It was a dark and stormy night. I dragged myself home from an endless stakeout, popped a Dos Equis and sprawled on the couch. Watched a documentary on “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” two historic bank robbers who didn’t look much like Paul Newman and Robert Redford. They were hunted down by Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, whose motto was “We Never Sleep” and whose posters contained a simple drawing of a staring human eye. The film’s narrator said, “This is where the term ‘private eye’ came from.”
Who doesn’t love private eyes? Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Nero Wolfe, Travis McGee, Spenser — an endless list of shrewd, persistent crime solvers. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of books that keep us up all night — goggle-eyed, minds racing — as our hero chases down the clues, figures it all out and confronts the villain. Just six pages from the end of the book!
Not without help, though. Who would Sherlock say “Elementary” to if there were no Watson? How would Spenser get by without the ominous presence of the cold-eyed Hawk? Wolfe would be helpless if not for Archie Goodwin taxiing around New York City digging out everyone’s secrets. McGee without Meyer, the retired economist? Fuhgeddaboudit! The sidekicks are a huge part of the fun — quirky, different from the hero dude.
I don’t want to exclude the rough-around-the-edges savior guys. Smart enough to think things through, but mostly big, strong and physical. Jack Reacher, Mitch Rapp, Elvis Cole, Mike Hammer. When all else fails, head-butt the bad guy. Or kick him in his kneecap. Or, stop wasting my time — shoot him, for heaven’s sake. On the last page of “I, the Jury,” Hammer shoots the conniving woman. She says, “How could you?” He says, “It was easy.” So much for the 5th Amendment, not to mention the 5th Commandment. And the bodies pile up.
Then there are the police. Lucas Davenport, smart, fearless, relentless as he keeps the Twin Cities safe from killers; Kurt Wallender, a complicated, tortured man doing the same job throughout Sweden; Jim Chee, Indian reservation cop, chasing evil in the Southwest’s desert. Harry Hole, Harry Bosch, Virgil F. Flowers — an endless list.
In “A New York Trilogy,” Paul Auster details one character’s weakness for such books: “When he was in the right mood he had little trouble reading 10 or 12 of them in a row. It was a kind of hunger … and he would not stop until he had eaten his fill.” OK, raise your hand if you find even a vague resemblance to yourself here. Me, too; and while it’s easy to say that such books are all the same — and in a way I suppose they are — you could also say that every ice cream cone, every football game and every spring are the same, so “sameness” is not a viable criticism.
Here are half a dozen acclaimed corpus delecti books to read, or re-read: ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ by Thomas Harris, ‘Mystic River’ by Dennis Lehane, ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ by David Guterson, ‘Night Fall’ by Nelson DeMille, ‘Case Studies’ by Kate Atkinson and ‘Presumed Innocent’ by Scott Turow.
And, yes, the Book Cottage is open.
Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].