Recently the latest season of Jack Taylor appeared on Netflix and, as an avid watcher of the first few episodes (although, I will admit, not a reader of the Ken Bruen books on which they are based) I dove in happily.
Despite my initial excitement, overall I was disappointed by Jack, Kate and Jack’s new sidekick, all of whom seem like lame, watered down versions of traditional hardboiled private eye fiction characters, unlike in the earlier episodes where Jack was effectively an Irish Philip Marlowe.
This lack of true hardboiled detective is an issue in modern detective fiction. Plenty of authors create stunning portrayals of rugged, damaged detectives modelled on the Scandinavian style; equally plenty of writers choose to emulate more traditional, Golden Age Crime Fiction with a great emphasise on a Sherlock Holmes style intellect and an eye for even the most miniscule of details.
So where are all the hardboiled detectives? With the possible exception of the various reincarnations of Philip Marlowe, including the glorious portrayal of the character that Benjamin Black renders in The Black Eyed Blonde, there have been no strong, hardboiled style detectives in a long time. Many, both in film, TV and literature, fall flat, with some aspect, be it dialogue or overall characterisation, failing to impress.
Jack Taylor was, until recently, the exception. The show had the makings of a true hardboiled classic, and one that, unlike many, was set in the present day. Iain Glen’s Taylor was as witty as he was whisky soaked, and although his violence cost him his job in the Garda (the Irish police), his associations and enduring reputation ensured that he was always among the first on the scene. His lack of people skills and initial struggle to connect with and understand his suspects all initially mark him out as a great hardboiled PI, however in the later episodes he becomes almost clumsy- in Headstone he fails to consider a number of fairly obvious suspects early on, and the episode as a whole highlights the continual issue in Crime Fiction of ‘thunderbolting’; where the detective suddenly has an epiphany five minutes before the end after having had virtually no leads throughout the investigation.
Why, then, are hardboiled detectives so infrequently written nowadays? I wondered, when I first read the novels, if J K Rowling’s Cormoran Strike could be classed as such, however the character is a complete contraction. Rowling describes her character as a loner, yet her plots show him with a hectic social life as he constantly seeks companionship and praise; he is described as a quiet, introverted man yet he regularly squares up to villains and openly admits his strange background, wearing it like a badge of honour. He has all the hallmarks of a hardboiled detective: the harrowing past, the military background (whilst not essential, it lends a Bulldog Drummond esq quality to any detective), the unhealthy lifestyle and the witty patter, but the character as a whole lacks any conviction.
That, in my personal opinion, is why so many private detectives in modern novels fall short. In order to make them more attractive to the reader, they are often made to be more sympathetic, which is highly unnecessary and only detracts from them. Whilst some of the great Brit Grit authors, such as Paul Brazil and Benedict Jones are creating characters that are true to their depictions, their books are often too gory and focused on the criminal to classify as true hardboiled, private detective capers. The lack of an in between in the literature market is a shame, but with the rise of the modern detective, modelled on the Scandinavian style which combines a cerebral approach with tenacity and a willingness to turn to violence if required, perhaps we are about to usher in a whole new era for detective fiction.