with a scalpel. (continue)
Should any reader bother with a book written by James M. Cain after his 1940 classic Mildred Pierce? That novel, profound as its economic reflections on the Great Depression were, ends with Mildred and her ex-husband having a drink and reflecting on their spoiled daughter – an ending that was too mellow for director Michael Curtiz when he made the film.
There is reason to believe that the hard-boiled master had turned tepid. Joyce Carol Oates called his one of his subsequent fictions “an incredible Caldwellesque extravaganza concerning a weak victim whose apparent daughter is in love with him” (Madden, 116). Biographer Roy Hoopes details the surgeries and setbacks that plague Cain after 1940, sympathetically noting that “the months dragged on, the work become tougher” and that his agent “finally did find a buyer” for his novel, but that “it was a disappointment for Cain.” Edmund Wilson, who coined the phrase “boys in the back room” to capture the ambience of L.A. in the 1930s, does not bother with any of Cain’s work after the first two books. You get the message.
Yet in the newly published The Cocktail Waitress (Hard Case Crime, $23.99) there is cause to question the received opinion. This last and “lost” novel “works the line between desire and lust, following it to the place where desperation turns to greed,” according to Michael Connelly. (continue)
Connolly is the best of the Los Angeles writers working right now, but I have not been a big fan because he had always seemed a bit derivative. With this novel, which marks an amazing 20 years of Harry Bosh, I am ready to change my mind.
Bosh has added a dimension, the way that Phillip Marlowe did in The Long Goodbye. He's involved in the occupation of Central Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots and he's having his racial consciousness raised, and not in the manner of Robert B. Parker either. The "limits of toughness" seem to have given Harry insights that propel him into the gun trade and an international conspiracy (as usual). Not only is his character more resonant, but the plotting in this 25th novel is more compact and agile. RECOMMENDED