The Death of the Detective is set in Chicago at some vague point between the late fifties and the closing of the Riverview amusement park in 1967. The postwar boom has faded and is beginning to be replaced by urban decay, white flight, racial and ethnic strife, and a creeping sense that the city is beginning an irreversible decline. It opens with a madman intent on murdering a dying Lake Forest millionaire, and we quickly meet the detective who will oppose him, Arnold Magnuson. In his fifties and essentially retired, Magnuson is famous for the detective agency he founded, which now makes most of its money supplying the ubiquitous Magnuson Men, a sort of combination of Andy Frain ushers and the Pinkertons. Called in by the millionaire, who anticipates the murderer's arrival, Magnuson finds himself deeply enmeshed in what quickly becomes a confusing web of murder and deception.
But that's just the basic plot that gets the book moving; after a while, it becomes clear that the plot is the least important part of The Death of the Detective. To have a sense of the thick, textured concoction this novel really is, you need to blend that story with Carl Sandburg's hog butcher, steep the result for a few decades in a broth of Dickens, Kafka, and Melville, and then salt it with a bit of the prose styles of James Jones, Nelson Algren, and W. M. Spackman. From Dickens, Smith takes a love of the grotesque and a fascination with the patterns of urban life: the unpenetrated neighborhoods rife with secrets, the endless hiding places to be found there, the unexpected and unsettling meetings with people one has known in other contexts. Kafka supplies the gaping horror at the fact that we can never quite do what we mean to do, perpetually distracted trying to catch up to what we should have done already--overlaid with the gnawing fear that there is no hope for any true justice because guilt is showered liberally on us all. Melville, meanwhile, provides the unstinted ambition and raging, unbridled prose: the full, complete story of every part of this brawling city can be told, and Smith is determined to make the attempt.
So he puts us perpetually, restlessly, in motion. We travel to the 31st Street Beach, a meat-packing plant, the Gold Coast, a West Loop Skid Row, Evanston, Edgebrook, Uptown, Bughouse Square, a topless bar in unincorporated Niles, Rogers Park, Bronzeville, the West Side, North Avenue Beach--the list goes on, covering every conceivable Chicagoland location. Yet somehow Smith never gives the sense that he's checking items off a list; rather, the wanderings of his characters seem to make a crazed sort of sense, like they, too, need to see the city as a whole in order to begin to understand how its corruption, decay, and sickness have damaged them--and yet how its underlying vitality has enabled them to keep up the fight.
Throughout, the characters see Chicago in its past and present incarnations simultaneously, casting dark shadows on its uncertain future:
What a change from the old days when ironmongers and rag-pickers would cruise up and down the alleys in horse and wagons or those high ancient trucks like ornate indestructible stagecoaches, each man with his own unique, recognizable, unintelligible cry; as would the trucks and wagons delivering coal and hawking whatever fruits and vegetables were in season, produce from the truck farms just to the north and west of the city and no that far from the neighborhood. And the residents themselves, man, woman, and child, would walk the alleys, preferring them to the sidewalks or the streets, using them like a secret network of footpaths and short cuts that traversed the neighborhood.
Throughout, there is a sense that the city may have in the past made sense, with everyone and everything in its place--but the future is uncertain, its categories shifting in unexpected ways. Smith spends a lot of time exploring the city's simmering racial and ethnic divisions, and his characters find themselves frequently confused both about their own identities and where those identities, if it's possible to stabilize them at all, could fit in the ever-shifting mosaic of the city. Large-scale change is on the way, and even the vague intimations of it the characters feel are unmooring them. At times, it seems all of Chicago is slowly going mad.
Smith crams the book's 600 oversized pages with description and digression, and he drags dozens of characters through multiple overlapping plots. I can't deny that The Death of the Detective could have used some editing: some portions drag, some characters never amount to much, and some scenes are repetitive. But Smith's ambition is so vast, and the tapestry he weaves so detailed and compelling, that I'm willing to forgive him the occasional lapse. I imagine that the book's length is one of the reasons it stayed out of print for so long--upon its release in 1974 it was a best seller and a National Book Award finalist, but it spent more than twenty-five years out of print. It's tough to print such a big book economically, and it can be similarly tough to convince readers to pick up such a huge book by a little-known author.
I think that neglect is also a reflection of Chicago's second-city status: had this book been set in New York, I have no doubt that it would have remained in print and would be regarded as a true American classic. But that's fine by me. Everyone knows New York's glories; us Chicagoans get to keep many of our city's treasures to ourselves, secret recompenses for living through February and August. The Death of the Detective definitely belongs on that list, Chicagoans.
[I see the writer of Neglected Books agrees with me; you can find some more information there about the book's critical reception.]