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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

On Not Ranking Fake Detectives

Here’s a question for the human evolutionary biologists out there: where did our drive to rank things come from? At the end of each year and the beginning of the next there is this drive of every publication to put the media that they consumed into some kind of order. Never mind that every medium is so filled with different sub-genres and sub-sub-genres that you get into the most insane discussions. What’s better? Mad Max: Fury Road, a 2-hour car chase through a desert, or Carol, a romance between two women set in the 1950s? I mean, in one we are confronted with complex emotional dilemmas and feminist themes, and in the other there’s some girls kissin'.

What’s your video game of the year? Is it an 8-bit indie game created by one person to explain depression or the $80 million dollar Metal Gear Solid V? Or is it not really a game at all, rather a platform for creating Super Mario Brothers levels where there are 100 Bowsers and Mario is actually Sonic the Hedgehog and yet still, STILL, Princess Peach does not get to rescue herself.

It’s like ranking objects that can fit in your hand from one to ten, beginning at the bottom with walkie-talkies and ending with a close battle at the top between pears and sugar gliders. One goes really well with savory AND sweet recipes but spoils, the other is cute but might poop in your hand. I just can’t decide.

Now we’ve gotta rank Star Wars movies, again, because we have a new one. And suddenly, even though they have been the principal source of ire of every Star Wars since approximately one year after they were released (because we all loved them at first), some of the prequel movies are considered better than the one that started it all, while the new one that copies the one that started it all beat for beat is the second best.

Trying to rank pop culture is hard and useless, like a rejected diamond engagement ring the day after purchase.  There is no criteria that can successfully encapsulate the quality of one piece of media over another that does not eventually come down to a gut reaction based almost entirely on the circumstances you were in when you experienced it. Like I watched The Empire Strikes Back as a kid who liked everything and The Force Awakens as an adult with a withered soul; it’s not a fair fight.

As an aside and because there is no word limit to blog posts, I’ll rebut my own arguments against The Force Awakens for a minute. I was publicly disappointed in it because it was too similar to the first Star Wars. Now if I have a really good hamburger and I’m hungry again and get the same one, I’m not mad that it didn’t somehow elevate the hamburger experience. “This hamburger didn’t surprise me,” I say. “It didn’t transcend the genre of hamburger. I should have just eaten that original hamburger again instead.” Folks, sometimes we just want another hamburger.

Anyway, here’s a question that was endlessly debated: which one was better, Frozen or Tangled? Here’s an answer: it doesn’t matter. In a world where we have both and both only take up two hours of our time you can watch both. In our house, for example, you can watch both for a hundred times each somehow. I can’t even emphasize enough how much this does not matter. Here’s what matters: did the movie make you feel good? Did the book entertain you while teaching you something? Was the sugar glider’s poop gross but easy enough to clean up to make the experience of watching it take off from your hand and land on your friend’s worth it? Awesome.

There’s value to criticism. There are infinite ways to spend time and money and very finite amounts of each. I don’t want to waste even 15 minutes on a bad book and will put one down before finishing the first chapter if I don’t like the writing style. Criticism can help us to sort what we consider valuable use of our free time and funds from what could potentially ruin our lives. Anyone who bought Nintendo games based on their cover art as kids can attest to this. It can also make us feel bad about enjoying a thing or stupid for not enjoying it. Generally I’m on the side of not feeling bad about stuff that doesn’t matter. Though I've been told that my application of this principle is inconsistent.

My hook in this post was going to be ranking my favorite private detectives in books, which isn't as silly as the examples above because at least they all have the same career, I realized that I don't have to and nobody cares. There's a good chance that nobody cares either way, but at least I do.

So here, in alphabetical order, are some private detectives who starred in books I read.

Elvis Cole: So Robert Crais's The Promise, is listed as Elvis Cole book #16, Joe Pike book #5. If that's not confusing enough, it should also be called Scott James book #2. Here's the quickest way I can summarize it: Elvis Cole is a private eye who has starred in the majority of Crais's fiction. His partner is a gun shop owner and ex-mercenary named Joe Pike, who is scary. Joe started getting his own books, too, though Elvis is in them. Recently, K-9 cop Scott James and his ex-marine police dog got a story. In this one they all work together to stop what looks like a regular old missing person case before shifting into domestic terrorism before going even weirder.

I just devour Elvis Cole books. If it takes more than one sitting it's a surprise. They interfere with my ability to do basic tasks like get out of bed or brush my teeth. It reminds me of when I had a real The Sims addiction that coincided with unemployment. There I was at two in the afternoon, hadn't showered, hadn't eaten, hadn't dressed, really needed to go to the bathroom, and I was taking care of all those needs for a digital person who I wasn't sure I liked very much. Basically it was like having a cat. Reading one of these books is like taking Benadryl in that I better not have any plans for the next ten hours.

Veronica Mars: Hi guys have you met me? Then you know I like Veronica Mars. Is she my favorite private eye ever? Even in a world with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe and Spenser out there? Ha nice try, pal. You almost got me ranking things. Speaking of things, here's one. Rob Thomas (Mars's creator), and Jennifer Graham wrote a book that continues the story in some meaningful ways. The dialogue is still punchy, the mysteries convoluted, and the city of Neptune is still a corrupt mess. Just like in the show, the parts with Logan in them were boring and lackluster, but the rest felt like slipping right into the same slimy universe.
Here's a new one: Tai Randolph. Tina Whittle's character isn't really a P.I.; instead she owns a Civil War memorabilia shop. This is the third book in the series, but my first. It was pretty good. She hears early on about a Civil War artifact that may or may not be real and goes off on an adventure to find it. Her boyfriend, an ex-special forces guy who suffered brain damage, is one of the more interesting characters I've read in a book like this. Because of his brain injury, he has a hard time reading social cues, especially sarcasm. And like a good Trump rally, the KKK plays a major part.