Today’s blog gets passionate about three great 21st century Private Eyes to add to your holiday reading list.
In the beginning there was Sam Spade. The blond, yellow-eyed Satan. Then Philip Marlowe, the solitary knight pursing his own brand of justice. Hammet and Chandler begat the private investigator of the 1930s and 40s and the model for the hard-boiled noir post-pulp PI was stamped out in silhouette, wearing a trench coat and hat, smoking a cigarette in front of a pebbled glass door. The door led to the office, a desk with ashtray and a bottle-shaped drawer. Often the clients were pouty-lipped and misty-eyed, wearing silk stockings and tiny hats, clutching tinier handkerchiefs. Sometimes there was a secretary, sweet, feminine, loyal. When the chips were down and the tough guy got walloped by an angst-attack, she provided the back rub. She was the one who saw through the veils on the tiny hats, and knew that the lace-edged hankies were wet with crocodile tears.
We were hooked.
Other famous investigators followed, heirs to the originals, each with his own style: Lew Archer, Mike Hammer, Spenser, Travis McGee, Elvis Cole.
Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, here are my three favourite newbies. Stick the ice cubes in the whisky, drop the needle on a scratched Billie Holiday LP and take a nibble at the following goodies…
In 2014 John Dolan created David Braddock. Ex-pat PI sans licence, therapist sans diploma, student of Buddhist philosophy and ‘marginal manic depressive’.
We meet him in the Mosquito Bar.
‘Oh, bugger. I had been hoping for a quiet evening.’
But trouble has a way of finding Braddock and his quiet evening turns into a bar brawl. There’s the familiar whiff of cheap booze, sweat, cigarette smoke, the usual fight over some dame in a red dress, the usual broken billiard cues and flying bottles. But this is noir à la Thailandaise. The dame in the dress is a guy; we are on Koh Samui, in the Gulf of Thailand. Here, in Chaweng, the narrow crowded streets ‘overflow with the invisible and innumerable longings of the human heart’, keeping our investigator busy following unfaithful spouses. Events take a nasty turn when he is called in by the police to help investigate a series of horrific burnt bodies; he will soon discover, as the opening quotation from Lord Buddha warns us, that ‘the whole world is burning’, including himself.
Aided by a supply of Bell’s, the collected works of Sherlock Holmes, the adventures of Alice in Wonderland and the cryptic utterances of his mentor, a cigarette-smoking Buddhist monk prone to speaking in riddles, Braddock struggles to connect the clues and ‘pierce the veil of reality’ in a world in which reality is fast unravelling. His different cases collide and rebound like billiard balls against a background of smoke, flames and tropical steam; he is haunted by erotic fantasies of his Balinese housekeeper, his flame-haired wife and his enigmatic married mistress, Kat; he becomes increasingly paranoid with the appearance of anonymous letters threatening to expose the affair to Kat’s husband.
“Kat and I are both such good liars, we really should be married. Either that or in politics.”
Things reach hysteria point when he is summoned before sinister Police Chief Charoenkul, the island’s Papa Doc. The Chief is worried; he suspects his wife is having an affair–will Braddock investigate? And so, shaken and guilty, Braddock embarks on his strangest case yet-‘the unreal experience of following Kat to Bangkok to try and catch myself sleeping with her’.
As with Hammett and Chandler, there’s all the action, suspense, sex and violence to make Everyone Burns a page-turner. But the main attraction is the characterisation. Standing out among a cast of compelling secondary characters is the lonely, Marlowesque figure of Braddock himself, peering into the fiery abyss of the human soul, fighting off karmic demons and keeping reality at bay with the help of various masks, his favourite being that of the smart-mouthed cynic. But occasionally the mask slips. Wandering the deserted beach he reflects on how much he loves Samui ‘in the wee small hours’, when ‘the broom of sleep has swept the revellers to their beds’. Then, he tells us, when ‘the moon-dusted sea murmurs in some long-forgotten tongue of the divine…my mind’s cynical crust cracks open a little…’
But reality kicks in.‘Fortunately I catch myself just in time before I dissolve completely into this schmaltz.’ There are cases to work, murders to solve, and justice to dispense, Braddock-style, as the story reaches its dramatic climax.
From Koh Samui to futuristic Gold Coast City, home to cognitives, repellers, snoops and telekenetics. Forget the flip-flopped inhabitants of Chaweng, the creatures walking these mean streets have cybernetic noses, red eyes and icicles sticking out of their bodies.
Helping to render justice unto the unjust is Matt Abraham’s PI, hard-boiled, soft-centred Dane Curse, who sprang into being in February 2015, tipping his hat to Hammet and Spillane, leaping off the pages with enough Ka-pows! Pops! and Whams! to make a tree sloth spring to attention. Dane has the hat, the coat and the bottle of whisky plus 21st C add-ons such as Special Powers that allow him to be thrown from tall buildings and bounce to his feet without a scratch, a shape-shifting car called Jane and a four-armed secretary with an unbeatable WPM rate. He’s been in the game for years, his clients the shadowy beings who can’t ask the cops for help, the dreaded Black Capes. Because Dane (a reformed Black Cape) believes that they’re people too, with mothers who love them and children who’ll miss them.
As in Playback, the story begins with an early-morning phone call and an unwelcome summons for our PI. In Dane’s case, it’s about a murder. But not just any old murder. The victim is Pinnacle, head of the City’s good guys, Leader of Team Supreme, Protector of the city, and Hero di Tutti SuperHeroes. Never again will Pinnacle worshippers admire his heavenly body shooting through the skies in its red and silver Wonderweave suit looking for wrongs to right and people to save.
And who’s the lucky guy chosen to solve the most difficult case of the century? You’ve got it.
Lined up against Dane is a team of formidable baddies: Apex predator Lynchpin, head of the Black Cape mafia, and his team of Super-Gorillas, crazy Director Humphries dreaming of paramilitary expansion, and new White Cape leader Glory Anna, out for..well, more glory.
In this race against the clock where the rhythm is thumpingly fast and classic retro meets sci-fi high tech we zoom through a city full of evocative echoes. Henchman’s, where ‘there are peanuts on the bar, hot tunes on the juke and somebody getting walloped every time the big hand hits twelve;’ swanky mansions where the guests wear tuxedos ‘as precise as Hong Kong math,’ places where ‘the smell of warm wood rot hung in the air thick like an old whore’s perfume’. When the saxo starts up and the femme fatale sashays in, she’s wearing ‘a long, tight black dress that pushed her fun parts up like a vanilla soufflé.’
We’re reminded of other places-‘the hallway had the same dirty spittoon and frayed mat, the same mustard walls, the same memories of low tide…’, and other dolls and dames-‘she was in oyster-white lounging pyjamas trimmed with white fur, cut as flowingly as a summer sea frothing on the beach of some small and exclusive island.’ (The Big Sleep)
But the ultimate question is–will Dane be able to solve a case with more twists and turns than a spiral staircase? This exhilarating, white-knuckle ride keeps readers guessing till the end. We find Dane in his office, indulging in a little morose philosophising and polishing off a bottle of whisky.
‘Outside my window the city, my city, was waking up.”
Once again his phone rings. And the staircase takes its final twist…
A wise gardener once advised me to plant one yellow iris in a bed of deep purple blooms. ‘That will make them all stand out’ he said. Maybe he was a former Buddhist monk.
Meet the yellow iris. Mike Faricy’s PI Dev Haskell is the oldest kid on the block, first on the scene in 2011. He’s a rule breaker. A Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby with psychedelic highlights. The soundtrack to his life is jarring heavy metal, gunshots, screeching tyres and orgasmic moans. He inspires the nail-biting reader with the same panicked impulse learnt as a kid yelling fruitless warning to Batman and Co: ‘Don’t do it! Look behind you!! Run!!! Noooo!’ He’s the one-man answer to the multiple neuroses of Everywoman. Mum wants to take him home, bathe him and feed him chicken soup. Minxy Mistress wants him to rip off her micro-thong and beat her on the bottom with a copy of Hustler. Feminatrix wants to plant her Birkenstocks between his shoulder blades and beat him on the bottom with a copy of Sisters Unite.
We meet him in Russian Roulette, striking a familiar note:
‘I was sitting in the Spot bar minding my own damn business.’
Delete ‘the Spot bar,’ replace it with ‘my office’ and you get the picture: the Spot is where you can usually find Dev and somebody usually does.
‘I saw her come in the side door. Her perfume wafted over me like a plastic dry-cleaning bag.’
This particular 38DD bombshell is called Kerri, but it could be Nikki Kiki Patti Heidi or Lola depending on what page of what book you’re on. Poor Dev never stands a chance. These dames sink their teeth into him like Russians weightlifters biting into a Beluga caviar buttie. If he’s not in the Spot, the bedroom’s another option, his or somebody else’s, a fair number of the action scenes taking place on or around a mattress and involving two or more players, though he is sometimes found in solitary recumbence:
‘I was awake, but in lounging mode.’
When not in a bar or bed, Dev is somewhere in TwinCity, St Pauls, wearing a Saints cap. Frequently he’s at the police station, wearing handcuffs, or at the hospital wearing bandages and splints. He also investigates, an activity which sees him wandering around razor-wire enclosed car lots, graffiti-covered offices and desolate car parks, getting ‘up to (his) ass in alligators’ and tripping over mangled corpses that breed and decompose exponentially as the plot thickens. And thicken it does. Dev gets stood up, locked up, beaten up, chewed up, tied up, banged up, stitched up, set up, held up and blown up. This often results in a self-pitying whine: ‘What’s new? How about I’ve been shot, chased, arrested, poisoned and still got whisker burn on my inner thighs?’
Cheer up Dev. Nothing a glass of Jameson’s won’t cure. Remember Phil Marlowe when Captain Gregory asks him how he feels?
‘Swell,’ I said. ‘I was standing on various pieces of carpet most of the night, being bawled out. Before that I got soaked to the skin and beaten up. I’m in perfect condition.’
But that doesn’t prevent him-or Dev, or Dave, or Dane-from ultimately getting his man. Or woman.
Phil sums it up:‘I needed a drink…life insurance…a vacation. What I had was a coat a hat and a gun.’ (Farewell My Lovely) and Sam, a liver-coloured bruise on his head, tells it like it is:‘I know what I’m talking about…This is my city and my game…I’m in business here.’(The Maltese Falcon)
Joyeux Noël to one and all!
PS Just put Biarritz Passion and Hot Basque on special Xmas offer – 99 cents/centimes/pence each! Forget the turkey, kick off your stilettos and escape to the wild Atlantic surf of the pays basque….