European crime fiction in the crosshair

The end of the private eye?

Etienne Borgers
Translation by Jeffrey Tabberner


The private detective has had a good run, whether it be the inspired amateur who emerged at the birth of the classic British detective novel, or the little sleuth skilled at investigating complex situations in order to solve a brutal mystery. He was active in the popular novels and periodicals which originated in the nineteenth century and lasted into the 1930s. At the same time, the police-based crime novel was evolving and gaining a new readership. ‘Amateur' private detectives were omnipresent. Some of them went so far as to choose a profession which gave them great freedom of action as well as an income, as reporters, historians, lawyers, collectors of orchids – there's a long list.

Some others stepped over the line and became professional private detectives, inspired to a greater or lesser degree by the famous Sherlock Holmes, a dilettante who knew how to profitably exploit his talents. From there the professional detective began his existence in the realm of pure detection – the middle classes and refined society. But very quickly he underwent a major transformation. He was thrown into the street amongst the most unpleasant villains, where he was forced to use methods worse than those of the miscreants whom he had to fight. Dashiell Hammett had just arrived with his American ‘private eye', the hard-boiled private detective of the 1920s, a tough character who imposed his own justice from day to day on the society which surrounded him: a society of killers, corrupt citizens and bent cops. At the same time the damsel in distress was transformed into a man-eater – the femme fatale was born.

This mutation succeeded beyond all expectations, and clones of the American crime novel's private eye spread everywhere over a period of a good forty years, into novels, onto the cinema, into strip cartoons, onto TV, and so on. Everyone sang the praises and recognised the labours of this lone ranger of modern times, who roamed the big, bad city.

The cocktail party and the femme fatale became one of the most widespread myths of modern crime fiction and the film noir. That is, until the use of the private detective became overdone, compromising the originality, even the basic plausibility, of a whole swathe of modern crime literature. This form of overkill became evident in the 1970s, which rendered the whole thing pretty unappealing by the 1980s, except when there was some obvious talent; that is to say, not very often. The private eye had really aged, worn down by the hacks of American and international publishers.

He was to ultimately survive, however, but in a more discreet manner, leaving a secure place for the inheritors of the courtroom novel, the ‘procedurals' and their cohort of cops, (and copettes) which largely replace him in tackling problems in the contemporary roman noir.

Now at the start of the twenty-first century, the private detective is fast disappearing. He has nonetheless survived many attacks; not least of all from the feminization of crime literature, which was once a stronghold of masculinity if ever there was one. But the good old private eye doesn't easily change into a drag queen. The few attempts that were made in that direction were far from convincing, and were doomed to oblivion. It seems that there is no feminine version of a ‘tough guy'. The ‘tough gal' left on her own is even less convincing than the male version; a bad parody or a failed caricature. The private detective has also managed to escape ‘correct thinking', so fashionable at the present time. In his current guise he drinks, he still smokes, and he still wears his eternal image of melancholy and disenchantment He is often armed. Worse still, he doesn't really believe in money: he just uses it. Period.

He manages, however, to edge his way through here and there. We are witnessing a sort of renaissance of the private detective. He is one of the emblematic figures in the current Spanish and Latin-American roman noir. As early as the 1970s, the Spanish private detective Pepe Carvalho was roaming the streets of Barcelona, investigating current and past corruption, a symbol of a Spain which was clearly evolving from alienation into a free state. More recently we had Heredia, the melancholic Chilian from Santiago, with his depressive moods reinforced by hooch and from the tango coming directly from old Buenos-Aires; and the Brazilian Remo Bellini, with his thwarted love life, who takes refuge in sarcasm and the blues, when life gets too much. Then there is the Mexican Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, the unconscious post-modernist who can only let himself go by playing the picaresque libertarian. These contemporary figures, and others, have broken the mould in which we tried to restrict the private detective. A quiet but revolutionary comeback.

The genre will probably evolve rapidly within crime fiction in third-world countries and in their romans noirs, and ultimately one will see the private investigator replaced by even more police officials. But given the recent political past in some of these Latin American states, formerly in cahoots with the CIA, one can readily accept that it isn't the cops, those lackeys of the state, who could instantly incarnate these new heroes, these outriders of a return to the individual which is to everyone's benefit, who forget nothing; certainly not the past.

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