I’ve been writing a series for some years now about a private detective named Frank Swiver, who walks the mean streets of San Francisco circa 1948-’50 (so far). I became comfortable using private eye and noir tropes, such as
- characters driven by loneliness, anger, sex, greed, ambition
- cigarettes (everybody smokes)
- gabardine suits, trench coats, fedoras (all the men wear them)
- the femme fatale
- characters haunted by the past
- an unhealthy relationship with alcohol
Last year, I began to think, how did Frank become a private dick? Kind of like a comic book superhero origin story. I took an opening shot at it last year in “The Road from Manzanar,” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March-April 2019), set way back in 1942. In “Manzanar,” Frank, a pacifist ever since his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, is trying to convince the draft board he’s a conscientious objector. Well, stories sometimes take the writer places he hadn’t planned to go, and this one turned out to be a fun, complete adventure before I ever got where I was headed about the origin of Frank’s Old Vine Detective Agency.
But I was headed for a time before “Manzanar,” when Frank took the first steps on his ultimate career path. It happened in Spain in August 1937, when he did a little investigating while he and the Abe Lincoln Battalion were bivouacked around Bujaraloz, preparing for an offensive against Zaragoza, capital of Aragón. This month I wrote a first draft of that story, “Friends of Durruti.” It was great fun writing, even though I found myself adrift in new sub-genres—a bit of Hemingway-war-drama/romance, and a bit of Alan-Furst/Somerset-Maugham-espionage/intrigue. Whatever it was, it did not use all the same tropes as stories from P.I. Central.
By tropes, I mean plot, character, or setting expedients that help make the story run, and that the reader recognizes as a device or trope. What I like about tropes is the familiarity. In a P.I. story, I can describe a mysterious woman as tall or short; but either way, if she’s the femme fatale, the reader knows she has gams and they’re long enough to reach the ground; whether she’s a blonde or a brunette, she has desires for sex, money, or escape from the constraints of her life—uncontrollable, all-consuming desires that will lead to her destruction, (and if he’s not careful, to the P.I.’s demise, too).
Here are a couple tropes that you won’t find in “Friends of Durruti:”
- there is no client, bringing a case to the P.I. to be investigated.
- there are no cops, so hapless that the P.I. is the only guy around who can solve the case. (In “Durruti,” Frank is in a war zone, and the only “police” at hand are the Soviet NKVD.)
Some things remained the same, or similar. Frank’s style, language, and fashions tend to be anchored in the 1930s and 1940s. In Spain, he’s traded in the shabby gabardine suit, trench coat, and fedora of his future P.I. days for a mismatched and shabby uniform (and fedora). He can’t get fresh Camels, so he rolls his short unfiltered smokes with Spanish Picadura tobacco.
Other tropes remained. I continued to write about Frank’s struggles with demon alcohol. (Is that a P.I. trope or what?) Frank’s friend Max brought him to fight in Spain to get him away from the wino tendencies that were causing him to slip into darkness. But his deep and intense relationship with alcohol continues in “Durruti” as the femme fatale introduces him to absinthe—legal in Spain.
And the femme fatale, one of my favorite tropes—we have one in Durruti. Felina, a dame driven by loneliness, sex, and desire for a better life. Frank must determine—is Felina a good Catholic girl? Or a duplicitous cortesana?
A not uncommon trope of mystery/P.I./noir fiction is characters haunted by the past. A slight twist in this story: Frank is living the past that will haunt him in his P.I. days.
And some things barely changed at all. Frank’s a tough, cynical guy with street smarts. Not strong in deductive reasoning, Frank solves mysteries with dogged persistence.
Perhaps the main trope in “Friends of Durruti,” is not from the P.I. sub-genre specifically, but from noir--disillusion, pessimism, and the unhappy ending. In Frank’s noir-ish P.I. world, his quest to solve a mystery often leads him into a shadowy world of betrayal in which clients and criminals can blur. In Republican Spain in August 1937, Frank and Max fought for the Second Spanish Republic, whose military consisted of all manner of left-wing militias--Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, Social Democrats, and Trotskyites, along with the International Brigades, all led by Soviet officers and Spaniards trained by the Soviets. Their enemies were the Nationalist army of Spain and the Spanish African troops, the fascists, Falangists, Carlists, Requetes, and Catholics, and the Italian troops sent by Mussolini and Hitler’s Condor Legion. Frank Swiver’s allies and his enemies blur among the complex and shifting alliances, and he and Felina do not live happily ever after.