Larry E. Grimes' essay on 'Dreaming of Babylon'
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Stepsons of Sam: Re-Visions of the Hard-Boiled Detective Formula in Recent American Fiction

by Larry E. Grimes

During the past decade, a small industry has developed, using American hard-boiled detective stories as its primary raw material. Both films and fiction have been made from this well-established formula. A partial list includes such successful films as Chinatown, The Late Show, Foul Play, Play It Again, Sam, and Murder by Death. Joe Gores' Hammett, Roger Simon's Moses Wine books, the le Vine novels of Andrew Bergman, and Andrew Fenady's The Man With Bogart's Face are representative of the wide range of popular detective novels (serious, upbeat, comic, nostalgic) derived from the formula. Indeed, interest in the formula has spilled over into the world of serious fiction in recent years. It is the purpose of this paper to examine the effect of that spill-over on the formula. To do so, I will examine re-visions of the formula in novels by three nondetective writers of some literary repute. The works I will discuss are Jules Feiffer's Ackroyd, Richard Brautigan's Dreaming of Babylon and Thomas Berger's? Who is Teddy Villanova?

I have chosen to hyphenate "re-vision" quite deliberately, for something more radical than "revision" has taken place in the novels at hand. The relation of these works to the hard-boiled formula is complex. They are not blood descendants of the Hammett - Chandler school. Rather, it seems that these novels were reared in minds full of Freud?, Kafka, Jewish New York, Ionesco?, Joyce, Nabokov?, and, in the instance of Brautigan, Algerian hashish. They were certainly more than toddlers when they were brought into the family and formula of Marlowe, Spade, and Archer. Nevertheless, their authors present them to us as members of the hard-boiled clan. Hence the tag of "stepsons."


Like Feiffer, Brautigan makes formula fiction the playground of the fictive self. Hardly a novice to the art of re-visioning formula fiction, Brautigan had tinkered with the historical romance (The Abortion), the gothic novel and the western (The Hawkline Monster), and the mystery story (Willard and His Bowling Trophies) prior to Dreaming of Babylon. And like its predecessors, Dreaming is a spacey, comic tribute to its original.

Brautigan always touches base before he runs. Dreaming opens as should all good hard-boiled novels — with the private eye down at the heels of his gumshoes. A good news-bad news? joke begins this first person circular narrative. The good news is that on this day, 2 January 1942, C.Card, private eye, has been declared 4-F. The bad news is that he'd "gotten a case that [he] needed a gun for but [he] was fresh out of bullets." He is also fresh out of money and just about out of shelter. He is behind on his rent, and previously he has been forced to sell his car and to fire his secretary. As Card puts it (he usually talks in exaggerated hard-boiled similes),

^There I was with no bullets for my gun and no money to get any and nothing left to pawn. I was sitting in my cheap little apartment on Leavenworth Street in San Francisco thinking this over when suddenly hunger started working my stomach over like Joe Louis. Three good right hooks to my gut and I was on my way to the refrigerator. (DB, p.4)^
Card's problems do not get particularly worse, although his similes do. We have to put up with them as Card wanders from police station to mortuary in his search for free bullets to fill his gun. His quest for bullets and the slow turn of the clock toward his scheduled rendezvous with his client are all we are given to keep us going (speaking of hunger) for the first 114 pages, slightly more than half of the book. That and, of course, Babylon.

Not only is Card a detective; he is also a dreamer. Beginning with a fastball to the head, which ended his attempt to become a big league player, Card has been subject to sudden "head trips" to ancient Babylon. There Card is a baseball hero named Samson Ruth. There he is the author of a private eye serial featuring villain Dr. Abdul Forsythe and detective Ace Stag. Ace is replaced later by detective Smith Smith in such classics as "Smith Smith Versus the Shadow Robots."

Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, action intensifies and becomes both absurd and morbid in the second half of the novel. Card meets his client, a petite, beer guzzling blonde woman who never takes a piss. The blonde offers Card $1,000 to steal the corpse of a hooker from the morgue. She tells Card she has picked him for the job, rather than any one of a number of better known detectives, because "you're the only one we could trust to steal a body for us... The other detectives might have some scruples. You don't have any" (DB, p.130). Card acknowledges that she is right and that he isn't offended by the charge. So much for the ethical attributes of the hard-boiled hero.

Card has considerable difficulty stealing the body because a pair of body-snatchers has been hired by the same lady to compete with him. Morbid humor and hard-boiled perversity dominate the scenes at the morgue as Card watches his cop friend, Rink, interrogate the bungling body-snatchers. Even Card has difficulty finding similes to fire the scene: "There are no words to describe the expression on the hood's face when Sergeant Rink pulled him out of the refrigerator. He opened it up just a crack at first. You could only see the guy's eyes. They looked as if Edgar Allan Poe had given them both hotfoots" (DB, p.171).

There is violence, absurdity, and adventure enough in the last forty pages of the novel. Card is chased around town by angry blacks who threaten to make him into stew meat. He is forced to hide the abducted corpse in his refrigerator. And, although he keeps vigil, he is unable to retain his $1,000. Even worse, at the cemetery he is caught by his mother and upbraided by her for causing the death of his father. In retrospect, Card concludes his narrative of 2 January 1942 with this observation: "I was right back where I started, the only difference being that when I woke up this morning, I didn't have a dead body in my refrigerator" (DB, p.220).

The effect of Dreaming in Babylon on the hard-boiled formula is, as I have suggested already, similar to the one Ackroyd has. But significantly different are mode and tone. Ackroyd is basically, a serious novel, even when it is absurd. Dreaming is a comic work that parodies the formula even as it reshapes it.

Both form and theme in Dreaming stretch the formula beyond its usual shape by making it clear that there is a tension between the facts of life and the meaning of life. Facts include no bullets for one's gun and a corpse in one's refrigerator. They have no intrinsic meaning. But Babylon has. It exists only because it is an active extension of mind. Meaning, then, is connected with Babylon, with the pure imagination, and not with objective fact. The implication for the formula is clear. According to Brautigan, nothing meaningful is gained by taking murder out of the drawing room and placing it in the streets. The real and the meaningful are not synonyms. This is the case because, at least in Dreaming, the world of facts is patently absurd — guns but no bullets, refrigerators stocked with corpses.

So the world turns, accumulating facts but not revealing patterns. That being the case, a rich imagination, a lush fantasy life, is to be preferred to a life of adherence to objective facts of objectified codes. Card agrees. He is not, once you get past the marginality and the similes, a very hard-boiled hero. He is, rather, an unembroiled hero — detached from the world, narcissistic. Card. Smith Smith. Ace Stag. Call him what you will. He is more protean than daemonic. The fictive hero strikes again.


An overview of this literary study shows that the re-visions of the hard-boiled formula undertaken by these various hands have much in common. First, although urban setting has been preserved, it now signifies a reality different from that in the hard-boiled formula. If the hard-boiled formula converted the city from "object of wonder" in classical detective fiction into an image of modernity, corruption, and death, then these recent revisions have given the screw another turn and have exchanged the existential vision of the hard-boiled formula for an absurdist view of the city. In these novels the city has become a stage for absurdist activity and theater. The city and its inhabitants serve as catalysts for actions that are unpredictable and ever changing.

The plot of the hard-boiled formula has been modified accordingly. Significant causes for action are hard to locate in these novels, or when located turn quickly to absurdist mist and mirth. The result is a plot of infinitely incomplete action. The formula's demand that the detective become more than a detective is put to the service of plot at this point. As I noted in the study of Teddy Villanova, detectives are pushed beyond detection in these re-visions too. But they become writers or dreamers and not moral selves as a result of the push.

Of course, the effects of the re-visions are most striking when we turn to character. The novels examined here suggest that a third stage in the evolution of the detective hero has begun: from rational man to daemonic-code hero to protean hero and fictive self. Clearly, all three authors agree that their characters cannot live effectively in their surroundings as adherents of a code, even a personal one. A personal code presumes a definite sense of personhood. The central characters in the three novels I have examined are all better understood as "works in progress" than as "code personalities." The phrasing is deliberate, for another distinguishing trait in the re-visions is the substitution of style for morals. Imagination and not integrity is the ingredient essential to a meaningful life in the world of the hard-boiled formula revisioned. Or, to build around Chandler's vision of the hard-boiled hero, once it was said that down these dark streets a man may go if bright reason is by his side. Then it was said that down these mean streets a knight must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. But now it is written that through strange and ever-changing streets a man must twist and turn, slip and slide.

Modern Fiction Studies 29.3
Autumn 1983: 539-541

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