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A Detective for a Topsy-Turvy World

PUBLISHED: January 26, 2009

This month, New York magazine ran a short—and surprisingly flat—piece on Charles Ardai’s new pulp novel, Fifty-to-One. Discerning readers will recognize Ardai as the mastermind behind the Hard Case Crime imprint, which has in recent years published a string of retro-noir books, including The Colorado Kid, by Stephen King, and Grifter’s Game, by Lawrence Block. (Fifty-to-One is the latest installment in the series.)

ardaiAuthor Carl Rosen notes that Hard Case Crime has been very successful, but he stops just short of any meaningful cultural analysis. Why, one might ask, have modern readers been drawn to a bygone world “of boxing broads, mobsters moored at sea, and graveyard horse races”? Nostalgia is the obvious answer: we long for that murky picaresque, where a man is a man and a gun is a gun and a beautiful woman waits around every corner, a cigarette dangling provocatively out the corner of her mouth.

But it seems to me there’s also a political dynamic at play here. American filmgoers, for instance, are drawn to cowboy flicks in times of international crisis. (This happened during the Cold War, and again a couple years ago, as the Iraq War was intensifying. See 3:10 to Yuma, and the Assassination of Jesse James for further evidence.) When all the news is of doom and gloom and internecine warfare, we long for a modicum of unambiguous moral drama: a bad man and a noble man, and the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Good noir is quite a bit more tangled than that, of course—the genre’s heroes tend to carouse and fight and dabble in extracurricular vice. But pulp writers never let the vice obscure a pure heart; we know in the end that the detective will solve the case, rescue the dame, and later contentedly smoke a cigar in a darkened office.

After all, what is a detective but a figure of allegory—a hero who can make sense of our topsy-turvy world, by reason and the occasional show of muscle? What is a detective but a deft negotiator—a George J. Mitchell in a rumpled fedora? We look eastward with dread: the tumult in Pakistan, the mess in Gaza, the explosions in Afghanistan. Then we pick up a noir novel, where a strong and savvy operator has all the clues in hand, and the end is always in sight.

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