The art of fairly gentle sleuthing

Nostalgia, we keep trying to tell the young, isn't really our fault. It's you people under 30 who are making the long, dreamy look over the shoulder as popular a posture in 1980 as it was in the '70s -- if we may be allowed to look over our shoulder at the '70s.

And we certainly may. For nostalgia, it seems, now comes in the short-term as well as the long-term variety.

On the one hand, old-time nostalgia -- and you can give us that old-time nostalgia every time -- pushes back further and further into the past. The young are now listening to music a lot of their parents can't even remember. Bix Beiderbecke. Pre-World War I Eubie Blake.

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On the other hand, the newer sort of nostalgia -- the phrase is no longer a contradiction -- becomes more and more present, more and more green. In fact, one can become an object of nostalgia without ever having been forgotten, like the Rolling Stones.

A television series barely starting its reruns may qualify today for nostalgia. The most instant example we know of is "Rockford Files." About 15 minutes after James Garner turned out the final episode a couple of months ago, young people began telling us: "There goes the Golden Age of television."

"What Golden Age?" we snapped, preferring to reserve the phrase for higher things -- like, well, the Golden Age of radio. But we must agree that "rockford Files" had its generous charms, beginning with Mr. Garner. He and Rockford (and we refuse to make a distinction) made up the nicest private detective we have known in a career of tailing private detectives, all the way back to -- who else? -- Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade.

Now there's nostalgia for you.

We blush at pseudo-profound analyses of pop culture. But we take it more or less for granted that the private detective is the anti-hero who succeeded the Wild West hero when the prairie turned to Los Angeles pavement. The formula goes something like this. Instead of dozing off in a blanket roll by a camp fire under the stars, the private detective falls asleep at night, his feet propped on his scarred desk, with a neon sign blinking outside his office window. In the morning, as he goes about his duties, he squints into the smog rather than the sun.

Deprived of the advantages of fresh air and wide-open spaces, he is destined to slouch. And the things he slouches in! He displays none of the tall-in-the-saddle, leather-buffing pride in clothes and equipment of the western hero. His uniform is a ring-around-the-collar trenchcoat, flapping behind the steering wheel of a pristinely unwashed car.

The eyes and the mouth are the signal centers of the private detective's disillusion. Baleful, alert, he stares at his fellow human beings as though they were something considerably less than human. With a fixed grimace he prowls his alleys, his flophouse hotels, his second-rate pool halls, as if, in every sense, he has a permanent bad taste in his mouth.

This, or something like it, makes up the stereotype of the private eye.

Myths get pushed to extremes by repetition. Even the western hero turned into a pretty nasty anti-hero near the end of his Hollywood run when Wyatt Earp and the rest ran into the revisionists. With his downward headstart, what spiraling depths the private detective might have been expected to sink to!

Who could have guessed that the fixed grimace, the baleful stare would end in the sunny country-boy smile and melting brown eyes of James Garner? Here is a private detective who actually likes people -- so much so that he's always being played for a sucker. Half his clients never pay him. The police harass him. The wrong elements apply muscle. And still Rockford forbears. He stores his gun in a cookie jar. He will do almost anything rather than fight with his very tender fists. He runs his relentless pursuits as if he had stuck size-ten feet in size-nine shoes.

How he longs to stay out of trouble! How he longs just to go fishing!

When the world seemed a safer place, our make-believe private detectives served up a guided tour of the subculture to thrill us innocents. Now that the world no longer seems so safe or sane, Rockford stands as merciful proof that a decent man can survive. He is not a hero. His wit is merely flickering, his compassion marginal. He is an entertainment, a fiction. Does a fiction really count?

These days we'll take all we can get -- the residuals in every meaning of the word. Long runs to the reruns, we say. But what we yearn after is more than the sum of our nostalgias.

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