“Listen, if you’re looking for some former cop with a tragic tale and an obsession for justice, you should probably look elsewhere.”
That sentence appears on page six of my new crime novel, Under Water. I may as well cop to it up front: It was an attempt — perhaps futile — to try to carve out my own place in a literary landscape crowded with rather familiar protagonists. We fiction writers like to believe our characters are original, formed in our unique imaginations, forged with not-so-divine inspiration. Yeah, right.
In crime fiction, and even more so in the subgenre of private-eye fiction, our heroes tend to share certain quirks and characteristics. Going all the way back to Sherlock Holmes — who dabbled in coke and morphine to blur, what he termed, “the dull routine of existence” — they tend to like their vices. Many drink too much, or take pride in their attempts to stay off the sauce. (“I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it,” boasted Philip Marlowe in the first paragraph of The Big Sleep, though in life, the book’s author, Raymond Chandler, was frequently none of those.) And a large portion of literature’s best-loved private investigators are ex-cops — from Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer in Southern California, to Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor in Galway, Ireland, to Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder in Manhattan.
Those last three formed a sort of holy P.I. trinity for me as I created my own investigator, Duck Darley. But one thing I decided he could never have been was a cop. It seemed essential to make that distinction. Instead, I made him a convicted felon, an ex-con who did thirteen months in Rikers for dealing weed. Did that make him stand out from the pack? Not really; he’s unlicensed (by necessity, due to his criminal record), but then so is Block’s Matt Scudder. He has a serious alcohol problem, just like Scudder, and like Bruen’s Jack Taylor. And he has a weakness for digging up buried family trauma — which was Lew Archer’s territory in most of Macdonald’s books.
My hero is also on familiar ground: the mean streets of Manhattan, which, let’s be honest, aren’t so mean anymore. For my money, Block’s Scudder books are the best P.I. novels ever set in New York. Scudder lived in a shabby hotel on West 57th Street and Tenth Avenue; Duck Darley lives in a run-down rent-controlled garden apartment on East 17th Street between Second and Third avenues, which happens to be the same block that nineteenth-century investigator and psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler lived on in Caleb Carr’s 1994 novel, The Alienist — now a TV series premiering next month on TNT.
Separated by a crosstown cab and a few decades from Block, and over a century removed from Dr. Kreizler, Duck resides in a different universe. Violence on dark late-night streets is a regular occurrence on Scudder’s West side. In Carr’s Alienist, set in 1896, 17th Street was still considered uptown — at a safe remove from the dangers lurking in lower Manhattan.
In whatever era or corner of the city, the standards of the form demand a certain looming threat in the shadows. Perils of yore included abundant street crime, a less robust police force, and a perpetual public menace to city life that can be hard to reconcile with the image of safe, well-scrubbed streets that is present-day Manhattan, playground for the rich. This poses certain challenges: If the stats show we’re safer than ever, there would seem to be less to work with. But no matter how ubiquitous the police presence or explosive the real estate market, our collective anxiety feels higher than ever.
If the fog-shrouded London streets of Sherlock Holmes feel like the spiritual home of detective stories, Southern California is often seen — rightly — as the cradle of American noir. It’s the land of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes in Chinatown, and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch — both on the page and in the terrific Amazon series. Dashiell Hammett is most associated with Sam Spade’s San Francisco. But Hammett had his New York bona fides, as well. His last published novel, The Thin Man, was set in 1930s Manhattan, in the waning days of Prohibition. That book’s main characters — Nick and Nora Charles — helped establish other archetypes of the form. Nick’s a retired P.I., now living off his loaded socialite wife, Nora, who adores him. Together they drink hard and enjoy a happy, if hazy, marriage. That is, until Nick’s pulled out of retirement and into a murder investigation.
It’s been at least a decade since I opened that slim, brilliant book, but again I find myself confessing to indebtedness. My character, Duck, drinks hard with a female partner he adores. But this is no socialite like Nora Charles. Instead, Duck’s partner, Cassandra Kimball, is a professional dominatrix. Does that alternative occupation help distinguish her from the inspirations that came before? Maybe a bit, but my characters feel a part of an extended crime fiction family tree. Which is not to say that’s a bad thing.
Hard-drinking and haunted, cynical yet empathetic — it’s not just that I like characters that way. I like people that way. A lot of them, anyway. That description could fit many of my close friends. It certainly fits a lot of my fictional heroes. Can it be clichéd? Sure, sometimes, in both life and on the page. But original, compelling characters have these qualities all the time, which is why these are the people you return to, the ones who turn up the dial of life. You want to hear more, to get close, but not too close.
The vicarious buzz of crime fiction fills something vital in its readers, which helps explain the insatiable appetite of the genre’s fans. There is no patience given to those novel-a-decade, publishing-as-rare-event folks like Donna Tartt or Jeffrey Eugenides. A book every ten years, are you kidding? Crime and mystery readers demand one a year from their authors. Keep up or get lost.
Over the last century, this city has seen scores of gumshoes, from Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, an obese, chair-bound detective who solved cases without leaving his West 35th St. brownstone, to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, who was as violent and hard-boiled and pulpy as they come. Contemporary New York crime writers like Reed Farrel Coleman, S.J. Rozan, and Andrew Vachss have long staked out these streets with their own P.I.s. And recently, Walter Mosley — a writer firmly associated with the SoCal school of crime fiction — has created a new series character, Leonid McGill, who’s an old-school, African American private eye based in Manhattan.
On the screen, there’s the Netflix Marvel series Jessica Jones, in which Krysten Ritter’s character may possess superhuman strength, but she’s also a down and dirty private eye with all the hard-drinking, jaded trappings of her superpower-free predecessors. For eight seasons on ABC, there was the crime drama Castle, which featured a sort of meta-sleuth — the blocked mystery novelist Richard Castle, who teams with an NYPD homicide detective investigating strange crimes in the city. And, of course, there’s Gotham’s ultimate crime fighter — Batman, in all his endless iterations. Is he a private eye? Well, in a sense. He’s unlicensed, driven by personal demons, and cursed with an obsession for justice.
We’re all exploring the same turf, every character and story both unique and part of a grand tradition. And fortunately, these stories will never exhaust themselves. Just look at the title of perhaps the best of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books, where he asked, “You know what you got in this city, this fucked-up toilet of a naked fucking city? You know what you got? You got eight million ways to die.”
Casey Barrett is frequent contributor to the Voice. Under Water, the first book in his Duck Darley mystery series, is out now.