Detective Story Notes, 7: True to Form

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2011 at 1:46 pm

7.  True to Form

I think the Ph.D. in English, while it didn’t teach me anything about writing, probably informed my imagination and maybe gave my writing what Chandler said Hammett lacked, “the sound of music from beyond the hill.” – Robert B. Parker

In his craft and his integrity Ross Macdonald made the detective form a vehicle for high seriousness. It is not that others hadn’t tried, it was that he succeeded. – Robert B. Parker

The following excerpt from Lonnie Willis’s “Henry David Thoreau & the Hard Boiled Dick,” originally appeared in the Thoreau Society Bulletin, Issue 170, Winter 1985 (

In Robert B. Parker’s fourth novel, Promised Land (1976), Spenser has been retained by a Cape Cod real-estate speculator, Harv Shepard, who wishes to recover his missing wife, Pam. As a part of the scheme to lure Pam back to her husband through non-violent persuasion, Spenser sets up a meeting with her in a tourists’ restaurant at Plymouth Plantation, original landing zone in “the Promised Land.”

While drinking with the wife, Spenser plumbs the depths of her hatred for her husband’s materialism. When she charges the husband with not loving her because he is too involved with being a “Mover and a shaker,” she demands to know why Spenser is not also a competitor in the rat race. “Why aren’t you grunting and sweating to make the team, be a star, whatever the hell it is that Harvey and his friends are trying to do?” But Spenser tries to sidestep the question; to answer it will require him “to start talking about integrity and self-respect and stuff.” … Here is Spenser’s account:

“I try to be honorable. I know that’s embarrassing to hear. It’s embarrassing to say. But I believe most of the nonsense that Thoreau was preaching. And I have spent a long time working on getting myself to where I could do it. Where I could live life largely on my own terms.”

“Thoreau?” Pam Shepard said. “You really did read all those books, didn’t you?

Parker is writing a detective story in the hard-boiled tradition pioneered by Hammett and Chandler and perfected by Ross MacDonald – “the Big Three” as the trio is often called. But, as Lonnie Willis observes, he is also writing an American novel, a report on the condition of the Promised Land in the mid-1970s.  For this is part of the tradition, too: a share in Hammett’s aim “to make ‘literature’ out of detective fiction.”

When did the detective story become a legitimate novel, “a vehicle for high seriousness,” not merely a Whodunit with its addictive pleasures?  Parker, quoted above, credits Ross Macdonald.  But Macdonald stood upon the shoulders of – if not of literary giants, then of men who strove to make the best literary art they could.  In his 1948 essay, “The Guilty Vicarage,” W. H. Auden blamed Raymond Chandler for attempting to turn a perfectly harmless form of entertainment into art.

Mr. Raymond Chandler has written that he intends to take the body out of the vicarage garden and give murder back to those who are good at it. If he wishes to write detective stories, i.e., stories where the reader’s principal interest is to learn who did it, he could not be more mistaken. … Actually, whatever he may say, I think Mr. Chandler is interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu, theGreat Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely depressing books should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.

Dark, depressing stuff that art.

Chandler, in his turn, credited Dashiell Hammett, “the ace performer” and worthy contemporary of Hemmingway, for making art of the detective story.  And I have credited both with developing the genre Arthur Conan Doyle brought to maturity.  Apparently Auden thought Doyle was writing Whodunit entertainments rather than novels (and short stories) of character.  But I believe that Doyle’s desire to write serious novels was focused by and channeled into the Holmes stories, so that they became “vehicles of high seriousness,” novels exploring the chivalric code, not in the days of the crusades and “The White Company” (Doyle’s modestly successful historical novel of 1891) but in the days of gaslight and telephone and underground railway

The proto form for the Sherlock Holmes story, as for detective novels in general from  Chandler’s Marlowe though the tarnished knights of John D. MacDonald and Robert B. Parker, is that of the Chivalric Romance or Quest…  Auden said in passing that the Grail Quest is the “mirror image” of the detective story.  I would say instead, a recent echo.


Biography of a Bipolar

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Biography of a Bipolar*


At first friends share the ecstasy that comes before the burn:

            “That night he was going crazy everyone

            was too drunk to care.”


But after years all learn:

            “His conversation grew brilliant and alarming. 

            Students were frightened by his lecture on Hitler.”


            “He wrote the most pitiful letter;

            though I was not angry, he spoke of us fighting.”


            “His religious notions, never stable, flowered

            into oddity; his judgment went haywire.”


            “He was barricaded in his room in his skivvies when the police came;

            he was surprisingly polite.”


The poet obligingly provides snapshots from hell:

            “I meditated Detachment and Urbanity but the old menacing

            hilarity was growing in me.”


            “What use is my sense of humor when the brain blinks

            like a radio station rapidly distanced?”


            “I lay there secured but for my skipping mind.”


After the delusions pass, he lacerates his soul with reason:

            “Seven years ago Bloomington stood for Joyce’s hero and Indiana for

            the evil, unexorcised aborigines, while I suspected myself

            The Holy Ghost.  The glory and banality of it are corrupting.”


The poet’s wife learns to suffer a fool who falls in love

with students, madhouse nurses,

any woman but her:

                        “I don’t think he realizes the damage.”


New drugs offer old hopes of Panacea:

            “To think of all that suffering for lack of a little salt in the brain!”


Theories suffer the usual changes:

            “Recent research shows mania’s a summertime dis­ease,

            perhaps an excess of light.”


(*Robert Lowell)


In Uncategorized on February 18, 2011 at 8:40 pm


Professor Parks Hunter looked puzzled and repeated what I’d said: “’The reputation of an author varies directly with the quality of critical appreciation devoted to him’?  I don’t remember saying that.”  He thought a moment.  “But it sounds true.”  Another pause.  “And I’m glad it got you to thinking…  Wherever you heard it.”

What follows is an appreciation, mildly critical and mainly historical, of the detective story in general, then the hard-boiled American detective in particular, then most particularly of Robert B. Parker’s hard-boiled softy, Spenser, “spelled with an ‘s,’ just like the English poet” (with side glances at his other detectives, Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall, and his Raymond Chandler spin-offs, Poodle Springs and Perchance to Dream).