PHILIP MARLOWE call home.
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.
"32 Cadillacs" rushes relentlessly toward its hilarious ending in the cornfields near Steubenville, Iowa, where Gypsies from across the country are gathering to pick their new king. Whoever delivers a 1958 pink Caddy convertible wins the prize - unless, that is, the DKA men get there first. This is what detective fiction ought to be.
IN contrast, David Berlinski's A Clean Sweep (St. Martin's Press, 230 pp., $17.95) - another private-eye tale set in San Francisco - demonstrates some pitfalls of the genre. This book is populated by cliches: Aaron Asherfield is a sarcastic private eye who lives by himself and is afraid of getting involved with women. He gets beaten up a lot and has an antagonistic relationship with the police. Sound familiar?
Berlinski doesn't help himself with a plot that's hard to follow. "A Clean Sweep" focuses on a case that somehow ties together murder and blackmail, drug dealing and money laundering, embezzlement and other white-collar crimes. The author is to be commended for his ambition, but the plot never coheres. The best parts of this work are some of the more bizarre touches - such as the black preacher with a dog he insists is Jewish.
Lillian O'Donnell demonstrates that the detective story can have greater range. Her Used to Kill (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 240 pp., $19.95) features a female private eye and is set in New York, not on the West Coast. The P.I., Gwenn Ramadge, is called in to investigate when beautiful young Emma Trent is suspected of bludgeoning her wealthy older husband to death. The affair rapidly degenerates into a media circus, a la the Amy Fisher case. But, flying in the face of press coverage, Ramadge becomes convinced of her client's innocence and sets out to nail the real culprit.
On the face of it, this is familiar enough territory, but O'Donnell skillfully manipulates the plot to keep the reader guessing until almost the end about the culprit's identity. This book also breaks new ground in police/private-eye relations. Normally, they are depicted as antagonists. But in "Used to Kill," Ramadge is dating an officer investigating the murder.
RONALD TIERNEY'S The Iron Glove (St. Martin's Press, 211 pp., $17.95) is also highly unconventional, but not nearly as good as O'Donnell's book. Set in Indianapolis, it features a private eye named "Deets" Shanahan, who is well past retirement age. The best line of the book comes early when a client tells Deets, "I'm so glad you are an older man." He replies, "I wish I could share your enthusiasm, Mrs. Schmidt."
Unfortunately, it's all downhill from there. The plot revolves around the murder of a United States senator's wife. A young Hispanic boxer who was friendly with the victim is arrested for the crime, but Deets sets out to show he didn't do it. The plot twists are all either predictable (the identity of the killer) or preposterous (revelations of child abuse). Particularly unconvincing is the author's depiction of Washington politics. He should have stuck to what he knows best - life in the Midwest.
And, in turn, the reader in search of a good mystery should stick to "32 Cadillacs" or "Dark of Night" or "Used to Kill."