The decline of private detective fiction

“Get this, and get it straight: crime is a sucker’s road and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison, or the grave. There’s no other end…but they never learn!”

So began each episode of my favorite old time radio show, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe. Except for a couple episodes, the stories were radio originals not based on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories. The complexities of Chandler’s stories were far too much for a 30-minute radio show. Still, the writers did an admirable job and occasionally penned some characters and turns of phrase Chandler would have been proud of. Gerald Mohr’s portrayal of Marlowe was outstanding. I’ve been a fan for years but still have plenty of episodes left to enjoy. But when I finish?

It’s a shame the era of the great fictional private detective is over. Private detectives still exist, probably still have interesting adventures, and are still written about, but it’s clear the winds have changed. Why not? Maybe tastes changed, sure, but that could be said about anything. Some possible reasons:

1. Law enforcement technology is better now; police can do more at lower cost. The relatively limited capabilities of the police back then left more room for private detectives than exists now. Greater law enforcement capability also makes second opinions less valuable. The first ones get it right more often e.g. in forensic analysis. This helps to explain why fiction involving official law enforcement is still thriving.

1a. The scope of law enforcement has changed as well. A lot of crime is related to illegal drugs. From the point of view of the aggrieved parties there’s less uncertainty about the culprits, less interest in using third parties to handle them, and of course more official police interest.

2. A lot of old detective stories had some element of blackmail and shameful secrets that the clients don’t want made known. These still exist, but the circle of things that can be successfully covered up or that people are willing to bear great costs to cover up is smaller. Example 1: a criminal past one is making a clean break from is a matter of public record, and communication technology makes it easier to transmit. Employers, fiancé(e)s, prospective fathers-in-law, et al. are much more likely to find out, so blackmailers don’t have special leverage. (This example ties in with point 1.) Example 2: sexual mores are much less restrictive, making blackmail based on violations of sexual mores decline.

2a. A lot of the clients come from Old Money. The greater development of the market makes Old Money families less prominent. People may look askance at you if your cousin or nephew is a ne’er-do-well but you aren’t risking the family honor as much as you once did, and Rich Uncle Moneybags is less likely to shell out.

3. There are more and more ways to display/broadcast high status, so people have less incentive (read: motive) to fight over any single one. Stolen art objects or jewelry feature often in detective fiction. Today’s lowbrow would-be thieves can peacock in less risky ways. Today’s highbrow would-be thieves can indulge in the greater supply of modern art or tribal art instead of taking the risk to steal a Ming vase, or make a public commitment to a trendy political cause.

4. The Cold War. Cold War fiction must have been a partial substitute for detective fiction, and the characters there are mainly state agents who need access to special information, gadgets, and budgets beyond the reach of private eyes. There were detective stories about Communist spies but they were not the bread and butter of the genre, and subjectively they didn’t hold up as well as the other kinds.

5. Urban population as a percentage of total US population was 56.5% in 1940 vs. 80.7% in 2010. Increasing urbanization led to more audience familiarity with the kinds of things in detective fiction, making the stories less exotic and more like fleshed-out versions of the newspaper crime section.

1 and 2 each probably have a decently high R2, and the rest are plausible but probably don’t cover as much ground. I’m sure there are more. In any event old episodes of the Sam Spade radio show are still out there.


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