by Dave White
The Private Investigator is dead.
About 3 years ago, I got into one of those online arguments where no one is ever right, about whether or not the private eye is dead. WHEN ONE MAN DIES was about to be released and I had a stake in the subject. Of course, I argued the PI wasn't dead.
I may have been wrong.
What was the last best breakout traditional PI series? Dennis Lehane? Laura Lippman? Robert Crais?
It seems the traditional PI is fading and being replaced with another kind of PI. The slacker PI. Don Winslow's THE DAWN PATROL, Huston's MYSTIC ARTS, and TERRIERS are all slacker PIs. Guys who really don't want to be PIs but need a way to pay the bills. They'd rather be hanging on the beach or drinking a beer or cleaning up dead guy parts than solving cases.
But the case falls in their lap and they're drawn into it. Finally, they're in so deep they have no choice but to follow through.
I love the idea. It's the same, but different. No longer is the PI there was wants to be the shining white knight, instead it's morally ambiguous character who has no choice, but to do well. I feel it adds to the suspense. Will the PI do what's right and solve the case? Or will things get so bad he'll just walk away.
It also adds a comic flare beyond the typical wisecracking. The PIs have friends who are just as bizarre as the PI themselves. Gone are the psycho sidekick, and hello are friends who are willing to joke their way through the case.
The PI is fun again.
There are some very good traditional PI series still out there. Chercover, Michael Harvey, our own Mr. MacLean... well worth checking out.
But it seems the PI is changing again. And that's okay. It started out with a man doing a job. Chandler made him a white knight. MacDonald pushed their further, a man with a social conscience. Parker made him a family man. In the late 90s, PI novels became thrillers.
And now we're slacking.
The PI series is dead.
Nahhhh, he's just resting. Maybe he'll come out. If he feels like it. When the tide rolls out.
Long live the PI series.
The P.I. novel and protagonist are flexible by nature. Because the investigation is private as opposed official, a character in any walk of life can do it. The only quality needed is the determination to stay on the job (or go back and finish the job after licking one's wounds).
There have always been and will always be characters looking into things as a favor to others. That's the private eye in essence. Only someone who has a narrow view of the P.I. to begin with (usually Chandler's model) would say the P.I. is dead.
You gotta read some Declan Hughes, and listen to him speak on the subject of PI fiction. A great writer, and a true evangelist.
What I've always liked about the PI novel is that it's a search for truth.
Cops may know the truth but they have to find evidence that is admissable into court to get a conviction. But the PI is often hired by someone who just wants to know what really happened.
I wonder if that search for truth has anything to do with the changing attitude of the PI in fiction, if we'd rather "be hanging on the beach or drinking a beer or cleaning up dead guy parts than" looking for truth?
I don't necessarily think it's the slacker PI that's becoming more popular, I think it's a resurgence of character based PIs as opposed to process or tradition oriented PIs. For a while there books, movies, and TV shows all focused on the process of crime solving whether through forensics or psychology or whatever. Popular crime fiction was about finding the criminal. And on that plane a PI can't compete because they are an outsider and don't have access to the process.
But recently we've seen a shift away from process oriented crime fiction back to more character based crime fiction. This is where the PI can shine. Shows like MONK and THE CLOSER and SAVING GRACE kind of led the charge and now we get THE GLADES, MEMPHIS BEAT, and as Dave mentioned, TERRIERS. I know these are all TV shows but we all have to admit that what we write in prose is affected by what is on television.
In a character oriented environment the outsider is king and a ripe field for a renewed rise of the PI, whatever form he or she may take.
Byron hit a key point: PIs can't compete in forensics, so they have to have some other hook. Making the character interesting seems a novel idea, but it's worth a try. (Snark!)
Anything to get us away from the far-fetched ideas of the capabilities of forensic science.
The PI had changed gender. She's female. And she is no longer the Lone Wolf. (Too much like the spooky guy down the street who offs his neighbors. "Such a quiet guy, always alone. Or too much like the Lone Zealot. "Let me blow up this building with this airplane.") Nope, the new PI has an extended family and great friends. Some are goofy and some are cute ... but they all exist either as sidekicks or "caregivers" when the mean streets get ugly. Nope, I am not dissing any of them. There are lots of them. There are more women PIs today than there were male PIS in toto over the past sixty years. Sue Grafton said, "Fantasy is the great equalizer." That's why she went into writing PI books. "Lady dicks," as some wags call them, are the great success story of the last 30 years. More power to them. But a buck says they won't join PWA in the same droves as they belong already to Sisters in Crime. They can be counted upon the keep the PI alive and thriving.
In my blog I try to prove the PI is not dead yet. With my Noah Milano stories I tried to offer something new to PI-fans with a PI who's younger, hipper. He listens to metal instead of jazz, for instance. I think with these slacker PI's we also see how a PI doesn't need to be a copy of Hammer or Marlowe and can still be true to the archetype.
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