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Few good things are as good as a good book. Written in fresh, limber prose, Saint with a Gun studies the evolution and, alas, degeneration of the American detective hero. Its subjects it perceives clearly; its arguments it presents with force and historical depth.
William Ruehlmann knows how literature reflects life. His 1974 reprint uses well-known figures such as Clint Eastwood, Arthur Bremer, and former Attorney General John Mitchell to dovetail public and literary themes. It traces the modern detective hero from early incarnations such as Poe's Dupin and Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Without effort, it generalizes in smooth-muscled cadences: "The private eye novel was a Western that took place somewhere else." The next paragraph carries the summary forward with a firm supporting detail: "The American Western is a morality play whose end is retribution, not redemption. Jack Schaefer's Shane (1949) is the essence of the myth that the gunfighter does not triumph over evil, he merely survives it."
Ruehlmann reasons so well that he tempts one to let him speak for himself. "The most modern of American heroes," the private eye "is at his best in situations calling for physical courage. . . . But he is at his worst in moments of meditation." Thought brings out the killer in him, turning him into pursuer, judge, and executioner. His bloodthirst comes from a breakdown in justice; law and order works either too slowly or not at all. Because the police and the courts don't redress crime, the p.i. must punish the wicked. Mickey Spillane expresses the p.i.'s retributive morality in I, the Jury (1947): "Cops can't break a guy's arm to make him talk, and they can't shove his teeth in with the muzzle of a .45 to remind him that [they] aren't fooling."
Even in his less savage incarnations, the American fictional detective has differed widely from his well-bred English counterpart—a methodical, highly informed logician-sleuth. American detective writers have small faith in the ability of reason to fight crime. One needs muscle, not mind, to right wrongs caused by corrupt cops and politicians, syndicate crooks, and professional hit men. No witty amateur, Dashiell Hammett's first detective hero, the Continental Op (short for Operative), a tough, unfeeling professional, hunts criminals for a living. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, a self-employed detective, added moral purpose and integrity. In his famous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder" (1944), Chandler said of Marlowe, "He is the hero, he is everything. . . . He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a weathered phrase, a man of honor."
Another Californian who descends from the hardboiled school of detective writing, Ross Macdonald, welds Marlowe's sense of honor to self-knowledge and moral sympathy. Macdonald is the most tender of the tough guy writers. With his heart [End Page 769] knowledge, the hard-boiled novel becomes human. Ruehlman explains how Macdonald and his sensitive continuing detective, Lew Archer, have lent the genre the virtues of compassion and charity:
Ross Macdonald is a moralist . . . but his moralism is compassionate rather than vengeful, and his protagonist protects the innocent in place of punishing the guilty. Like the others of his fictive profession, Lew Archer travels territory where no one can be trusted or believed; unlike them, the fact makes him more sad than bitter. What results is a series of . . . novels that do not exorcise guilt but offer a means of dealing with it.
Sadly, detectives like Archer and Marlowe have given way in recent years to stampeding avengers like the Marksman, the Revenger, and the Executioner. Replacing the slow, clumsy machinery of due process, these sadistic superpatriots achieve identity through violence. Their vigilantism represents a sad comedown, both artistically and philosophically...