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DARK PASSAGES

Masters of reinvention

The tropes of the P.I. novel may have been exhausted long ago, but the genre isn't dead. Hardly, as succeeding generations of mystery writers have shown.

March 16, 2008

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By Sarah Weinman

For the next 12 months, libraries and communities across America will be reading Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel "The Maltese Falcon," the newest selection of the National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read. Such a choice, even the NEA admits, is something of a surprise, if only because as endowment chair Dana Gioia notes, "Hammett's private-eye classic . . . is so much fun to read, it might be hard the first time through to realize how deeply observed and morally serious it is."

Multiple reads of "The Maltese Falcon" not only highlight its ambiguous and gritty pleasures, but also show how much it holds up -- and, indeed, is reinterpreted -- in today's times. (South Florida Sun-Sentinel crime fiction critic Oline Cogdill's essay on the novel explains this in excellent fashion.)

The bar Hammett set for private-eye fiction was so high that his novel, along with those of Raymond Chandler, are the standard against which all subsequent P.I. novels are measured. Many of its tropes -- trench coats, femmes fatales, the eleventh-hour emergence of a gun -- have long since become standardized, calcified and outright dismissed. No wonder the death of the P.I. novel has been declared with such regularity. No wonder so many readers prefer to ignore current incarnations of the genre and return, again and again, to the singular voice of Sam Spade as he declares he won't play the sap for anybody.

And no wonder the P.I. novel has continued to survive. Instead of straight detective fiction, crime novels now explore greater social ills. Instead of operating in a purely hard-boiled landscape, there are now novels, such as those in Alexander McCall Smith's delightful "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series (more on that subject next month), that focus chiefly on life's smallest and thus gravest concerns. P.I. fiction, then, is far from dead, but rather undergoing the slow, steady process of reinvention.

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Declan Hughes' detective novels truly embody the "slow and steady" aspect of reinvention. His owes a literary debt less to Hammett and Chandler than to Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer books, family melodrama disguised as P.I. fiction. Hughes, a noted Irish playwright, writes about his hometown of Dublin, where corrosive secrets and generations of lies play out with melodramatic payoff. If anything, "The Price of Blood" (William Morrow: 312 pp., $24.95) -- Hughes' third go-round with private eye Ed Loy -- tips its narrative hat to Sophocles and other purveyors of Greek tragedy.

Of course, all the P.I. tropes are in full evidence as Loy's investigation into the underbelly of the racehorse-owning Tyrrell clan unfurls to catastrophic effect. Loy's weakness for beautiful women -- this time, the shuttered and secretive Miranda -- connects him to the case in a most personal manner. He gets beaten up and warned off the investigation and ends up being misdirected by what's actively and passively hidden, not to mention his own demons. Hughes, however, knows his turf and understands how to move his pawns across a chessboard suffused with the ill luck of the Irish.

Connecticut-based screenwriter David Levien seems less influenced by older P.I. practitioners than by the modern urban crime novels of Dennis Lehane and Robert Crais. In Levien's debut novel "City of the Sun" (Doubleday: 310 pp., $24.95), his Indiana-based antihero, ex-cop Frank Behr, reluctantly takes a job from frantic couple Paul and Carol Gabriel to investigate the 14-month-old disappearance of their preteen son Jamie. Behr recognizes the primary issue of detection: "[F]or many cops and investigators the major obstacle to detecting deception and finding the truth was their own natural tendency to believe people. Behr had no such problem: he'd seen too much ugliness."

"City of the Sun" gives the inscrutable but engaging Behr a chance to experience more ugliness. Paul is a strong foil and an active participant in the downward spiral of discovery surrounding his son's disappearance. (Carol, on the other hand, gets token supporting-actress treatment.) Levien's reinvention bid shows in laser-sharp writing and in the way he finds room for redemption even amid the most harrowing circumstances.

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Lisa Lutz debuted last year with "The Spellman Files" (Simon & Schuster: 358 pp., $14 paper). Playing against readers' expectations of a P.I. novel, the book introduced a family of wacky, big-hearted snoops who delight more in investigating each other than in taking outside cases. As filtered through the narration of prodigal daughter Isabel, or Izzy, Lutz's voice was suffused with arch humor and irony but strengthened by the obvious love and affection within the Spellman clan. The net effect was more comedy high jinks than postmodern existentialism, but the seeds she planted seemed likely to bear fruit in future Spellman books.

Therefore, it's rather disappointing to read Lutz's follow-up, "Curse of the Spellmans" (Simon & Schuster: 410 pp., $25), because the character details have been lost in a bid for bigger, louder laughs. (There's also footnoting, which starts off cute but quickly grows irritating.) Izzy, now two years older, seems to have regressed in maturity, delighting in stalking her pseudonymous neighbor " John Brown" in the hopes of ferreting out his secrets. The odd relationship between Izzy's teenage sister Rae and her cop pal Henry Stone doesn't rise above the level of bad TV. And the Spellman parents seem oddly muted, in large part because they spend most of their time offstage.

The curse of the title, in other words, seems to be that the Spellmans have lost their sense of each other and the heart behind their inherent dysfunctions. But curses can be broken, and Lutz's material is too good not to hope for a bounce-back in installment No. 3.

Sarah Weinman writes about crime and mystery fiction at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind ( www.sarahweinman.com). "Dark Passages" appears monthly at latimes.com/books.