Of the many heroic archetypes, there are two that seem to be ever popular: the cowboy and the private detective. They share many traits, these two: both tend to embody the basic tenets of masculinity for their time, both seek to bring order to a chaotic world, and both adhere to a code of ethics that may be eccentric but is still obviously moral. And although the cowboy as portrayed by, say, Clint Eastwood in the many westerns he has starred in holds deep character flaws, this is still a relatively new advance for this archetype, especially when compared to the traditional private detective.
In the two-fisted American pulp literature where the private detective rose to popularity and shed most of the gentlemanly trappings of his predecessors like Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes, character flaws were the order of the day. Dashiell Hammet’s Continental Op is a patently cynical and bitter man who strives to cling to his own humanity in the inhuman worlds in which he often finds himself. While Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe is clearly a highly moral man, he is certainly not above taking the law into his own hands, as in The Big Sleep, where he allows a murderer to go free. This template laid down by these two enormous names in private-eye fiction has been followed to great success by many important authors: Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne, Lawrence Block and his Matthew Scudder series, and the C.W. Sughrue books by James Crumley.
In the late 20th/early 21st century, we began to see an interesting evolution in P.I. fiction, where even greater emphasis is placed on these flaws. There is ample opportunity to explore themes of life and death, succor and destruction, with characters who are bitter, hardened, and almost always alcoholic. But what other barriers can we erect, what other internal challenges can we give these hard-boiled private dicks? This question has lead to such television programs as Monk, such films as Christopher Nolan’s Memento, and such books as Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn and now, to Nathan Larson’s superb The Dewey Decimal System.
Larson’s hero, Dewey Decimal, exemplifies all the archetypical traits. A former soldier, Decimal is well trained in ways of combat but also comports himself chivalrously with members of the opposite sex—the masculine superlative of the knight-errant. The world Decimal finds himself in is even more chaotic than our own, and he responds in kind: The Dewey Decimal System takes place in a quasi-post-apocalyptic New York, and Decimal himself suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder that he firmly believes allows him to function to his utmost (and the reader is hard-pressed to disagree, given the results he achieves). And as mentioned, Decimal considers himself a moral person, refusing to bring harm intentionally to anyone unless he is completely convinced one deserves it.
But it is those deeper flaws of Decimal’s that provide his character’s impetus, and these go beyond the surface OCD (the sort of thing which can be played light-heartedly in such fare as the aforementioned Monk). Decimal suffers from selective amnesia, and he has no real idea how he got to be so adept at fighting or even the several foreign languages he speaks fluently, except for vague memories of service in the military. Furthermore, he is plagued by nightmares of his past, pieces of the puzzle of his life which refuse to come together. Where the traditional P.I. may be able to point to societal trends or specific personal trauma that causes him or her to behave certain ways, Decimal cannot even do that—he is running just to stand still. Obviously his OCD is a symptom of that, but the flaws run so deep that the reader fears they may never be resolved. Like with Chandler, justice may not be served in order for the hero to feel all is right with the world.
There will be no revelation of the plot in this review, since after all, unearthing the mystery along with the protagonist is at least half the fun of reading P.I. fiction. Suffice it to say that Larson does a tremendous job, working with the traditional in the milieu of the new-traditional private eye. In The Dewey Decimal System, we find the sorts of characters which are so enjoyable, it almost seems an insult to refer to them as “stock”: the harsh and vaguely untrustworthy patron, the villainous cad and his troop of muscle, and of course, the femme fatale. As with his protagonist, Larson imbues each of these with enough personality and wit that the reader scarcely notices they come almost required with this sort of story.
In a further note on the setting, this reviewer admits to a minor case of nerves upon the discovery that this novel takes place in a grim, not-too-distant future. After the phalanx of cheap knock-offs following the success of George Miller’s 1981 film The Road Warrior, I have found myself post-tolerant of the post-apocalypse in most fiction. To his eternal credit, Larson leans not on this setting as a crutch or a gimmick—in fact, not only does he paint this background picture subtly, giving the reader just enough to go on, it also serves to bring the reader back to that other archetype that is so entwined with the P.I.: the cowboy. Both of these characters are better served in a chaotic world, so for Larson to present us with our contemporary world, plus just a wee bit more dystopia—a wild, wild west, if you will—not only makes sense, it is actually quite necessary.
Booze, broads and bullets are most often the surest signs that one is reading a hard-boiled detective story. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but we can all breathe a bit easier knowing that this lively form of literature is unlikely to pass out of the popular consciousness in the way that the western seems to have done for the most part. No, private-eye fiction is being kept vital and relevant by many creative and intelligent authors. Larson is far from the only one, but The Dewey Decimal System is proof positive that the private detective will remain a serious and seriously enjoyable literary archetype.