At the end of last year, I finished reading Max Allan Collins’ Chicago Confidential. It was my introduction to his series character Nathan Heller, a somewhat shady private investigator with a set of values and a past that includes association with gangster. The novel is strewn with historical references involving the investigation of organized crime by Senator Estes Kefauver. As such there is a plethora of real figures including the senator himself, Frank Sinatra, and Jayne Mansfield (before she became a big name actress).
I have also read several works of James Ellroy. His pieces are also infused with a historical sensibility and mention several real life people as well. They are set, like Collins’ work, in the fifties (for the most part) and weave the true factual incidents with the fictional protagonists.
So why does Ellroy ring true for me and Collins seem glib?
Collins uses first person narrative in a way that breaks down the “fourth wall” that actors often refer to. As opposed to hearing Heller speak for himself, he is talking to us, the reader in a conversational manner. But because he has done nothing to make me feel that I am OF the fifties, it seems to be a space-time continuum where a character from the fifties is speaking to me in the 2000’s. I have lost the feeling of the writing, the feeling of the time period.
Ellroy writes in third person and from multiple perspectives. His detail seeps through the pores of the writing; it IS the 1950’s (or early 1960’s as in American Tabloid) and I am eavesdropping on each scene. I am a fly on the wall.
In Collins I see the elements of hard-boiled fiction but they seem to be more like pieces in a laboratory, a scientific experiment in which ingredients are distilled down to an essence but without the spark to bring it to life.
Ellroy is scatological, irreverent, hip, and not afraid of stepping on toes. He is the vile version of Hammett, the foul-mouthed godchild to hard-boiled literature.
What I am realizing is that I don’t want my hard-boiled literature to be neat and clean. I want it to have a tarnished feel, a grittiness that is honest, and a trajectory like a bullet fired in the air on New Year’s Eve.
“Mystery” writing is fascinating but a true hard-boiled piece delves into aspects of the human psyche that almost no one outside of a Transgressive writer would even seek to explore.