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Genre Discussions > The evolution of detectives in crime fiction

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message 1: by Anthony (new)

Anthony Biondi | 17 comments The idea came to me after reading Chandler's essay on the art of writing detective fiction, and reading Ross MacDonald's "The Moving Target".

I've been feeling like there is a sort of lineage in major detective fiction from the turn of the century, beginning (possibly) with Sherlock Holmes, moving to Dashiel Hammett's OP, through to Chandler's own Philip Marlowe, and MacDonald's Archer.

I like to believe that Archer has a more direct link to Marlowe, as being a decided move away from. (Non-alcoholic: "New type [of detective]" according to Archer, and also divorced [Marlowe was married after The Long Goodbye]).

What do you folks think? Is this a credible idea?


message 2: by Feliks (last edited May 09, 2014 01:44PM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) 'To begin at the beginning...'--perhaps this old post of mine can be a jump-off point:
https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/...
See about halfway down the page. Its a chronological list of when each of the most famous detective authors made their publishing debut.

My remarks allude to--and taper off at --the point where the 'pulp-detective' era emerges. I mention this only because I feel that to understand what the pulp authors were really trying to do--in their craft-is best met by grasping 'what it was that they saw before them'. It is the self-same task when studying any episode in art, literature, music, etc. Ask yourself: 'what did they see?' --what was the new territory they felt was their frontier? Where was competition pushing them towards?

My tentative opinion is that 'hard-boiled detectives' naturally sprang up in order to form a contrast to weak-water characters such as Frank Merriwell of Yale; and other figures of the 'horse & buggy' era; the 'scientist-detective'; and the long tradition of 'gentlemen detectives' (and their sidekicks) which stretched back to the 1850s.

Good idea for a thread; I'd be eager to see some knowledgeable pulp-aficionados (of which I am certainly not one) give full rein to their musings and opinions.

I do feel that MacDonald was 'floundering around a little bit'--until he came up with something which directly emulated Marlowe. Not for nothing, but in the cinema incarnations, this is also closely reflected. Between 'Marlowe' (Dick Powell, 'Murder My Sweet') and 'Archer/Harper' there was an interregnum and lull while the atavistic, doomed, 'noir detectives' took over. But William Goldman's brilliant screenplay for 'Harper' really revitalized the genre everyone had forgotten about; and set the stage for the memorialization later wrought by Polanski/Towne re: 'Chinatown'


message 3: by Paul (new)

Paul  Perry (pezski) | 232 comments It is a fascinating subject. My understanding is that detective fiction is considered to begin with Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, which in turn grew out of the Gothic tradition; they kept the mysterious aspects but replaced the supernatural with naturalistic causes that could be unravelled by the application of reason.

Through the late 19th century this grew into the increasingly complex detective stories of which the Sherlock Holmes canon are probably the finest, always a gentleman detective of course. Early last century a branch of this became more earthy and violent - John Buchan's adventure stories and the writers such as Sax Rohmer and E.W. Hornung - Raffles, Gentleman Thug is an excellent pastiche of the latter. Of course, an even more genteel direction was being taken by Agatha Christie and others. All of these still tended to be in the upper echelons of society - jewel thefts and international conspiracies, only involving the lower classes to show how brutish and unkempt they were.

The 'proper' American hardboiled detective genre isn't notable so much for its grit and violence as bringing crime fiction to the working classes and introducing realistic motives, usually passion and money of course. I think it was Chandler that said something about rescuing motive back to being something the reader could understand, although I can't find the quote.

I'm only recently getting into the later writers - MacDonald and Chester Himes, Richard Stark and Joseph Hansen and Laurence Block, forming the chain to modern writers, and am thoroughly enjoying the journey.


message 4: by Anthony (new)

Anthony Biondi | 17 comments So far you've mentioned a few "modern" writers I have not read yet. I may have to look into this to continue my own mapping.

In consideration of detectives though, I'd like to think that this chain is largely due to inspiration. Certain detective characters do stand out as prominent among the mix, and there are likely ones that share distinct characteristics with them due to to the origins of inspiration.

As per the discussion of Marlowe versus Archer/Harper, I'd like to think that this inspiration is very intimate due to the details I've listed above. I consider this a part of a lineage due to that fact that, despite MacDonald writing a character inspired my Marlowe, he does actively try to take it into a new direction, I feel.


message 5: by Feliks (last edited May 09, 2014 12:03PM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) Anthony wrote: " I'd like to think that this inspiration is very intimate due to the details I've listed above. I consider this a part of a lineage due to that fact that, despite MacDonald writing a character inspired my Marlowe, he does actively try to take it into a new direction, I feel. ..."

Well, but any artist or writer will do that [make minor changes in his version of an existing model] as a matter-of-course. What exactly are you trying to say? That Archer stems directly from Marlowe? Even if that were entirely so, well what about it? Its a normal part of the creative process, not very astounding. Also--as I pointed out earlier--MacDonald wrote other kinds of characters before 'settling on' Archer.

Anthony wrote: "In consideration of detectives though, I'd like to think that this chain is largely due to inspiration. Certain detective characters do stand out as prominent among the mix, and there are likely ones that share distinct characteristics with them due to to the origins of inspiration. ..."

Not sure what you're trying to state here, either. Could you re-phrase with some additional clarity?

Remember, the 1930s were the 'Golden Age of Detective Fiction'; there were not just 'great' detectives but a lot of rot and rubbish as well.


message 6: by Anthony (new)

Anthony Biondi | 17 comments Perhaps I am too linear with my own thoughts on the matter.
I am simply tracing a line from one detective character to the next based off of their inspirations. For instance, Marlowe inspired Archer/Harper. Some changes were made to the character's archetype, moving the evolution forward. However, in this mix, naturally there is some kind of Darwinian selection, as per the hundreds of other detective novels that are born out of this pool.

I hope this clarifies. To be honest, my own thoughts on the matter are somewhat muddled.


message 7: by Feliks (last edited May 09, 2014 08:29PM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) This helps me grasp what you were stating. Thanks for the amendment.

So, regarding this:
"For instance, Marlowe inspired Archer/Harper"

I might wonder how much really was that influence? Has MacDonald ever said anything which reinforced this? MacDonald may well have had a slew of influences from his early upbringing which he drew from. We oughta look into this. It may wind up being just as you have said: a strong link between the two characters. On the other hand, it may be just one link of many. For example, radio detectives were huge when MacDonald was growing up.


message 8: by Tom (new)

Tom (tommyro) | 33 comments Ross MacDonald named his character Lew Archer after Sam Spade's partner Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon. After reading most of the Archer series, there is no doubt in my mind that Chandler greatly influenced MacDonald as a writer.


message 9: by Tom (new)

Tom (tommyro) | 33 comments Anthony wrote: "The idea came to me after reading Chandler's essay on the art of writing detective fiction, and reading Ross MacDonald's "The Moving Target".

I've been feeling like there is a sort of lineage in m..."


Don't forget Cornell Woolrich, who was an early crime noir writer. It was Woolrich who gave rise to the noir description.


message 10: by Feliks (last edited May 10, 2014 02:48PM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) Tom wrote: "Don't forget Cornell Woolrich, who was an early crime noir writer. It was Woolrich who gave rise to the noir description..."

We weren't forgetting him; but he was on a different pathway. I don't recall him writing a continuing detective character. And noir is different than detective...in terms of genre.

Tom wrote: "After reading most of the Archer series, there is no doubt in my mind that Chandler grea..."

And his other books? He wrote these, as well:

The Dark Tunnel - 1944
Trouble Follows Me - 1946
Blue City - 1947
The Three Roads - 1948
Meet Me at the Morgue - 1953
The Ferguson Affair - 1960

..and--from what I can glean from Goodreads--RMacD says he felt 'constrained by the hard-boiled convention' until he wrote his seventh Archer book. So perhaps the influence of Chandler was initially a burden?


message 11: by Kathy (new)

Kathy | 37 comments I don't think that Chandler influenced McDonald at all. Absolutely different types of books and characters are miles apart. There is no way I see any of Chandler's characters as sympathetic or striving for good; battling against those that have done wrong.

And Chandler's characters are much more hard-boiled, jaded. And while I have a lot of respect for Raymond Chandler, he did not create the hard-boiled detective with a heart of gold by any stretch.


message 12: by Feliks (last edited May 10, 2014 02:49PM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) These are very absolute, pointed, and forceful comments. Hurrah!

I'm tickled no end, when people speak-right-up with their views. Firm opinions! Yes!


message 13: by Gary (new)

Gary Inbinder | 89 comments The memoirs of Eugene Francois Vidocq, first chief of the Paris Surete, are worth a look. His writings influenced Hugo, Balzac and Poe.

Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime

Emile Gaboriau, an early (1860's-'70's) author of French detective fiction is also worth a look to get an idea of police procedure, investigation and forensics of that era. His M. Lecocq was probably pattered on Vidocq.

The Works: Emile Gaboriau


message 14: by Feliks (last edited May 16, 2014 09:26AM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) I'm adding these to my Wilkie Collins comments. Good stuff!

edit: oop--I forgot I already have them cited


message 15: by Gary (last edited May 16, 2014 10:40AM) (new)

Gary Inbinder | 89 comments I'll add a reference to Harry Ashton-Wolfe, a British detective who wrote pulp fiction in the late 1920's and early '30's. I picked up a long out-of-print copy of his The Forgotten Clue (1930) when I was researching one of my own novels.

Ashton-Wolfe spent some time working with the Paris Surete and he dedicated The Forgotten Clue to Dr. Edmund Locard, one of the fathers of modern forensics.

The book is of particular interest to anyone researching, or curious about, early identification procedures (anthropometrics & fingerprinting, preservation of evidence at the crime scene, ballistics, laboratory analysis, etc.) There's also some reference to the Flying Squads, i.e. the use of fast automobiles pioneered in the early 1900's by the Paris Surete and Scotland Yard.

Ashton-Wolfe's short case narratives, e.g. The Clue of the Blind Beetles, have some of the flavor of Simenon's Maigret novels, although not nearly as well-written. Maigret was based on a chief of the Paris Surete in the 1920s.

Maigret was a paradigm of the older, street-wise detective who relied on experience, observation, careful questioning, and an understanding of psychology, rather than any particular modern method of detection that could be taught in a classroom.

Outlaws of Modern Days


message 16: by Joyce (new)

Joyce Yarrow Gary wrote: "I'll add a reference to Harry Ashton-Wolfe, a British detective who wrote pulp fiction in the late 1920's and early '30's. I picked up a long out-of-print copy of his The Forgotten Clue (1930) when..."

I'm happy to see Georges Simenon's contribution acknowledged. Inspector Maigret is a fascinating mix of hard-boiled and gentile and his emphasis on tracking the psychology of the victim in order to find the perpetrator was unique at the time.


message 17: by Feliks (last edited Jun 09, 2014 09:17AM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) Nice input there, Gary. But a very obscure author! I can't find a good biography of him on-line. Any further info?


message 18: by Gary (new)

Gary Inbinder | 89 comments Joyce wrote: "Gary wrote: "I'll add a reference to Harry Ashton-Wolfe, a British detective who wrote pulp fiction in the late 1920's and early '30's. I picked up a long out-of-print copy of his The Forgotten Clu..."

Thanks, Joyce. Yes, Maigret is a fascinating character. He was keenly observant, always questioning the incongruities of a situation, and never afraid to say, "I don't know." And as you said, he tracked the psychology of both the victim and the perpetrator, and always searched the motives of all concerned. I also like Simenon's economical narrative and prose style. He created vivid impressions without wasting words.


message 19: by Gary (last edited Jun 09, 2014 10:57AM) (new)

Gary Inbinder | 89 comments Feliks wrote: "Nice input there, Gary. But a very obscure author! I can't find a good biography of him on-line. Any further info?"

Thanks, Feliks. This is the only reference I could find to Ashton-Wolfe on Goodreads. I think most, if not all, he wrote is out-of-print. I believe there are a few things available from book-sellers on Amazon.com.

Outlaws of Modern Days

There is some biographical information online if you look up Harry Ashton-Wolfe, e.g. "Harry Ashton-Wolfe: The Legacy of Hanoi Shan."


message 20: by Kevin (new)

Kevin Doyle | 3 comments As for direct line of influence, Vidocq and Dupin are mentioned by Sherlock Holmes in Study in Scarlet, his first appearance. Although Holmes derides those fictions as unrealistic (in his world) Doyle is clearly showing part of the line of influence that led him to Holmes.


message 21: by Gary (new)

Gary Inbinder | 89 comments Kevin wrote: "As for direct line of influence, Vidocq and Dupin are mentioned by Sherlock Holmes in Study in Scarlet, his first appearance. Although Holmes derides those fictions as unrealistic (in his world) Do..."

I agree; the earlier detectives, both real and fictional, had their influence on Conan Doyle. And it's my understanding that Poe based Dupin on the real life Vidocq.


message 22: by Feliks (last edited Nov 02, 2014 11:24AM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) Top man, Paul. A treat to read these fresh remarks of yours.

Paul, care to help me grow the following discussion?
http://tinyurl.com/nv3u7p3
Maybe bring it from its current location into this group? Nancy has already contributed one reply.

They're also discussing it in this group:
http://tinyurl.com/mdo4qdk
although at the same time, it is the thread which caused me to get the boot!
[Fawning on these self-pubbed authors is out-of-control on Goodreads. I don't moderate my own groups this way.]

Anyway the chat about detective-origins stems as usual from Charles, http://tinyurl.com/n6vr3n9
--crony of mine from several groups --Charles has written academically about the topic and is always game to discuss it. But in this case he has much more tolerance towards a truculent and churlish new author than I have.

I only got to enjoy one good discussion in that PF bunch:
http://tinyurl.com/qcd5b2l
now it's c'est la vie...


message 23: by Benjamin (new)

Benjamin Norman (benjaminpierce) | 1 comments Ross Macdonald had a good deal to say about much of this in the following essay:

http://www.thestacksreader.com/the-wr...


message 24: by Nancy, Co-Moderator (new)

Nancy Oakes (quinnsmom) | 8416 comments Mod
Re Sherlock Holmes: " His Baudelairean spleen" -- I never thought of it that way before, but now I'll always see it. Thanks for posting!!


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