I knew I had to write about Susanna Lee’s Detectives in the Shadows: A Hard-Boiled History when I came to the first sentence on page 164, just three pages before the end of the main text: “The crisis is one of reality,” it began—and, yes, a few lines down, the author was quoting the New York Times on Donald Trump.
It has been fashionable for a while now among the enlightened to adduce the grotesque fantasies and lies of Trump and the fervently held convictions of his faithful (some violent, some merely bathetic) as evidence of a crisis of “reality” and of “truth,” a diagnosis that would create a great sense of foreboding were we not immediately assured that the New York Times can be trusted to sort it all out for us. But playing this card reflexively, as Susanna Lee and so many others have done, can be risky. It may prompt readers to reflect that respect for reality takes many forms. Consider this passage (Detectives in the Shadows examines the evolution of the hard-boiled detective in American fiction and television) that begins a few lines below the handwringing about the “crisis”:
Despite the fact that television and film animate detectives, the iconic image of the cigarette-smoking hard-boiled detective is immobile from book covers, movie posters, and television credits. Yet as the hard-boiled evolved throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, characters are more open about their vulnerabilities, more expressive about the cost of being what Chandler named a “man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.” Being a person of honor is a full-time job.
This muddled mess of a paragraph—in a book published by Johns Hopkins University Press, one of our leading university presses—reveals a scrambled, slapdash sense of the real, a casual contempt for its demands. And this is not, alas, an exception.
That contempt for the real—and for the reader—shows up in many ways. Consider the opening of a paragraph on page 85:
When it came to crime fiction, some of the most vibrant writing of 1960s featured straight-up sociopaths (Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280 and The Grifters) and were not detective novels at all. Other crime novels were about Cold War intrigue (John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). Mickey Spillane was still publishing, as was Ross Macdonald, whose Lew Archer unearthed repressed secrets.
Never mind such matters as lack of subject-verb agreement in the opening sentence. Consider that bit about Ross Macdonald. To say he was “still publishing” in the 1960s is bizarre. Macdonald’s first Archer novel, The Moving Target, was published in 1949. He was at his peak in the 1960s, publishing seven Archer novels (and one non-Archer) in that decade, including his first best seller, and gaining recognition as one of the finest American writers of his time.
Turn next to page 124:
In books, hard-boiled literary characters stayed the course of ironic detachment, remaining disillusioned and down-at-the-heels. These included Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, and George Pelecanos’ Derek Strange.
Oddly, this lumps Harry Bosch (a cop for most of his career, spanning many novels) in with three private detectives. But what really stands out is the mischaracterization of Bosch as “disillusioned and down-at-the-heels.” He is neither. “Everybody counts or nobody counts” is his motto. Now getting old, no longer a cop, Bosch is disillusioned at times with the “system” but remains passionately committed to finding justice for forgotten victims. He’s also a prudent saver with substantial resources, mindful of his grown daughter, Maddie. Hard to imagine anyone who has actually read the (many) Bosch books describing him as Lee does here.
Respect for reality, respect for one’s readers, means getting things right, to the best of our ability. We all fail at times (I know that firsthand, all too well), and of course there are many instances in which disagreement about what that entails will persist; the persistence of such disagreement, often on matters of fundamental importance, is built into the human condition. But that makes it all the more important to respect, as best we can, the more modest demands of clarity, fidelity to ascertainable fact, and coherence.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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