The Case Of The Disappearing Private Eye
I looked for him, but he was gone. I checked the boozy dives and the greasy spoons and the street corners where the not-nice girls hang out.
He was gone.
Tall guy, fedora, trench coat. You must’ve seen him. Usually smoking. He was always hanging around, poking his nose where it didn’t belong and usually getting it punched.
A real wisenheimer, too, always cracking wise.
You see him, you call. And if I find out you’ve been holding back…
If you don’t miss that kind of patois, you’re either too young to remember it, or you’ve got a tin ear. God knows, I miss it.
Back in May, some of you might remember I interviewed Road to Perdition author Max Allan Collins (http://www.soundonsight.org/max-allan-collins-road-to-perdition-on-carrying-on-mickey-spillanes-legacy/). A lot of the discussion had to do with his connection with one of the giants of private eye fiction, Mickey Spillane.
In the course of the conversation, it was mentioned that Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels had hit their commercial peak during the early 1960s. It was only days later it occurred to me why there had been something about that comment that kept it buzzing around in my head. Then, like someone who buys a red car and suddenly notices how many other red cars there are on the road, it came to me: it wasn’t just Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels which had slipped out of view.
In literature, private eye stories have been moneymakers for at least a century and a half. The names of the authors are as legendary as their characters: Poe, Doyle, Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Macdonald, Spillane, Parker…
As soon as the movies learned to talk, the private eye story became a big screen staple as well: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Harper (1966)… They ranged from the mass-produced private eyes series of the 1930s – like the Boston Blackie and Charlie Chan flicks – to the grim postwar noirs like Out of the Past (1947); from flyweight Abbott & Costello and Bowery Boys entries to the transcendence of Chinatown (1974).
Then came TV and by the end of the 1950s, the private eye was as much a boob tube regular as cowboys and cops. One studio — Warner Bros., which took a deep jump into TV production in the ’50s — had found a successful formula with 77 Sunset Strip and was soon pumping out private eyes on a production line. The formula: one somewhat mature but good-looking snoop for dad, a younger, even better looking private investigator for mom, and a still-younger hepcat to bring in the kids. Add a sexy address, stir, and 77 Sunset Strip begat Hawaiian Eye, Surfside Six (set in Miami Beach), Bourbon Street Beat (set in New Orleans), and The Roaring Twenties (set in Prohibition era New York).