You are on page 1of 6

Ethical deviations on the hard-

boiled detective in Sarah Pare


sky's "Grace Notes"

In this essay I will examine the presence of the ethical elements of the

archetypical detective stories, as described by Brendan Riley in his essay

"From Sherlock to Angel: The Twenty-First Century Detective", in the short

story "Grace notes" by Sarah Paretsky. Riley mentions two significant phases

in the development of detective fiction: the classical and the hard-boiled.

Riley lists two significant Criteria for differentiating them, which are relevant

to the subject of this essay:

1. The method employed by the detective. According to Riley, the

classical detective uses ratiocination and intellect (909), whereas the “hard-

boiled detectives operate more on gut instinct and happenstance. Sam

Spade travels from place to place, […] often happening upon an event that

helps move his case along.” (912). Because of their heroes` different

methods, the hard-boiled narratives developed more adventurous pattern

(910). Holmes could solve a case almost entirely from his chair, where as

Marlowe will have to wander through all of L. A. before he`s through. As a

result, the very character of the detective changes: “Where classical


2

detectives operate in a detached, scientific way, hardboiled detectives

investigate because they care about their clients;" (909). However, if the

hard-boiled doesn`t display the analytical prowess of his classic predecessor,

what is his special talent? According to Riley, "the [hard-boiled] detective’s

virtue (along with quick wits and righteousness) might be the only card he

hold.” (909-10). Holmes solves crime very much to his own amusement and

even vanity, displaying his abilities and finding order in a seemingly chaotic

situation. If society and justice benefit, well, that`s almost just a bonus. The

hardboiled detectives` motives are more ethical, ideological even, a notion

that is reflected in the more personal and risky way they solve their

mysteries.

2. The social meaning of the solution of the crime. While both types of

detective stories feature the comeuppance of criminals, the nature of the

criminal element differs significantly:

Classical detective stories ‘‘aestheticize’’ crime, making a chaotic

moment into an artistic puzzle. They also attribute crimes to individuals,

an important psychic salve for middle-class readers concerned with the

rising rate of crime in urban centers (98 – 104). Classical detective

stories reenforce notions of individual responsibility, rational thought,

and crime. They eschew social explanations for crime in favor of

individual ones. (909)


3

The Hardboiled detective gives us a grittier and more complicated view of

society:

Instead of tracing the criminal activity to a single individual, hard-boiled

detectives find themselves uncovering more and more mysteries […]

finally, the track leads back to the rich and respectable levels of society

and exposes the corrupt relationship between the pillars of the

community and the criminal underground. (909)

The hard-boiled detective despises the rich, scoffs at petty criminals and

distrusts authorities, yet he must interact and even cooperate with all of

them at one point or another. Thus, the hard-boiled detective presents a

more unsettling view of society and human nature. As Riley puts it: "Marlowe

bolsters the notion of individual morality standing against a corrupt culture."

(910).

Riley continues to link these phases with the technological

developments of the era, as well as analyze the effect of new technologies

on current detective narrative, using the television show "Angel" as his case

study. These themes will not be discussed in this paper. Instead, I will

attempt to analyze the way in which "Grace Notes" differs from the two

aforementioned phases of detective fiction, and try to venture as to what

these deviations mean.


4

In "Grace Notes", private detective VI`s life is shaken by an ad asking

for information about her deceased mother. After she responds to the ad and

meets with a sleazy businessman (Ranier), Vico, a long lost Italian relative,

enters her life, searching for a lost music sheet. VI and Vico try to recover

the lost sheets. After VI finds Mr. Fortieri, a friend of the family, injured, she

realizes she`s been duped and goes to Ranier`s office.

It`s rather clear that VI is more of a hard-boiled detective than a

classical one. She solves the mystery not through logical conclusion but by

running about, meeting people and getting into trouble. On the other hand,

VI gets along with the authorities (slightly) better than the average hard-

boiled detective and is even saved by them near the end of the story. The

crime VI investigates doesn`t reach `the pillars of the society', even though

Ranier seems to have some level of social status. The solution is rather

simple and not as convoluted as expected from the typical hardboiled

detective story (though this could relate to the limited scope of a short story

compared to a novel). These elements seem to give "Grace Notes" a slightly

more optimistic view of human nature, making it less cynical and critical of

society a whole.

There are two more meaningful ways in which Grace notes differs from

the archetypical detective story: the detective is a woman and she doesn`t

have a client. The fact that VI is a woman doesn’t change the social and

ethical themes of this detective story. However, the fact that VI isn`t helping

a client, but solving a personal family-related mystery, while protecting her


5

own property, puts a dent in the typical hard-boiled detective`s strong

ethical stance. Marlowe or Spade operate out of values of integrity and

loyalty to their clients, spending time and risking their lives so they can do

their job and help a person in need. Often, even after the client is satisfied,

these hard-boiled detectives will continue investigating down the rabbit hole,

to `get to the bottom of things` and try to eliminate the root of the evil

they`re facing. This element is eliminated in "Grace Notes". VI is

instrumental in putting the criminal Ranier behind bars, but his ties to the

mob are an afterthought and incidental to the story. She hunts him down

because he has tricked and stole from her. VI is operating from egotistic

motives. Without examining other stories that feature VI, or other stories

that feature a female detective, I cannot determine whether this is an

anomaly, or is this a pattern that should be thoroughly explored and perhaps

explained (as Riley explains the deviations in "Angel").

The classical detective charmed audience with his sharp intellect, while

creating order out of chaotic crimes, so that the middle class would feel safe.

The Hard-Boiled detective undermined notions of social security by

investigating crimes that could not be confined, or explained easily by the

classic detective`s logic. The hard-boiled detective had to summon all his grit

and virtue and venture on an adventure that might end with him dead – all

for the sake of his integrity as a professional and his ethical stance. However,

this stance is elusive. A hard-boiled detective may solve a crime and even

put criminals away, but without truly testing his moral fiber, his story will
6

lack that strong ethical motive, which is, in my opinion, the true appeal of

this genre.

Bibliography:
Angel. 2000-2004, WB.

Paretsky, Sara. "Grace notes" from "V. I. for Short". London penguin books,

1995. 197 – 246.

Riley, Brendan. "From Sherlock to Angel: The Twenty-First Century

Detective". The Journal of Popular Culture Vol. 42, Issue 5 (2009). 908 – 922.