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The Light Shines in a Trenchcoat

05 May

Reading 150I’ve recently come to appreciate the singular pleasure of a good detective story. I’ve been on a bit of a run with them of late, and I think it started with the broken-down post-millennial duo of True Detective‘s Hart and Cohle. It took Nic Pizzolatto’s spitshine of the detective story to really get me to sink my teeth into it, to understand the very interesting places it could take you. Since then I’ve been reading them in various genre mash-ups almost exclusively.

First stop: Harry Dresden and the modern-fantastic world of the Dresden Files. I’m mostly familiar with the setting through the excellent RPG, but I read the first book (Storm Front) and found it pretty OK. The second — Fool Moon — features the wizard Harry battling a host of different werewolf factions, each with their different abilities and goals. I’m a sucker for modern fantasy and especially werewolves, so this story was right up my alley. It’s also a notable improvement on the first novel in the series, so I’m excited to get to the rest of them. There are fifteen(!!) volumes so far; I have a lot of catching up to do.

After that I read two books in the Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters. The first book is about a New Hampshire detective named Hank Palace solving a murder set up to look like a suicide, six months before an asteroid plows into the planet — likely destroying all life on Earth. The second, Countdown City, picks up a mere two and a half months from impact. Winters takes great pains to imagine what America would look like when civilization has essentially laid down to die; individuals abandon their lot in life to do the things they’ve always wanted and society grinds to a halt. People who stick to their posts are suddenly the crazy ones, so Detective Palace cuts a really unusual figure in the world of the novel. He’s fascinating, and the book tackles head-on one of the things that most fascinates me about pre-apocalyptic literature — the way people behave when the pretense of civilization is stripped away completely.

In many ways, the pulp-novel detective is a lone figure of morality standing out in the background of a complicated and semi-lawless world. In almost all of the detective stories I’ve read so far (admittedly, a small sample size), the protagonist is of a type: tall but not physically threatening, with a single-minded focus on solving the case, an eye towards clothes or accessories that have deep personal symbolism for them and a knack for getting the crap kicked out of them. Before the current run of detective stories I read (and reviewed) Forests of the Night by S.A. Swann, another sci-fi detective story featuring an eight-foot-tall anthropomorphic tiger named Nohar Rajasthan. Harry, Hank and Nohar are thematic brothers of a sort, all idealists with a pragmatic view of the world.

I have a massive soft spot for characters who give themselves over to an ideal, even though they’re painfully aware of their limitations. None of these guys are the paragon of law and order, but they believe in the ideals of justice, fair play and morality. The fantastic backdrops of their settings make the world that much more wild and dangerous, but they stick it out just the same. Morality is different when you’re sharing the world with a host of species who are, in effect, alien. How do you tell a vampire that killing is wrong, especially when it probably looks at human beings the way we look at cattle? How do you deal with the Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario of a werewolf, where a sentient being really isn’t in control of themselves in certain situations? Do you still punish a good man just because he turns into a monster under circumstances not under his control?

The Last Policemen trilogy takes this devotion to law and order to an existential extreme. Everyone knows that there is an end date to our civilization, so what’s the point of keeping it going until then? The idea shows us just how fragile the agreements we make for one another are, and the value of keeping them anyway. There was a really striking passage in Countdown City that perfectly encapsulates this:

Because a promise is a promise…and civilization is just a bunch of promises, that’s all it is. A mortgage, a wedding vow, a promise to obey the law, a pledge to enforce it. And now the world is falling apart, the whole rickety world, and every broken promise is a small rock tossed at the wooden side of its tumbling form.

The detectives in these stories have made promises to help people however they can, and they will not let themselves off the hook on that. Even if they get it wrong, even if they put themselves in physical danger, even if helping people puts them at cross-purposes with the law at times. In many ways, these guys are superheroes without the “super”; all they have is the rugged determination that they have to do the right thing because if they don’t, who will?

There’s something tremendously engaging about that to me; the deeply-flawed man, shoring up the doubts and weaknesses in his mind with the symbols of moral authority he feels attached to, fighting his own character as well as the darker forces in the world to serve this ideal that may never be attained. It’s so hard to engage with the world that flies so consistently in the face of that ideal; it’s one of the reasons why fundamentalists create echo chambers for themselves. But here is our noble detective, well aware of the weakness and wickedness of men, striving to be something more while accepting the world just as it is.

I’ll be moving away from detective novels for a little while — the third book in the Liveship Traders trilogy has been calling my name for some time now — but it’s nice to know that Harry and Hank (and even Nohan) have new tests waiting for them in future books. I’ll be cheering them on again soon.

 

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