Hard-Boiled Mysteries and Soft-Boiled Poets

December 14, 2011

The world needs more hard-boiled mysteries written by soft-boiled poets. This admittedly peculiar insight occurred to me as I was reading poet and novelist Jim Harrison’s first crime novel, The Great Leader. The book immediately reminded me of another mystery written by a poet—my favorite modern poet, as a matter of fact—Richard Hugo. The interesting thing about these two books—both of which are thoroughly gritty and definitely not “cozy”—is that their protagonists are given to weeping. If you’re from the Raymond Chandler school, you probably subscribe to the axiom that there is no crying in the hard-boiled novel. Well, you’d be wrong.

Let’s look at Hugo first. Death and the Good Life (1988) was Hugo’s first mystery. It might have been a series—and a fabulous one at that—but Hugo died of a heart attack before he could write the sequel. Still, the seeds of crime fiction were everywhere in Hugo’s poetry. After all, it was a Hugo line, from the great poem “Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg,” that provided the title for what is perhaps the greatest hard-boiled detective novel of them all: James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. Here’s the line: “Say your life broke down. The last good kiss // You had was years ago.” That line evokes the heart of many great heart-boiled novels (not only Crumley’s), but it especially stands behind Hugo’s own detective novel, which stars the inimitable Al “Mush Heart” Barnes, who earned his nickname for his tendency, as a Seattle cop, to break into tears when the going gets rough. The going definitely gets rough in Death and the Good Life, as Barnes, now transplanted to a town very much like Missoula, Montana, and serving as a laconic, mostly drunk deputy sheriff, must confront all manner of human tragedy, both in his personal life and in the string of ax murders he’s asked to solve. Mush Heart prevails, but not before ample opportunity is afforded to weep at the multitude of lives gone wrong and last kisses long forgotten.

So it is in Harrison’s The Great Leader. Sixty-something Sunderson has just retired from his job as county sheriff in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; he’s reeling from a soul-crushing divorce, and he’s been spotted peeping at the girl next door as she does her nude yoga. What Sunderson needs—retired or not—is a new case, and he finds it in the matter of cult leader Dwight (aka the Great Leader), who is doing more than peeping at the cult’s teenage followers. So it’s off on a quixotic adventure for the hard-drinking, hopelessly sensitive, dangerously good-hearted, unflaggingly randy ex-sheriff who, like Mush Heart, is given to weeping. When not weeping, Sunderson mostly mopes—about lost love and the unfairness of getting old—but after about five pages, most readers will be willing to follow him anywhere. After all, he reminds us, “the purpose of life, simply enough, was life.”

That’s the thing about soft-boiled poets impersonating hard-boiled detectives. They think about emotions first and handcuffs, well . . . after the tears have dried.

BILL OTT is editor and publisher of ALA’s Booklist.