Saturday, January 17, 2009

Where'd all the Tough Guys go?

It seems as if hardboiled ain't what it used to be. I've been making a point lately of reading some more modern stuff in the genre, since I'm woefully out of touch with most stuff written in say, oh, my own lifetime. And I've been disappointed, for the most part. Where are the bad-asses? "Tough guys" don't seem so tough anymore. I can't get excited about a hardboiled dick who has to, say, go see a shrink to get over plugging a guy, or has a bubble bath after his latest caper to ponder his own mortality.
There was a time when this new sensitivity was fresh and original-- Macdonald's Travis McGee was probably the first of the "sensitive" tough guys, and he's a very likeable character indeed. And then Robert Parker's Spencer, right? And then... well, the floodgates were opened. Every few years, we have to bring it back to center. And the center is best represented by Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op... the original hardboiled tough guy.
With the Op, you always knew you were dealing with a man who was quietly intelligent, unafraid, and quite aware of his own shortcomings. You sensed a deeply complicated guy, and it wasn't because he waxed on about himself. The Op, despite that Hammett told us virtuallly nothing about his background or what emotions played out in his head, seems so much more fully realized than just about any modern character I can think of in the genre.
My friend Janine, a great writer of hardboiled stuff herself (I can't wait for the world to read about her Kelly Flaherty, the toughest tough chick I've ever come across), turned me on to Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels. She says he fits that tough guy bill pretty well. Christian Klaver, another friend and terrific writer, mentioned Andrew Vachss "Burke" series. And I just recently discovered Richard Stark's books about Parker on my own. And yeah, he's plenty tough. So maybe there's hope yet. I'll let you know, after I've read the ones Janine and Christian mentioned, if they fit the tough guy bill as well as Parker.

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