Behind the gangsters, corrupt plutocrats, stoic gumshoes, and femmes fatales hovers Dr. Sigmund Freud, who masterminds the mayhem in classic private-eye stories, according to this study in Freudian lit-crit.
Like a shrink decoding a patient’s dreams, Karydes reads the roiling imagery of sex, violence, and betrayal in the stories and novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald in light of these authors’ own troubled family histories. Thus, Hammett’s strained, guilty relationship with his ne’er-do-well father and his mother, who had to shoulder the family’s responsibilities, works its way into idyllic scenes of a neophyte detective and the fatherly boss who mentors him and darker stories of scornful wives turning on failed husbands. Chandler’s clingy mother and self-loathing homosexuality are transformed into sexually voracious women and eye-popping male beauties who beguile his lonely hero, Philip Marlowe. Macdonald’s even clingier, schizophrenic mom appears in his novels in a series of quasi-incestuous relationships between older women and younger men. Freudian interpretations are a natural for private investigator stories. The detective plays the hard-pressed ego, charged with guarding a moralistic superego, embodied in the social establishment, against the underworld’s idlike forces—only to discover in the disillusioning climax that these polar opposites have always been in bed together. Karydes’ take on that critical approach in this debut book, complete with lengthy quotes from psychiatrists and occasionally rote diagnostics—“the Electra complex…is axiomatic in the development of girls”—is sometimes a bit too heavy-handed in its psychoanalytic orthodoxy. Her hero is Macdonald for his long bouts of analysis, his confessional memoir, which she rediscovered and cites extensively, and his self-conscious deployment of Oedipal conflicts throughout his books (“Fathers in Macdonald’s best novels fail to protect their sons by leaving them to mothers who then treat their sons like husbands”). Still, Karydes discusses this gnarly material in a vivid, accessible style that yields cleareyed and sympathetic insights into these authors’ lives and captures the seething psychological power in their works.
A shrewd, illuminating, and entertaining exploration of the twisted roots of writerly creativity.