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Mysteries & Adventures

Private Eyes Turn From Tough to Tender

By Max Boot. Max Boot is on the Monitor staff. / March 5, 1993


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The American detective story has come a long way from the days when Raymond Chandler's famous detective walked the mean streets of Los Angeles. Marlowe and his contemporaries, Sam Spade and Lew Archer, were tough hombres, ready to take a beating or deliver one. They lived by a code of conduct whose only cardinal vice was not doing right by the client. Often as not, they had a gat in one hand and a beautiful blonde in the other.

Reading a slew of recent mysteries shows the vast gap between then and now. The heroes of today's detective stories are as likely to be women as men. Many are not loners; they have children or significant others, although most still eschew marriage. They don't drink or smoke often, if ever. And their overriding ethos often seems to be compassion, not toughness.

Of course, there are some links between today's mysteries and yesteryear's. Most current detective stories, like those of Chandler or Dashiell Hammett or Ross MacDonald, are set in a big-city milieu full of crime, vice, and corruption. Today's private detectives, like their predecessors, may be tempted to leave the straight and narrow, but they seldom do. As in the past, today's detectives are unflinchingly committed to helping their clients - no matter what the cost.

Richard Nehrbass's Dark of Night (HarperCollins, 210 pp., $20) illustrates both the continuities and changes in American gumshoe tales. The hero of this whodunit set in the City of Angels is Vic Eton, a former police officer turned private eye. His job is to find the missing daughter of a prominent film producer - a task that becomes considerably more complicated after his client is blown up by a car bomb.

The tale is told in a first-person voice reminiscent of Chandler or Hammett. One passage, which has Eton describing himself to the prospective client, sounds like pure Marlowe: "My office is a block down Bronson. I'm on retainer to three studios, things their own staffs can't do or don't have the time for or don't want to do. I have a lot of contacts in the industry. I know what I'm doing. I charge a lot of money. And I get it." On the other hand, Eton is distinctly un-Marlowe-like in that he is a single

dad raising a teenage daughter.

"Dark of Night" is an engrossing tale full of authentic Hollywood atmosphere. One of the running jokes in the book, for example, is that everybody - from the secretary to the cop - has a movie script they're trying to peddle. But, as with many detective writers, Nehrbass falls a little flat on narrative; there are too many loose ends and unexplained happenings, especially involving the private school attended by the missing girl.

A better novel is Joe Gores's 32 Cadillacs (Mysterious Press, 338 pp., $18.95). In the tradition of Hammett's Continental Op, this novel centers around a firm of private eyes, Daniel Kearny Associates in San Francisco. DKA's specialty is auto-repossessions, and, in this deftly written caper, the repo men are matched against a wily ring of Gypsy con-artists who have absconded with 32 Cadillacs from local car dealers.

This book is populated by colorful characters whose exploits have the too-good-to-be-true quality of real life. For instance, there are Ken Warren, the DKA op with a severe speech defect, who becomes "the greatest carhawk the world has ever known" by repossessing 17 cars in one historic weekend. On the other side, there's Rudolph and Yana, the two Romanies vying to become King of the Gypsies; his specialty is elaborate cons where he poses as a Mafioso, hers is fortunetelling with a profitable twist.