Defending the PI Genre

On Wednesday, I read an interesting post entitled “The Perils of the Private Eye” by K.D. Hays. Found on Southern Writers Magazine’s blog Suite T, the article works from the premise that it is “a bad idea to use a private detective in a modern mystery.” Hays makes some relevant points to argue her case, but many of them seem to only apply to her work, which I confess I haven’t read.

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My opinion, the PI genre is one of the more enjoyable, dynamic, and elastic genres out there, and I wanted to defend it a bit. So I’ve copy/pasted passages from Hays’s article below and offered up rebuttals to her arguments.

1)      First of all, there is no such thing as a private detective. Detectives work for the police. “Private eyes” work for investigation firms, and most of their business consists of doing background checks. Clients often hire investigators to find out who’s stealing from them, but they don’t hire them to solve murders. So if the lead character is a private investigator, she’s not going to be solving murders, and most people pick up a mystery expecting to find at least one or two dead bodies lurking in the pages.

Perhaps I’m quibbling over a silly point, but not all private eyes work for investigation firms. (I’m reading American Detective by Loren Estleman, and Amos Walker does not work for an investigation firm.) In fact, I’d wager that an overwhelming majority of real PIs are solo freelancers because, technology being so readily available to all, they can be. Too, many real and fictional PIs start off as police officers and get burned out.  Why? Because of the corruption and bureaucracy in the legal system, for starters. There is a long and rich tradition in the PI genre of former cops who want to provide investigative services without having to put up with silly regulations and inter-departmental politics, so these PIs move from the collective (police force) to the individual (private investigations). Read literally any Chandler or MacDonald mystery: the theme of legal versus moral shows up again, and again, and again. The PI knows, on a personal level, what is right and wrong; he doesn’t need the police or a government agency to tell him.

murder

To Hays’s point about PIs not solving murders. Of course, that’s true, but I hasten to add that many PI mysteries begin as a simple job–snooping on a wife, for instance–and then that job turns into a murder mystery; when it does, the private investigator is already involved in the case, and there’s your murder mystery.  That said, I reject the premise that a mystery must have a murder in order to be good or even marketable.  My second novel Split to Splinters, which is up for a Shamus Award, does not involve murder; corruption, greed, deceit, baseball, fame, money, sibling rivalry, sex, hubris, and theft, but not murder.

2)      The second problem with using a private investigator as my fictional crime solver is that a competent investigator already has a pretty good idea “whodunit” by the time he or she goes out to a site to investigate. There may be a couple of suspects, but nowhere near the number of red herrings that are required to sustain a good mystery plot.

Again, I reject the premise that there aren’t enough “red herrings” and “suspects” in a PI mystery. That, to me, goes toward the simplistic thinking that a PI mystery is all about plot (the WHAT happened). Characters that are carefully drawn will reveal themselves to have complex motives, and they will not be so easily identified by the reader as the person “whodunit.”

computer work

  3)      A third problem with using a private investigator as my fictional detective is that most investigation work these days is done on the computer.

Herein lies my biggest issue with Hays’s stance on the PI genre. She is, in my opinion, completely missing the ethos of the private eye. As I alluded to above, a private eye is an iconoclast, a male or female who operates under his or her own set of morals, and often those morals are more rigid and personal than the ethics and standards of the police force and other government agencies.  (Private eyes having troubled/complicated relationships with law enforcement is an enduring and, in my view, cherished troupe of the PI genre.) So while a real private investigator probably does spend a ton of time on the computer, a good fictional PI (like Eli Sharpe) knows that “Shoe leather solves cases, not bandwidth.” No piece of technology can replace looking into a suspect’s eyes and “reading him.”  No gadget imaginable is as effective as an experienced private eye sitting across from a suspect and asking him questions, gauging his body language, his speech, his demeanor.  That will never go out of style. Neither will the PI genre. But I could be wrong.

conclusion

I don’t think the overarching point of Hays’s article was to trash the PI genre.  I believe she was attempting to expound on how she developed, through trial and error, the protagonist featured in her own cozy mystery, and if you read the entire piece, I think you’ll agree she is successful on that score. However, I just happen to disagree with many of her conclusions regarding my favorite literary genre. Either way, if you’re interested here is a link to her novel called Roped In.

feedback

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree with any/some/all of Hays’s assertions about private investigators? If so, which ones?
  2. Do you think a mystery must involve murder?
  3. How often do you read PI mysteries?

Max likes to hear from fans (and critics), so email him at maxeverhart30@gmail.com, like his Facebook page, or visit his website.

 

 

GUEST BLOG: Paul D. Marks, Shamus Award Winning Author

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“Into the Vortex

My name is Paul and I’m addicted to noir.

So I like to watch it, read it and write it.

To me the thing that most makes something noir is not rain, not shadows, not femme fatales, not slumming with lowlifes. It’s a character who trips over their own Achilles heel so to speak, and then his or her life spins out of control from there because of their own weaknesses or failings.

And that’s just what happens in my latest noir-thriller, Vortex (released 9/1/15). Zach Tanner is just returned from the war in Afghanistan. He finds that he can run from the war, but he can’t run from himself. He and his girlfriend, Jess, careen down Sunset Boulevard, trying to get away from a flashy red Camaro that’s hot on their tail. But it’s hard to get away from your best friends, who think you’ve stolen their spoils of war.

In talking with the original publisher, I pitched the book as a modern day version of the classic film noirs about returning vets and all the trouble they get into when they come home from the war, in that case World War II. Great movies like Somewhere in the Night, The Blue Dahlia (with a screenplay by Raymond Chandler) and Ride the Pink Horse, and also books from a later period like Dog Soldiers and The Last Good Kiss, dealing with returned Viet Nam war vets.

Vortex is a noir-thriller, but on some level I think it deals with the death of the American Dream for many and the Get-Rich-Quick schemes others use to “achieve” it. Schemes that are destructive not only to themselves but also to the country.

These are themes I revisit from time to time. And often the city of LA is as much a character in my work as the people.

Right now I’m working on the sequel to my Shamus-Winning novel, White Heat, plus another short story, the sequel to an as yet unpublished short story about Bunker Hill, Los Angeles that Ellery Queen recently picked up, and several other things. No rest for the wicked noirist.

Good to be here and thank you for having me, Max.

***

Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a “taut crime yarn.” His story Howling at the Moon (EQMM 11/14) is short-listed for both the 2015 Anthony and Macavity Awards for Best Short Story. Vortex, a noir-thriller novella, is Paul’s latest release. Midwest Review calls Vortex: “…a nonstop staccato action noir.” He also co-edited the anthology Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea. www.PaulDMarks.com

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Review of DON’T DARE A DAME by M. Ruth Myers

On M. Ruth Myers’ website, the author claims her books have “strong women–small guns–smart dialogue.”  And Don’t Dare a Dame, the third book in the Maggie Sullivan detective series, makes good on those claims.  And then some.

Set during the Depression Era in Dayton, Ohio, Don’t Dare a Dame starts off in classic P.I. form with Maggie Sullivan taking a seemingly dead-end case. The Vanhorn Sisters, two sweet spinsters, one of them blind, hire Maggie to look into the disappearance of their father, who vanished some quarter of century ago during the Great Flood of 1913.  The investigation immediately turns deadly when the Vanhorn’s stepfather–and Maggie’s chief suspect–commits suicide, and then she gets hauled before the Chief of Police for asking too many questions. From there, the pot really begins to boil as Maggie discovers that the Vanhorn sisters’ suspicions are justified: their father was, indeed, murdered; the only question is: who is the killer?  But before Maggie can identify the killer and bring justice to the Vanhorn’s, her P.I. license, her livelihood, and her life will be put at risk.

Myers definitely makes good on the “strong women” in this novel, especially the protagonist Maggie Sullivan.  Tough and pretty with a smart mouth and a strong moral compass, Sullivan is a “dame” a reader can root for.  This is the passage in chapter one that really sold me on this character when Sullivan takes a bully down:

I hated to persuade him, but Neal seemed like one of those guys who needed taking down a peg or two. I gave him a quick little kitten jab in the snoot. Not enough to break it, just enough to start blood gushing down to his chin and get his attention. . .’Don’t drip on the rug on your way out,’ I said.

Now that’s my kind of detective, but if you remain unconvinced of her toughness, here’s a great exchange between Sullivan and one of her operatives after she’s caught a beating herself:

“Holy smokes, Sis! Someone roughed you up bad.”

“Yeah, but I shot him,” I said to allay his dismay. ..

“Was it Cy Warren’s mugs did it?”

“Nah,” I lied. “Some girls have a fan club. The one they started for me is people lining up to break my nose.”

But it’s not only Sullivan’s toughness and sharp tongue that make this an enjoyable read. It’s also the setting. The descriptions of the area, the secondary characters and how they act, speak, and think, and the police procedural aspects of the novel: all of these elements are authentic and highly readable. And when you add those elements with a formidable lead character and a page-turning plot, it all adds up to a great mystery.

Maggie Sullivan is in the running for my favorite new P.I. series, and I’ve already downloaded Tough Cookie to my Kindle. Don’t Dare a Dame, which was recently nominated for the Shamus Award for Best Indie P.I. novel,has everything working for it. Go buy it. You will not be sorry.

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http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Dare-Maggie-Sullivan-mysteries-ebook/dp/B00GJQEGO0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404217688&sr=8-1&keywords=don%27t+dare+a+dame

 

 

White Heat by Paul D. Marks

In White Heat, former Navy SEAL turned PI Duke Rogers makes a quick $250 dollars by locating the address of Teddie Matson, a burgeoning TV actress.  A day later Matson is murdered, and Rogers, wrenched with guilt, sets out to find the killer.  Set in L.A. during the riots following the Rodney King case, Rogers is beset on all sides by looters and gang bangers, stalkers and criminals, grieving families and damsels in distress, fires and bullets. But it is Rogers’s conscience that proves to be the biggest obstacle. Occasionally calling on the assistance of Jack, a racist/xenophobic ex-SEAL who is eerily likable, Rogers is a formidable hero and more than interesting enough to carry a series.  No spoilers here, but I liked the ending precisely because every narrative thread was not neatly tied up, and yet, in the vivid, hard-boiled world Marks has created, justice is served.

White Heat won the Shamus Award for Best Indie PI novel in 2013, and I certainly see why.  There are several elements to this book that make it more than just the run-of-the-mill private dick story.  Exhibit A: the fantastic descriptions of Los Angeles. Having been to L.A. a total of once, most of my ideas about La-La Land come from TV, movies, and books. Marks does a remarkable job of portraying a city in crisis, a portrayal, I might add, that is more vivid than Raymond Chandler’s L.A. and more realistic and complex than James Ellroy’s. (Note: I love both of those writers and their books).  Exhibit B: the palpable tension running through the narrative. Stalking is a big theme in this book, and as I read, I felt the fear, anxiety, and paranoia gripping me.  Throughout the novel, there are italicized sections of inner monologue that serve to put the reader inside Rogers’s head and in the belly of the riots.  Exhibit C: the commentary on race. It’s damned hard to successfully weave social and/or political commentary into a novel without coming off as preachy, but Marks pulls it off.

Bottom line, I’ve come up with a simple question for determining if a book is really good or not: how many hours of work and/or sleep did you lose because you couldn’t stop reading? Let’s just say I have a stack of ungraded essays on my desk, and my eyelids are very heavy. Cheers to the author of White Heat for that.

P.S.–Check the author’s blog linked below. Love his thoughts on old noir films.

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http://pauldmarks.com/index.html

http://www.amazon.com/White-Heat-P-I-Duke-Rogers-ebook/dp/B007SIR8QG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1386340106&sr=8-1&keywords=white+heat+paul+marks