Oliver Harris at the Times Literary Supplement:
In 1972 Fidel Castro’s Ministry of the Interior announced a competition to develop the crime genre in Cuba. They wanted stories that would deter anti-social behaviour, promote vigilance and establish heroes so principled they didn’t even swear. The contest attracted no entries. The Ministry’s miscalculation reflects the complexity of the genre’s appeal. Does crime fiction, as some have argued, serve as a prop to the status quo, reinforcing the law and even, via the palliative presence of a detective, helping accommodate us to social injustice? Or is it quite the opposite: a means of critique, shining a light into otherwise unexplored corners? In truth, the genre thrives on this duality. As the failure of the Cuban competition suggests, didacticism is a turn-off. What the putative crime writers of Havana wanted was to explore corruption. What readers wanted, then as now, was not a morality tale but stories of jaded men and women playing by their own rules.
No figure embodies this ambivalent appeal as effectively as the private eye. The legendary PI emerges via true-crime tales and pulp fictions to supplant the cowboy as modern hero: a romantic loner mistrusted by both police and crooks, playing both ends against the middle. It is this rugged individualist that John Walton’s eye-opening research tears to pieces. In The Legendary Detective: The private eye in fact and fiction, Walton asks how the American detective of collective memory arises out of one of the country’s most controversial and partisan industries.