Congrats to Mr. Axel Howerton on landing his hilarious and original characters Manlove and Kickerdick into next year’s Queer themed issue of Big Pulp. Manlove and Kickerdick, besides having incredible names, are the break out characters in Axel’s super fun detective novel Hot Sinatra, which I got to read early because I am awesome (it’s due out later this year).
Anyway, to celebrate, I’m gonna list my favorite five detective heroes.
5. Marv– “Most people think Marv is crazy. He just had the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century. He’d be right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody’s face. Or in a Roman arena, taking his sword to other gladiators like him.” -Dwight describing Marv in “A Dame to Kill For”.
Tempted to leave it at that, but I’ll add that Marv is overlooked a lot in the detective pantheon, I’m sure largely for him being introduced in comic books and not being a detective proper; he’s actually more in line with the sort of guys traditional detectives have to take down. However, in Marv’s first appearance, he’s solving a pretty complicated mystery that involves doppelgangers, corrupt priests and politicians, and giving a serial killer some pretty hardcore justice.
4. Mike Hammer– I totally discovered Mike Hammer through the Stacy Keach 80’s TV series, but have since enjoyed the character in the many adaptations and reworkings he’s had over the past several decades. He’s a rare character that’s had a pretty good run in all major formats; comics, TV, film, radio and novels (where he was first introduced). And yeah, like Marv, he has a serious violent streak and isn’t above punching a crotch or two. His books are written in first person, and it’s pretty clear Hammer gets off when he kicks the tar out of someone. A modern reader would likely label Hammer a sociopath, and I suppose they wouldn’t be wrong. Still, a lot of fun.
3. Jake Gittes- I love how Jake sort of gets the shit knocked out of him constantly. Unlike the other guys on this list, Gittes isn’t much for brawler, and isn’t particularly imposing. Hell, you could even argue that he’s not that bright. He’s the closest thing to an everyman detective that has ever hit the mainstream. Most readers seem to gravitate towards detectives that are super geniuses, but they normally bore me (unless he’s wearing spandex… see below). There’s a film of sleaze on Jake’s skin that never wears off, and I like that.
2. Batman- The strongest Batman stories are the ones were he has to earn his moniker as the World’s Greatest Detective. Sure, it’s great to see a grizzled Batman beat the shit out of a boy scout Superman by using kyrptonite gauntlets, but it’s pretty satisfying when he proves through smarts alone that he’s the most formidable person in a room full of guys and gals that can lift mountains.
The best examples of Bats being a detective tend to be in the comics (though the Dark Knight had a couple of nice touches). My favorite is probably The Long Halloween.
1. Bud White– White is the ultimate combination of all the detective archetypes. He’s a bruiser that is never above using violence and intimidation, but he genuinely loves women (which is something of a rarity with the private dicks and detectives in fiction, who tend to treat women like shit as an unwritten rule of the genre), and violence against women is what really sets him off. He’s actually pretty clever, but his gruff demeanor and huge physical presence (James Ellroy describes White as hands down the biggest officer on the force) tend to let his foes underestimate him on an intellectual level.
A favorite sequence of mine in LA Confidential involves White taking several weeks off from work (he had previously never missed a day after nearly twenty years of duty) to attend an FBI sponsored course on forensics after he realizes he needs a few extra tools in his kit to take down some bad guys solo. His tenacity is incredible, and it’s reinforced by the permanent sacrifice he makes at the close of the book (and amazing film). Maybe that’s why Bud has an unfair advantage over the rest of these guys; he doesn’t have a dozen sequels to let him hop from woman to woman, and trounce a series of forgettable villains.
I realize most of the characters listed would be considered part of the sub-genre dubbed neo-noir. I do enjoy the hell out of more traditional literary detectives like Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Miss Marple (and yes, Sherlock, too), but these guys are the ones I find myself relating to, laughing with, and rooting for.
Regardless, you’ll notice that this tiny sampling is composed entirely of white characters (and if not for my half-assed name drop of Miss Marple, all dudes). It’s important for the pulp/noir genre that writers like Howerton push aside the more traditional archetypes to make way for guys like Manlove and Kickerdick, who when first introduced to me as a reader, were openly gay, low level leg breakers for the mob… and also endlessly fun to read about.