“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,” Raymond Chandler wrote in “The Simple Art of Murder,” which could be called the manifesto of the American hard-boiled detective novel. This man, the detective, “is neither tarnished nor afraid. … He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it and certainly without saying it.”
It’s a worthy aesthetic, and Chandler was certainly the master of it, even back in 1944, when he wrote “The Simple Art of Murder.” The essay was a repudiation of the English school of murder mystery — best represented by Agatha Christie — or, more specifically, the countless American knockoffs thereof, genteel, stilted puzzles set in “Miami hotels and Cape Cod summer colonies,” rather than manor houses. Chandler held up Dashiell Hammett as the exemplar of what he referred to as the new “realist” school of crime fiction, yet Chandler was Hammett’s equal, if not his superior in the style that would also become known as noir.
Still, every genre gets tired after too much repetition; take the western, which (although Chandler doesn’t acknowledge as much) provided the pattern for the hard-boiled detective novel. I may not ever get bored with Chandler, but too often lately, I’ve picked up a much-praised new crime novel to read about some tough, tough guy, usually in a car, with a gun. Pretty soon will be more guns, some fistfights, assorted criminals exchanging snarling threats of various degrees of scariness and wit.
If the hero is police, then he’ll be the departmental maverick, too honest and decent to engage in office politics yet laser-focused on nailing his perp. Often there’s a murdered relative, almost always female, to juice this crusader’s motivation. His marriage will have fallen apart because he’s too stoic and too devoted to the Job to sustain a real relationship. But he’ll be devoted to his kid and a one-woman romantic at heart, even if hardly anybody ever gets near that heart. He’ll brood a lot and go home alone. He’ll have a temper, but a righteous one. He might drink too much or be too ready with his fists, but that just makes him a bit of antihero, that familiar figure from cable TV dramas. And he won’t even necessarily be American; the Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole might have been ordered up from whatever factory cranks out these guys.