Arguably the longest private eye novel ever written, Roderick Thorp's The Detective was a 1966 bestseller. Comfortably middle-class P.I. JOE LELAND, a former big city cop, and insurance company investigator, has set up a detective agency with partner Mike Petrakis, counting on Joe's reputation for integrity and professionalism, and a lot of work from the insurance company they both used to work for. They operate out of an office over a furniture store in Port Smith, a town in some unnamed northeastern state, but business is at least good enough that Joe can afford his own plane, not to mention the cigarettes and booze that seem to keep him going.
When The Detective kicks off, Joe's going through a rough spot in his marriage (his wife, Karen, and their daughter Stephanie, no longer live with him). And then he becomes involved in a particularly nasty case that threatens to "lay bare a town's most intimate secrets," as the blurb goes. "To uncover the truth, (Joe) must expose the sexual and emotional links" and plunge deep into the psychological complexities of a myriad of characters, including himself.
Sure, it's a big, trashy novel, but it's also quite entertaining. Perhaps tellingly (or maybe just a promise to readers who found the first book too long), the much shorter sequel was encouragingly titled Nothing Lasts Forever.
As that one kicks off, twenty years have passed, Joe and Karen have divorced, and she's since passed away. Joe's dissolved the agency and is now a security consultant, lecturing on SWAT team tactics, anti-terrorism measures, aircraft security, etc., etc. He's very much in demand, travelling all over the world, and rarely returning to his New York apartment. He no longer flies his own plane, or even drinks. He's lonely, and only rarely speaks to his daughter, Stephanie, who's also divorced, with two children of her own. She has an excellent job at a petroleum company in Los Angeles, but Joe feels he's failed her. So he decides to pay her a visit one Christmas... this is the literary equivalent of an action thriller, with a scorch-and-burn ending that could have come from Hammett himself.
Both Leland books were made into very successful films, although both took major liberties with Thorp's originals. 1968's The Detective had Leland back on the force as a New York City cop, played with considerable skill by Frank Sinatra, looking into the mutilation murder of a homosexual. With its frank (sorry) and "enlightened" attitudes towards gays, this was considered quite edgy and even daring stuff for its time. Aided by a great cast, the film did boffo box office, and still stands up as a rather engrossing, if extremely dated, police drama.
Faring even better when it comes down to the bottom line, though straying even further from the original source material was 1988's Die Hard, starring Bruce Willis, fresh off his success with TV's Moonlighting. Once again, Joe was cast as a cop, not a private eye, and this time he's not even a Joe -- he's a John. John Maclain, a tough New York City cop on his way to a possible reconciliation with his wife over the Christmas holidays. Masterfully directed by John McTiernan, and featuring a then surprisingly buffed-up Willis in all his smug, smartass glory, this one set new standards for rock'em-sock'em action and special effects, and there's no denying Willis and crew delivered one hell of a action thriller here, setting new standards for every film in the genre since.
But if you read the original novel, you realize just how ultimately facile and spineless and, yes, conservative and safe, the ending of the film actually is.
Not that it matters much, I guess. Die Hard has since spawned four filmed disappointing sequels so far and a ton of mostly lame imitations and rip-offs, sometimes starring Willis himself.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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