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The political philosophy of the private eye

I like paperback books that fit in my pocket. Unfortunately, about 25 years ago they pretty much stopped printing books in that size. Usually the closest you can get are those big floppy “trade paperbacks” or, in the case of the occasional Stephen King-type bestseller, a thick-as-a-brick paperback with big printing and fat pages.

It’s not my place to question book marketers. My best theory is that book prices went up, for whatever reason, and then people wanted to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth: instead of a little pocket book for $2.95, you get the trade paperback for $16.95. Personally, I’d prefer the little book–whether or not I’m paying $16.95–but probably others feel differently. It’s sort of like they way they’ll sell you 50 aspirins in a bottle that would hold 200, and so forth.

Anyway, I pretty much have to get my pocket books used. I was in a used bookstore the other day and bought Killing Time (1961) by Donald E. Westlake, an author whom I’ve referred to before as the master of the no-redeeming-social-value thriller. This book was pretty good, and, on top of that, it actually had some redeeming social value.

I’ll get back to this point in a moment, but first I wanted to say that one of the funnest things about reading a book from fifty years ago is to get a sense of how things used to be. Killing Time takes place in a small East Coast town which is dominated by a few local bigwigs. I imagine there used to be a lot of places like this in the old days but not so much any more, now that not so many people work in factories, and local ties are weaker. It reminded me of when I watched a bunch of Speed Racer cartoons with Phil in a movie theater in the early 90s. These were low-budget Japanese cartoons from the 60s that we loved as kids. From my adult perspective, the best parts were during the characters’ long drives, where you could see Japanese industrial scenes in the background.

OK, now back to the “redeeming social value” thing. In Killing Time, Westlake takes the traditional Philip Marlowe private eye scenario and turns it inside out. The main character of the book (named Smith–make of that what you will) follows the standard pattern: he’s outwardly cynical, just wanting to live his life and get by, but underlying this he has a philosophy of government that you might call “realistic idealism” or “idealistic realism.” In the book, some reformers from the state capital come to town with the goal of exposing corruption, but private eye Smith doesn’t want to go along with this: in his view, the reformers are naive, society has a balance, and it’s best to keep things on an even keel. There’s a crucial scene about two-thirds of the way through the book, though, where I suddenly realized (through the words of another character) how Smith’s apparent cynicism is an extreme form of idealism. And then when I got to the end of the book, I had a sense of the explosive internal contradictions inherent in the standard “private eye” view of the world.

What I can’t figure out is how anybody could write a private eye story with a straight face after reading the Westlake book. To me, it really closes the door on the genre. It’s the Watchmen of private eye novels.

P.S. An interesting thing about Westlake is that he has not, I believe, ever had a breakout bestseller. I don’t know what it takes to get such success, but I don’t think it ever happened to him. He had many books made into movies, though, so I’m sure he did just fine financially.

P.P.S. Don’t get me wrong, it”s not like I’m saying Westlake is some sort of unrecognized literary master. He has great plots and settings and charming characters, but nothing I’ve ever read of his has the emotional punch of, say, Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan (to choose a book whose plot would fit well into the Westlake canon).


  1. OneEyedMan says:

    I had the worst sense of Deja Vu when reading this post.

    Then I realized that you posted it over at your applied statistics blog (The political philosophy of the private eye) several months ago.

  2. Brandon says:

    On the paperbacks that fit in your pocket:

    This is something that I've wondered about for a long time. If you actually find out why publishers stopped producing books of this size, I'd love to read about it in a subsequent post.

  3. Nick Cox says:

    In the early twentieth century, there were several series of hardbacks designed to fit in your pocket, including Everyman (Dent/Dutton), Oxford World's Classics, Nelson, etc. These weren't transient or trivial books — the whole idea was to build up a personal library of classics. They can be sought out now in used bookstores (secondhand book shops). The font was small, but the paper and binding were decent and many copies are in good physical condition a century later if past owners took care.

    On the statistical side, Karl Pearson's Grammar of Science and at least one of Francis Galton's books were included in the Everyman series.

  4. Bob Carpenter says:

    You'll probably be surprised to find that lots of modern-day detective books take place in small towns dominated by a few big wigs.

    Maybe it's just easier to write about.

    I also wish books were smaller, but now my older eyes are appreciating larger print.

  5. Phil says:

    Coincidentally, Robert B Parker died yesterday.