In this episode: Scott explores the dark streets of one of the most overlooked genres of chivalric literature – the private eye story – with author and publisher Charles Ardai. Mr. Ardai is founder of Hard Case Crime Books, and his short story The Home Front won an Edgar Award in 2007 for outstanding mystery fiction. Mr. Ardai recently uncovered a rumored (but long-lost) manuscript by James M. Cain, one of the pioneers of early 20th century detective fiction (along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) called The Cocktail Waitress, which he is currently editing and preparing for publication.
(A note for those who maybe confused by the title of this episode: “We Never Sleep” was the motto used by private investigator and security man Allan Pinkerton in the 1870’s. When allegedly nonfiction accounts of some of Pinkerton’s exploits were published, they started to create a market for American readers interested in the doings of the “private eye.”)
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Seedy gin joints and filthy city alleys lit by stark streetlamps. Saps, switchblades and snub-nosed six guns. Men in dark fedoras and stained trench coats, and blonde-bombshell women with strong wills and weak morals …
These are just a few of the more distinctive features of a genre of literature and film we’ve come to know as the crime novel, or the detective story. From books written in the early 20th century like The Maltese Falcon and Farewell, My Lovely, to more recent film interpretations like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, the noir detective story has become a staple of American film and literature. (Even Calvin, in the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, fancied himself a gumshoe private eye from time to time as he tracked down homework-stealing villains as his noir alter-ego Tracer Bullet – a tribute to just how deeply entrenched that sort of character is in our cultural psyche.)
Now at first you might wonder what private eyes and urban crime stories have to do with discussions of the code of chivalry. But scratch the surface just a little bit, and you’ll find that hidden under that trenchcoat, “roscoe,” and fedora is, in fact, a knight in shining armor.
Consider: In early drafts of Raymond Chandler’s work, detective Philip Marlowe was named (instead) Philip Malory in homage to the Arthurian tales written by Sir Thomas Malory in the 15th century, which inspired Chandler’s writing.
And in an article in The New Yorker in 1931, literary critic Dorothy Parker compared Dashell Hammet’s detective character Sam Spade to Sir Lancelot.
In fact, the connection between the knightly characters of the Age of Chivalry and the hard-boiled detectives and private eyes of modern crime fiction is pretty clear, once you start looking for it. The black knights and evil sorceresses may have become mob bosses and femme fatales, but in both cases these are stories of heroes struggling to follow a code as they move through a dark world of temptation and corruption in a quest for justice.
So just what do private eyes and detective stories have to teach us about the ideals of chivalry – in both literary tradition and real life? Are these stories that reaffirm the presence of a code of honor on the hard city streets? Or do we come away with the message, to paraphrase Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, that “knights have no meaning; this world isn’t a place for knights”?
In this episode, Scott speaks with author and crime novel expert Charles Ardai about the character of the private eye and the code of chivalry.