Monday, 31 August 2015

The Book I Read in August

'The Giant Book of Private Eye Stories' ed. by Bill Pronzini & Martin H. Greenberg
This seems to be another anthology I bought in the 1990s and have had lying around for a long time.  It was first published in 1988 but my edition is from 1997.  However, it must have been well loved before I got it as it looks to be older.  For such a broad topic it has a narrow focus.  Almost all of the stories are set in the USA and the one which is not, 'Busted Blossoms' by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1986) set on a ferry from Italy to Greece, features Americans.  Most of the stories are set in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, though some stray into other areas and when they go into the backwaters, they are particularly seedy, notably  'Iris' by Stephen Greenleaf (1984) about people buying and selling babies and 'Ride the Lightning' by John Lutz (1985) about people holding up petrol stations in rural areas which does have a good twist.  I suppose seediness is an essential element of the private eye story. 'Skeleton Rattle Your Mouldy Leg' by Bill Prozini (1985) himself is set in a hotel for retired men and is another which brings shabby life to the fore, when in others many of those involved are well off, hence able to afford a private detective.

The chronological scope is from 'Suicide is Scandalous' by Henry Kane (1947) to 'The Reason Why' by Edward Gorman (1988).  However, it is often hard to tell when they are set because even the stories set in the 1980s often have a feel that they date from thirty years earlier.  Only occasionally does this slice of the genre seem to recognise the march of time.  In part there are fewer references to the Second World War and occasionally there are references that suggest US society has moved on.  Even on that basis, some can be misleading, 'Death Flight' by Ed McBain (1954) which features an internal flight and buying travel insurance feels like it was written twenty years later.  Perhaps only 'Surf' by Joseph Hansen (1976) in which most of the characters are gay; 'She Didn't Come Home' by Sue Grafton (1986) featuring a female detective investigating a woman who has tricked her company and her husband and perhaps 'Greektown' by Loren D. Estleman (1983) set amongst an immigrant community suggest much change has occurred.  However, throughout the 'classic' style with a woman in trouble or causing trouble seeking to employ a burnt-out private detective persists drawn from what Philip Marlowe in 'Wrong Pigeon' (1959 - though written long before that) by Raymond Chandler or Race Williams in 'Not My Corpse' (I cannot find the date for this but it must have been between 1926-51 when the Williams stories were being published) by Caroll John Daly, would have experienced.

The 'hard boiled' language was also a characteristic of the American private eye stories.  However, at times you really need a translation for example from 'Diamonds of Death' by Robert Leslie Bellem:

'Dan Turner, movie hawkshaw, falls for stolen gem routine. Mitzi Madison slips snoop the hotfoot.'

Or from 'Wrong Pigeon': 'My checking account could kiss the sidewalk without stooping' or '"Suppose I got tossed in the freezer? I am out on a writ in twenty-four hours.'

Again no date, but must have been published 1942-50.  As the stories move closer to our own times, fortunately they drop the dated slang and do not seem to have anything much to replace it with.  The violence does not increase.  I guess for the post-war generation and perhaps given the level of murders in the USA right through the 20th century, there was no appreciation of any need to change.  Perhaps Pronzini and Greenberg were cautious in the stories they selected to avoid ones which would appear 'gritty' in the contemporary rather than 1950s sense.  There is that air of despair and of predestined fate hanging over the stories in the way which was common during the film noir era but faded from movies in the 1970s only occasionally popping up once more simply to be challenged, for example, in the movie of 'Minority Report' (2002).

There are some decent stories in this book, but they are rather diminished by how similar so many of them are.  This suggests that for a 'giant' collection, the scope is tiny.  The lack of private detectives from other countries does not help.  It seems the editors have a very narrow definition of what a private eye story entails, even though they recognise in the introduction that the genre started in Britain; there are examples from continental Europe and elsewhere too.  It seems that by having 26 stories (23 of which are written by men) they have set down what the genre should be and will brook no alternative.  Perhaps 'The Giant Book of Marlowesque Private Eye Stories' would have been a more accurate description.

On the positive side there are good examples of short story writing.  They demonstrate how you can use a small number of characters to provide an intrigue and even get in a twist.  Thus, they are good for those wanting to write short stories, a style of writing which is increasing in popularity with the rise of e-book readers.  However, it does show a static genre which over the course of fifty years saw minimal development.  There are far more female writers around in the genre now, so that at least leavens the rather stagnant style.  I suppose no-one can argue the genre was not successful.  This collection, however, despite good points, emphasis the picture of a style of writing in English which remained locked in a pattern for decades.

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