When I read Farla’s post about this in the queue, I immediately devolved into an incoherent rageful froth and emailed her insisting I put it in my two cents. I then went on to write a five page essay about mid-20th-century detective fiction. Enjoy.
First of all… okay. So to understand what the author is trying to do here, you have to have some familiarity with the conventions of noir and post-war “hardboiled” detective fiction. This is the Humphrey Bogart era, and in fact Bogart would play the two most famous and influential hardboiled detectives, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. As the cover illustrates, the author here was going for Chandler’s Marlowe in style, and it is painfully obvious in his botched prose and themes.
I’ll let Wiki define hardboiled for me:
“Hardboiled (or hard-boiled) fiction is a literary genre that shares to some degree its characters and settings with crime fiction (especially detective stories). Although deriving from romantic tradition which emphasized the emotions of apprehension, horror and terror, and awe, the hardboiled fiction deviates from the tradition in the detective’s cynical attitude towards those emotions. The attitude is conveyed through the detective’s self-talk describing to the reader (or—in film—to the viewer) what he is doing and feeling.”
The hardboiled detective is an antihero, but context is important here–you have to remember that this genre arose from the crime-ridden post-prohibition era and continued into the post-WW2 era. The writers and the populace at large were disillusioned by atrocity, and the heroes of these stories, cynical about their worlds, their jobs, and the people in them, reflect these attitudes.
If you’re going to write modern hardboiled, the first thing you have to address is the reason for the protagonist’s anger– it’s no longer the power of the mafia, the widespread and unabashed corruption of police, or the genocide of WW2. So what is it? Why is your detective’s cynicism justified as opposed to just mean and uncalled for?
I think in just this chapter it becomes clear the author didn’t bother asking these questions, because he didn’t understand enough about genre history or the crafting of these stories in general. He wanted DARK and EDGY and probably read The Big Sleep or something so he just copied the style without stopping to think why it worked.
I would actually argue that the best candidate for a hardboiled detective in modern times would be a black man (or woman, but let’s be serious, we don’t want Butcher writing a female protagonist), because then you have the justifiable cynicism, the distrust of police and justice systems, etc. (And in fact, this is something people have tried to do, though I didn’t like any of the attempts I read so I won’t tell you about them.)
So right off the bat, this is not good hardboiled fiction, or at the very least not properly crafted. We see Dresden being irritable and “cynical,” but since he doesn’t really have any reason it’s just petulant. We’re supposed to read this as a genre signifier– cynical antihero detective!– but it is in all the wrong ways, because what it actually signifies is a misunderstanding of the genre.
Let’s talk about misogyny, because someone who so badly botched the framework of the genre and is apparently completely ignorant of its history is obviously going to make this mistake.
Here’s a quote from Chandler’s The Big Sleep:
“[…] there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.”
So you have to remember that in the 1920s, the role of women started changing dramatically. Flappers and all that. We’d had one war, and would soon have another one, and when the men were gone women took over jobs and were basically free to do stuff for the first time. As the quote illustrates, the old view of women as the damsels in distress and men as knightly saviors was becoming antiquated, especially in the US. A lot of hardboiled was a direct attempt to parse this– that’s why you see a lot of female criminals and femme fatales, a lot of women using sex as a weapon. At the time, these tropes were progressive, with women exerting power and causing harm, sometimes for the evilulz and sometimes as a way of pushing back against oppression. It’s not a coincidence that porn and female sexuality are central to the plot of TBS.
The results were usually still pretty damn sexist by modern terms. But the presence and role of these women was an important signifier of changing times, and the literature an effort (by male authors, yes) to examine what that meant.
Needless to say, this does not translate well into a modern context.
When you put 1930s “progressivism” in a modern setting and play it straight, you’re just a sexist jerk. And again, the author is a complete and utter barely-sentient idiot for not understanding a) why this is offensive and b) why the original context might matter.
Then there’s this quote Farla picked out from the book:
She had a voice that was a little hoarse, like a cheerleader who’d been working a long tournament, but had enough weight of years in it to place her as an adult.
This is how we know the author is attempting to ape Chandler and his detective, Philip Marlowe, and not anyone else.
You know how when people parody noir, they always make ridiculous similes? That is a direct reference to Chandler’s work. Chandler is the one who did it first, and possibly the best.
The beauty of Chandler’s similes is their bizarreness, and it’s clear that’s what the author was going for here. The problem is that this doesn’t make sense, as Farla said. Is “hoarseness” the first thing you think of when you think of a cheerleading tournament? Of course not– it’s a gymnastics competition, the girl would be physically exhausted, and also when someone things of cheerleaders bouncing around, it’s not their impressive voices that come to mind, for better or worse (it’s worse). The second half doesn’t make sense, either. What does “enough weight of years” mean? What does “place her as an adult” mean? Why would “having weight of years” be something that “places you as an adult” in a competition? Did he just mean she seemed older? Why would being older make your voice less hoarse as opposed to more damaged because you’ve been doing it more?
There are a few reasons Chandler’s similes worked. Well, a lot, but for my purposes there’s a few.
The first is an inversion of expectations. With the simile “She was as pretty as X,” it is expected that X will be something pretty, thereby allowing us to understand and visualize her prettiness and give us a point of comparison. But with things like:
“His smile was as cunning as a broken mouse trap.”
“She was as cute as a washtub.” (This is one of my all-time favorites; it just cracks me up.)
You get thrown off-kilter mentally, because the expectation isn’t met, and actually the “x” is a demonstration of how unlike the subject is. The result of this is a tone that feels weird for reasons you can’t quite place. That’s not what’s going on with the simile in this book, obviously. This is supposed to be a direct comparison.
The other thing he does very well is make comparisons that make sense, but compare two wildly different things:
“[…] the handrail was as cold and wet as a toad’s belly.”
“The voice got as cool as a cafeteria dinner.”
“She’s a charming middle age lady with a face like a bucket of mud.”
In both cases the comparison makes perfect sense and you know exactly what he means, and the effect comes from equating two things that wouldn’t normally be equated: handrail to a frog, face to a container of sludge, or a voice to a dinner. Dresden is comparing a voice to a voice, so it doesn’t work on this front either.
Another major way Chandler creates effective simile is via a “letdown” in the second half of the comparison:
“She looked playful and eager, but not quite sure of herself, like a new kitten in a house where they don’t care much about kittens.”
“From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.”
The effectiveness of these comes from the setup lacking a followthrough, where we think we’re going to get a comparison but instead are given an obvious statement that doesn’t actually provide more information about the first half. This is, again, not what the simile in question there does.
Finally, mood is creating by using surreal imagery in the second half of the comparison:
“[…] he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”
This is also something Nasu does well and why I liked “[The embarrassing defeat was] like being stabbed through the heart by a bug on the roadside,” so much. You know exactly what it means, but the image it creates is completely absurd. There is no absurdity in the cheerleader comparison outside the opaqueness of the writing.
So obviously, this is another effort to mime Chandler without understanding anything at all about why he did the things he did or why they worked. I can only imagine how many more stupid similes there will be.
Farla also singled out this: Karrin Murphy was the director of Special Investigations out of downtown Chicago, a de fact appointee of the Police Commissioner to investigate any crimes dubbed unusual. [etc etc]
Oh God he’s trying to write Dana Scully.
This is another attempt to call upon the gods of genre, but it’s a bad and bizarre one for several reasons.
So the entire genre as we know it traces its roots back to Poe’s detective Auguste Dupan, whom Doyle plagiarized to create Holmes. Holmes was part of what’s known as the “Golden Age” tradition of detective fiction, which is primarily British and also includes authors like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. One of the big conventions of this time period in the genre was lifted directly from Poe, and that’s the detective always showing up the comically bumbling police who were perpetually chagrinned at their own incompetence. In some cases there is also a friendly bumblingly incompetent detective on staff, and this is where the detective gets their cases. The detective is virtually always called in where the police have failed.
However, for those historical reasons I mentioned, this playful-on-the-part-of-the-detective relationship (epitomized by Holmes and LeStrade) faded away in the American tradition of the mid-20th century, when police incompetence stopped being adorable and started being violent and corrupt. (There’s a really great scene that I believe is from Lady in the Lake in which the only honest cop on the force talks about how all the good, brave men went off to war, and now the police are populated by the power-hungry cowards who wanted the badge but not the honor with it. This epitomizes, I think, the hardboiled attitude toward police.) The role of police shifted from incompetence and an inability to solve the crime to violence and a desire to cover up the crime. Instead of working for the police, the antiheroes of these stories worked in the gray areas around them, sometimes exposing them but usually unable to stop them– even when solving the crime– in a testament to the feelings of futility prevalent in this time period.
However, there are unsurprisingly a few things he seems to not have understood.
First of all, it’s really weird that the author here, despite trying really really (really really) hard for hardboiled, seems to be going with the Golden Age police figure. My guess would be that this is because Dresden is a huge sue, and the author couldn’t stand the idea of the police winning any battles but liked the idea of showing them up to make his avatar look better. However the result is incongruous, and only makes the supposed cynicism of the detective look worse, since so much of that is supposed to come from the corruption of the police. You can’t remove that element and still have a hardboiled protagonist; the result is nonsense.
Additionally, the behavior toward the police figure isn’t supposed to be direct anger, but polite antagonism. Dresden’s reaction of anger toward Murphy makes sense from a hardboiled character, but not toward a Golden-Age cop. Holmes stayed sympathetic with smarm and good-natured ribbing, saving his real complaints for when the detective wasn’t right there, and there was never hatred , resentment, or anger. It’s a game to the detective, and one he doesn’t mind playing.
Like a good rival in a Pokemon game, the key to the Holmesian police rival is that the rival only becomes more determined with each defeat, maintaining a superior attitude and convinced that next time, he’ll be the victor. A rival that is constantly insulted, frustrated, and beaten down by the detective is just sad, and it makes the detective look like a bully.
The other part of this is that the incompetent cop being shown up being a woman is just so full of Unfortunate Implications I don’t know what anyone on staff was thinking.
…So. That was my reaction to the quotes Farla picked out of the first chapter… I haven’t even looked at the second one. I’m not sure I want to.