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The personal honor of the private eye is the genre’s most hallowed convention. He owes nothing to anyone. He is in it only for himself; therefore, he is selfless. In Chandler’s description: “He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man, or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. . . . The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.” The detective in Chandler’s books is Philip Marlowe, a character probably created on the model of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. (Hammett was a mystery writer Chandler did admire. “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse,” he said.) Lew Archer is Ross Macdonald’s private eye; Mike Hammer is Mickey Spillane’s. Thomas Pynchon’s is named Larry (Doc) Sportello. Sportello is the best thing in Pynchon’s self-consciously laid-back and funky new novel, “Inherent Vice” (Penguin; $27.95). The title is a term in maritime law (a specialty of one of the minor characters). It refers to the quality of things that makes them difficult to insure: if you have eggs in your cargo, a normal policy will not cover their breaking. Getting broken is in the nature of being an egg. The novel gives the concept some low-key metaphysical play—original sin is an obvious analogy—but, apart from this and a death-and-resurrection motif involving a saxophonist in a surf-rock band, “Inherent Vice” does not appear to be a Pynchonian palimpsest of semi-obscure allusions. (I could be missing something, of course. I could be missing everything.)

more from Louis Menand at The New Yorker here.

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