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Louis Menand on Pynchon’s ‘Inherent Vice’

August 1, 2009

Thomas Pynchon’s new novel Inherent Vice, appears on August 4th 2009 and it is a detective novel of sorts. Pynchon has dabbled in detective fiction before–The Crying of Lot-49 is nothing if not a mystery story–but Inherent Vice is more explicitly genre-driven. According to Louis Menand’s review in this week’s New Yorker, it is ‘a spoofy take on hardboiled crime fiction’, with a pothead for a detective, named Larry “Doc” Sportello. Spoofing the hard-boiled novel is easy to do and by now probably a little pointless, but maybe Pynchon can do something new with it.

Like the concept he outlines for Pynchon’s book Menand himself seems a little tired. His research into what makes private eye stories tick seems to extend only as far as Chandler’s famous essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ (1944) and certainly no further than the old chestnut about Howard Hawks and what happened to the chauffeur. It’s lazy stuff. The review is based on the conceit that all private eyes are more or less alike and as a result makes some serious mistakes. Maybe they are the same mistakes Pynchon makes, maybe not, but they are stupid and lazy nonetheless. Here are a few.

Menand uses Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer as evidence that the most important element in private eye fiction is the detective. The general point is arguable I guess. But anyone who knows anything about Archer knows that the books are not really about him, at least not in the same way as Chandler’s books are about Marlowe. And this lack of understanding also leads Menand to say, of Pynchon’s detective, ‘Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer would have eaten this guy for breakfast’. Oh dear. There is of course a yawning gulf between these two characters. Chandler disliked Spillane’s books and even has Marlowe throw one of them in the trash in his last completed novel, Playback (1959). It would probably be in character for Mike Hammer to get a little frustrated and physical with Doc Sportello, but Marlowe would just shake his head and go back to his chess game.

Menand tells us that the twist in Pynchon’s novel is that it is set in the 1970s. Some twist. It is certainly true that the heyday of the Hammett-Chandler-Macdonald school of crime writing was the mid-twentieth century, but there is no shortage of 1970s private eye crime fiction in books, on film, and on TV. Of Menand’s own examples Macdonald continued to write Archer novels well into the 1970s. Spillane published Mike Hammer novels regularly throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the very last appearing, after a long hiatus and the author’s death, in 2008.

Menand declares that ‘mystery writers have tended to be screenwriters as well (or wished that they were), and so have lived near Hollywood’ and implies that by convention they have mostly, like Pynchon, set their stories there. Yet many of Menand’s key examples don’t fit into his limited version of the history of American crime fiction: for instance, Spillane’s Mike Hammer stories are set in New York, another city with excellent ‘noir’ credentials, while The Maltese Falcon is set in San Francisco. It’s not that Menand is actually wrong here–LA is of course prominent in the hard-boiled canon–but he seems to be looking at crime fiction through a hole in the fence.

Who knows how Pynchon’s book turned out–I haven’t read it yet–but I find reviews like this rather depressing. Despite the many thousands of good, serious, well-written, but above all entertaining crime and detective novels published every year, when it comes to the literary establishment the crime novel is still subject to the same lazy neglect, the same churning of clichĂ©s and lack of real enthusiasm as it ever was.

Here’s the link again.

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