Is there a place in the 21st century for the hard-boiled American private eye? This is the question that the multi-talented novelist Walter Mosley is exploring in his latest mystery series featuring New York private detective Leonid McGill.
Like film noir, its close cousin, the hard-boiled shamus was very much a product of the mid-20th century. So much so that Hammett's Sam Spade and Chandler's Philip Marlowe became cultural symbols and clichés with their fedoras and bottles of rye kept in the desk drawer. Ross Macdonald kept the classic tradition alive into the 1960s with his Lew Archer series.
But by Vietnam, the American century was fading fast. New variations on the PI appeared, most memorably Robert B. Parker's Spenser. Spenser had elements of his earlier brothers in arms, but really was a modern-day superman working as a PI. Then Lawrence Block came up with the alcoholic ex-cop and unlicensed PI Matt Scudder, whose series is brilliant. Scudder in his early days was fighting as many internal demons as external ones. By the 1990s Mosley created the significant and unique Easy Rawlins series. Rawlins, an unofficial PI, worked the same streets as Marlowe, but as a black man, he went places and experienced things Marlowe never could.
And then Mosley did something quite brave for a writer; after 11 books, he announced that he was finished writing about Easy Rawlins. Soon thereafter he created the character of Leonid McGill as a contemporary noir protagonist. I hesitate to call Leonid a hero. Those who love film noir, as I do, will know that the concept of "hero" is often foreign in the shadowy world of noir, where people are trapped by corruption and obsessions and often dragged down by them to their doom.
Leonid is a 55-year-old ex-light heavyweight African American boxer. He says at one point, "I'm a scary looking guy, especially if you know what to look for. From the width of my shoulders to the scars on my knuckles, anyone who lived in a part of town where people worked with their bodies knew that I dealt in trouble." Apparently, his earlier career consisted of doing "thug" work, specializing in setting up innocent people to go to jail. He was a "fixer" for the mob and power brokers. He says, "I was also a predator that lived on the invisible ether of personal information."
Nice guy. He doesn't say so, but we can imagine that he might have been a hit man as well. We do know that he made enemies. The NYPD has one officer whose permanent assignment is to put Leonid in jail, so far with no results. Leonid confesses, "By any sane reckoning, I should be dead and buried." Weighed down now in middle age by guilt and regret, he is sort of going straight and trying to earn a living as a legitimate private eye. If Chandler was writing Leonid, he would be a loner, drinking himself to death in a neon-lit dingy hotel room.
But Mosley actually makes Leonid part of a large family with all sorts of internal trouble. His blonde "Nordic" wife regularly cheats on him with younger men, and he has the graphic photos to prove it; several of his children are not actually his kids; the son he likes the best is following him into a life of crime; and his best friend is dying of cancer in his apartment. Not that Leonid is a saint; he loves another woman as well. But she dumps him in this book. She has to, she says, "knowing that you will be killed violently, senselessly." Leonid doesn't argue the point. And he is also haunted by his unresolved feeling about his communist father, who he has loved/hated since Dad ran off 43 years before to fight in the revolutions of South America only to quickly disappear off the face of the earth. That abandonment quickly killed his mother.
McGill is a man running out of time. And money. At the start of WHEN THE THRILL IS GONE, he accepts $12,000 from a woman who enters his office, looking for help. Her husband is a mysterious billionaire whose two previous wives died under mysterious circumstances. He knows the woman is lying; indeed, he questions if she is who she says she is. And exactly what does she want him to do? McGill has no idea what the case is even about.
He has entered the world of noir: "Almost everything you know or ever hear is a lie. Advertisements, politicians' promises, children's claims of accomplishments and innocence…your own memory." Later on he says, "Most of the people I meet I cannot trust, believe or believe in." And what's fascinating is that throughout the book, we watch Leonid lie all the time to people to advance his case. This is not your Boy Scout as detective.
Mosley has scored again in WHEN THE THRILL IS GONE. He makes us root for a genuinely bad guy who is now struggling to do the right thing, yet is convinced that he's going to have to pay for his sins with a bullet to the back of the head one of these days. In this story, he's going to have to help a group of orphaned children, a young junkie girl who he meets in the Baltimore railroad station, and his 18-year-old son, whose bank account managed to go from $250 to $83,321.44 overnight, as well as come to grips with his feeling about his father.
Sam Spade was coldly detached if not corrupt; Philip Marlowe was certainly a cynic and doomed romantic. But Mosley has written a noir character for the 21st century. Leonid is an existential noir character beyond corruption or cynicism or romance at this point. He is just trying to survive one more day. Noir flourishes in uncertain or fearful times. Welcome to the 21st century.
Can the hard-boiled private eye novel still be relevant in the 21st century? Mosley has certainly proven already that it can. It will be interesting to see if Leonid McGill can last as long as Easy Rawlins, or if his past will gun him down eventually. I wouldn't bet on Leonid having a long, happy life. This is noir after all. But it will be fascinating to find out. I look forward to the next installment of the series.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on March 28, 2011