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A Little Course Correction

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Every once in a while, I screw up a blog post so badly that I have no idea where to start to correct the misimpression I’ve caused, and that turns out to be true today.

It seems as if most of you took me to mean that “hard boiled” was anything with a lot of gore in it and “soft boiled” was another name for “cozy.”

The first and most important thing to understand is that “the basic forms of the detective story” are not the same thing as “the basic forms of the mystery novel.”

There are all kinds of mystery novels that are not detective stories–police procedurals, action adventure, thriller, serial killer, Carl Hiassen…

Detective novels are specifically novels about detection.

Hard boiled is best characterized–in the historical form–as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  In the modern era, think Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshavsky and, at least arguably, Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar.

Hard boiled detective novels are:  about professionals, almost always private eyes; usually in the first person told by the PI himself, and if not in third person SINGLE viewpoint from the PI’s point of view; and characterized by a cynical outlook on the corruption levels of local police and government, corporations, and rich people.

To be fair, however, the cynicism often varies its targets in more modern examples of the form.

Soft boiled is also a form of PI story–professional private investigator; first person from the PI’s point of view or SINGLE viewpoint third person from the PI’s point of view; much less cynicism and blood.

There’s lots of good soft boiled fiction out there.  In the Golden Age, both Nero Wolfe and the original pulp Perry Mason series would qualify as soft boiled.

Sue Grafton’s alphabet series is soft boiled.  So is most of Spenser’s Parker, although he tried really, really hard to be hard boiled instead.  Linda Barnes’s Carlotta Carlisle series is soft boiled, too.

Diane Mott Davison, however, does not write soft boiled novels–she writes cozies.

I didn’t include cozies on the list of basic types because they aren’t basic.  They’re derivative. 

Cozies are what you get when a writer wants desperately to be Agatha Christie but doesn’t actually get what it was Christie was doing.

In that way, they most resemble category Regency romances, where writers who want to be just like Jane Austen pick up on all the superficial exotic stuff and miss the point entirely.

That said, there are good cozies.  I give you Charlotte McLeod’s Peter Shandy series, for instance, and Joan Hess’s Maggody. 

I’m told that Georgette Heyer does excellent Regency, although the last one I read was thirty years ago, so I don’t know.

Traditionals have to have a detective, but he or she does not absolutely have to be a professional.

Other than that, they are characterized by the number of points of view they offer the reader–third person MULTIPLE viewpoint, with significant stretches of the novel devoted to the points of view of various suspects, NOT the detective’s.

You can see that in Agatha Chritie if you look–in Cat Among The Pigeons, for instance, the entire book is given over to points of view of suspects, and Hercule Poirot doesn’t even show up until the last fifth of the novel. 

There’s plenty of traditional being published today–everything P.D. James does is in the traditional form, with huge amounts of every novel being devoted from points of view of people other than any of the detectives.

And, yes, Gregor Demarkian novels are traditionals.

You may read them to get news of Gregor and Bennis, but if you look at the books, you’ll see that at least half of every novel is given over to points of view other than Gregor’s (or anybody else’s on Cavanaugh Street, unless they’re also suspects, as in Bleeding Hearts).

Hell, in Somebody Else’s Music, I could have cut out all of Gregor’s chapters and still have had a perfectly coherent novel.

Plenty of other people do traditionals, though–the Barbara Vine Ruth Rendell standalones, Scott Turow at least some of the time. 

I think all I was trying to say was that soft boiled seems to generate hundreds of volumes a year, and very few of them are Sue Grafton.  Mostly they seem to be this sort of mushy adventure maybe when we’re not talking about stuff and then somebody will solve it and it’s over.

And I just don’t see the point.

Written by janeh

April 29th, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'A Little Course Correction'

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  1. Well, I THOUGHT I had it right. Part of the problem is that even within detective fiction we don’t seem to have much overlap.
    I stayed away from commenting on the “hard-boiled” end precisely because of the detective/mystery thing. Hammett was hard-boiled and a writer of detective fiction. I’d have said most of his successors, including Chandler the Warshawsky novels and Parker in his “Spenser” mode, were at best “mystery” writers–plenty of bodies, but not a lot of detection.

    I’m beginning to understand Bill’s frustration. Put the hard-boileds to one side, and I can see dividing soft-boiled–in the sense of less gritty and cynical–into those which focus on the mystery and those, if you’ll allow the distinction, which take place during the mystery–the “love story with detective interruptions” as Sayers put it once.

    But define “traditional” as multiple points of view, and you wind up saying that Stout didn’t write traditional detective stories, nor Conan Doyle, that Sayers and Tey did so rarely, and Agatha Christie only from time to time. My first thought is that it’s not a useful distinction: viewpoint is a tool rather than a form. Even PD James goes to a single viewpoint for the Cordelia Gray novels, if I remember correctly.
    My second thought is that if you find the distinction useful, “traditional” is probably not a good word for it.

    Heyer. The worst Heyer Regencies are pretty good, and the best are still unsurpassed. The modern Regency writers aren’t imitating Austen at all. Austen’s characters are about two notches lower socially. They’re writing (mostly) bad imitation Heyer, just as much modern heroic fantasy divides into bad imitation Tolkien and bad mitation Howard.
    But don’t neglect Heyer as a detective writer. Any Hannasyde and Hemmingway is worth reading, and A BLUNT INSTRUMENT is a pleasure no reader of detective fiction should forgo.


    29 Apr 11 at 9:39 pm

  2. To me, Heyer is the gold standard for Regencies. Whereas, Barbara Cartland was pure dreck.
    And the ones between those two categories range from ‘not bad and even kind of fun’ to ‘unbearably stupid and obsessed with sex’.
    For good modern heroic fantasy, you should read Elizabeth Moon’s ‘The Deed of Paksenarrion’ trilogy — along with the follow-up series that she’s halfway done with.
    I’m curious as to how to classify Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher books — soft-boiled or cozy?

    Kathie Goblirsch

    30 Apr 11 at 8:51 pm

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