Joe Leland (aka “John McClane”)

 Created by Roderick Thorp
(1936-99)

THE DETECTIVE

Certainly one of the longest private eye novels ever written was Roderick Thorp’s 1966 bestselling potboiler The Detective. And that was only the beginning — not only did it become a successful film, but the novel’s sequel went on to inspire a multi-million dollar action film franchise thirty years later, a franchise that — as of this writing — just won’t go way.

But its origins were considerably more modest. In that original novel, comfortably middle-class 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 freelance work from the insurance company for which they both once worked. They operate out of an office over a furniture store in Port Smith, a town in some unnamed northeastern state, but business is certainly good — 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, as the blurb puts it,

“… lay bare a town’s most intimate secrets… To uncover the truth, (Joe) must expose the sexual and emotional links”

It’s a bold, deliberately showy plunge deep into the psychological complexities of a whole slew of characters, including, of course, Joe, and drew plenty of attention when it was first published. It’s also a deliciously trashy novel, and sold about a skedillion copies.

Naturally, it was soon adapted as a 1968 feature film, starring none other than Frank Sinatra as Joe Leland, back on the force as a New York City cop, looking into the mutilation murder of a homosexual. With its frank (sorry) and “enlightened” — if heavy-handed — attitudes towards gays, this was considered quite edgy (and even daring) stuff for its time. Aided by a great cast that included Lee Remick, Ralph Meeker, Jack Klugman, Lloyd Bochner and Jacqueline Bisset, the film did boffo box office, and still stands up as a rather engrossing, if dated, police drama.

NOTHING LASTS FOREVER

Thorp, following the success of The Detective, wrote several more novels in other genres (including Dionysus (1969), The Music of Their Laughter: An American Album (1970) and Wives: An Investigation (1971), but nothing really stuck, and so, thirteen years after the success of The Detective, he essayed a sequel. Perhaps as a sop to readers who found the first book far too long, it was encouragingly titled Nothing Lasts Forever (1979).

As that one kicks off, twenty years have passed, the literary pretentions are muted, replaced by a far more plot-driven story. Joe and Karen have divorced, and she’s since passed away. Joe’s dissolved the agency and is now raking it in as private security consultant, lecturing on SWAT team tactics, anti-terrorism measures, aircraft security, etc. He’s in demand, traveling all over the world, and rarely returning to his New York apartment. He no longer flies his own plane, or even drinks. But 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 the guilt-ridden dad decides to pay her a visit one Christmas at her office.

The Detective and Nothing Lasts Forever sit at almost opposite ends of the spectrum. Theformer is a slow-burn, serious-minded novel; its sequel is a surprisingly pulpy, broad-shouldered action thriller that simply aims to please, with a scorch-and-burn ending that could have come from Dashiell Hammett himself.

DIE HARD

Faring even better commercially than the novel, though, was its film adaptation, 1988’s Die Hard, which also took some unexpected liberties with the novel. It starred Bruce Willis, fresh off his success with TV’s Moonlighting, where he played a conniving but rather soft private eye. Once again, Joe was cast as a cop, not a private eye (or even a private security consultant), and this time he’s not even a Joe — he’s a John. JOHN McCLANE.

As played by a newly buff Willis, John Maclain is 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 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, setting new standards for every film in the genre since –and rebranding Willis, making him one of the biggest action film stars of the eighties and nineties.

But for all the pyrotechnics, the film’s finale is disappointing, an ultimately spineless and conservative conclusion that steps back from the fiery punch of the novel.

Not that it matters much, I guess. The film has since spawned several increasingly disappointing sequels, and a ton of mostly lame imitations and rip-offs, often starring Willis himself. The film, with its Christmas setting, have even become a sort of tongue-in-cheek holiday classic, as evidenced by the 2017 publication of A Die Hard Christmas, a parody which retells the story in the guise of a children’s storybook.

IT’S MY PREROGATIVE

  • Yes, I know the Die Hard films don’t feature a private eye.

UNDER OATH

  • “A big, sprawling book, expansive in invention, opulent in detail.”
    — The New York Times on The Detective
  • “Powerful and immense . . . and intriguing and provocative work.”
    — Chicago Daily News on The Detective
  • “This book is an original. It is daring . . . Our fictional private eyes usually come with skins like crocodiles. Leland is something else.”
    — San Francisco Examiner on The Detective
  • “… all the literary grace of a mile-long comic strip without pictures,”
    — Vincent Canby
  • “A ferocious, bloody, raging book so single-mindedly brilliant in concept and execution it should be read at a single sitting.”
    — The Los Angeles Times
  • “Nobody Lasts Forever… is a tough-guy treat. Trust me.”
    — Bill Crider on Rara-Avis

NOVELS

FILMS

  • THE DETECTIVE | Buy the DVD Buy the Blu-Ray  Watch it now!
  • (1968, Fox)
    Based on the novel by Roderick Thorp
    Screenplay by Abby Mann
    Directed by Gordon Douglas
    Produced by Aaron Rosenberg
    Music by Jerry Goldsmith
    Starring Frank Sinatra as JOE LELAND
    Also starring Lee Remick, Ralph Meeker, Jack Klugman, James Inman, Horace McMahon, Lloyd Bochner, William Windom, Jacqueline Bisset, Tony Musante, Al Freedman, Sugar Ray Robinson
    Cameos by Robert Duvall, George Plimpton
  • DIE HARD | Buy this video Buy this DVD Buy the Blu-Ray
    (1988, Fox)
    Based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp
    Screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza
    Directed by John McTiernan
    Music by Michael Kamen
    Starring Bruce Willis as JOHN McCLANE
    Also starring Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov, Paul Gleason, William Atherton, Hart Bochner, James Shigeta, Mary Ellen Trainor, De’oreaux White, Robert Davi, Rick Ducommun
  • DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER | Buy this video Buy this DVD
    (1990, Fox)
    Based on characters created by Roderick Thorp
    and the novel 58 Minutes by Walter Wager
    Starring Bruce Willis as JOHN McCLANE
    The diminishing returns begin.
  • DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE Buy this video Buy this DVD
    (1995, Fox)
    Based on characters created by Roderick Thorp
    Starring Bruce Willis as JOHN McCLANE
    Also starring Jeremy Irons, Samual Jackson
    Did anyone know what they were doing? Did it matter?
  • LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD | Buy this DVD
    (2007, Fox)
    Based (ever so loosely) on characters created by Roderick Thorp
    and a Wired magazine article by John Carlin titled “A Farewell to Arms”
    Story by Mark Bomback and David Marconi
    Screenplay by Mark Bomback
    Directed by Len Wiseman
    Starring Bruce Willis as JOHN McCLANE
    Also starring Timothy Olyphant, Justin Long, Maggie Q, Cliff Curtis, Jonathan Sadowski, Andrew Friedman, Kevin Smith, Yorgo Constantine, Cyril Raffaelli, Chris Palermo, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
    A slight return to form, but very slight. It looked like a turning point for the series, but it wasn’t. The worst was yet to come.
  • A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD Buy this DVD Buy this Blu-Ray
    (2013, Fox)
    Based (so they claim) on characters created by Roderick Thorp
    Screenplay by Skip Woods
    Directed by John Moore
    Starring Bruce Willis as JOHN McCLANE
    Also starring Jay Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Yulia Snigir
    Dumb AND stupid. McClane travels to Russia with a grown son (whom we’ve never heard of in the previous films) to save the world. A good day to stay home and read a book.

ALSO OF INTEREST

  • A Die Hard Christmas (2017; by Doogie Horner & J.J. Harrison)Buy this book
  • Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History (2018, by James Mottram & David S. Cohen) Buy this book
    L
    avish illustrated testament to licensing and marketing. Covers the whole phenom, from the original hit flick and its endless sequels to the countless spin-offs (Comics! Video games! Toys!)

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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