The end of the private eye?
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
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
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
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.