Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The PI

I've been thinking a lot about the PI series lately.

The PI should be hitting another level of popularity among readers. I mean, they're some of the most technologically advanced crime fighters out there. (Crime fighters or, ya know, people who hang out outside seedy hotels and wait for people to do bad things so they can take pictures of them.) They used to lug around a ton of equipment to listen in on conversations and take pictures and pee in jars while they waited.

Now most of that (minus the peeing) can be done on an iPhone and strong MacBook. And, as far as I can tell, tech is really popular these days.

But there's a problem. I'm seeing fewer and fewer PI books available these days. The ones that are are standard series that have been around for awhile. I have two thoughts on this:

1) The public's consciousness of the PI is stuck in the past. They haven't thought about how PIs have moved ahead technologically and advanced the profession, thereby leading to all knew story options. The public still views the guy in the trenchcoat, lighting a cigarette on a rainy street. That's what they want. When they don't get it, they're disappointed. When they do get it, they complain it something they've seen before.

2) Everyone has an iPhone or MacBook. It's nothing new. Spy stories are popular because they take you to a world you don't normally see. But PIs use technology that's available to everyone. Nothing new, nothing to surprise the reader.

I have no idea if these are anywhere near the truth, but it's thoughts like this that go through my head on a warm Monday night.

What do you think?

Are they new PI series out there I should be checking out?


Bryon Quertermous said...

God help me, I never get tired of this discussion. I don't think it's so much that readers are stuck in the past rather that writers are stuck in the past.

Most of the new PI series I read are terrible retreads of the oldest cliches. Or the authors are going to the opposite end trying to make it so different from anything before it.

That's why I think people still don't fully understand what a revelation Robert Parker was. He managed to make the genre new and vibrant and entirely his own while still keeping the sense of tradition alive. That's a really hard balancing act and I just don't think we've seen an author yet who can do it and be the big breakout new star.

Dana King said...

I forget where i read this, but someone said a few years ago PI stories are popular in time when the man against the system is popular. We're currently in a "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down" cycle, so Pi stories have it tough. It is a cycle, though, and I expect that will change.

Thomas Pluck said...

I'm bored with it. And with technological advances, it becomes the even less compelling (to me, at least) technothriller.
I read security expert Bruce Schneier, and current hacker exposes and true crime books. I wrote vaguely about online poker fixing in my most recently published story, but I stuck it far in the background because computers are boring.
Hacking someone's iPhone is boring, and so is reading about it.
Harlan Coben managed to use cell phone tracking and keep a compelling story in HOLD TIGHT, but that book jumbled many storylines to keep us interested.

This is not to disparage the PI profession, but I'd be interested in how many murders they've solved in reality. I've always been more of a fan of the outsider investigator. The ex-cop doing favors, like Scudder. The fixer, the con man, the crook figuring out who set him up. The rogue cop like Jack Taylor. I still enjoy the odd PI novel, but there is an element of quaintness, and I have to suspend disbelief.

Robert Crais still manages to make me believe in the story, though Elvis Cole has always joked about his own existence. "Hire the Biggest Dick in the Business!" so he makes the medicine go down easy.

I believe Mr. Banks said it well in a recent blog post about police procedurals. I'm more interested in the circumstances that lead to the crime than the solution of it. The emotional drives, the twisted pasts, the rage and regrets.

And with all the amateur sleuths, feline, crafty, or otherwise... has the fictional PI been put out of business?
The great Guns, Gams & Gumshoes blog can assist you in learning what a real modern PI does for a living, and what they can do. If PI's are your thing, I highly recommend becoming acquainted with the reality of it:

John McFetridge said...

Well, I hate to say it, but Bryon is certainly right about Robert B. Parker.

What I've always liked about the PI is the he (or she) isn't government affiliated, so to speak. Cops do their job, collect evidence and hand it over to lawyers and move on to the next one. It can be a lot more personal for PIs with more direct relationships to victims. And the PI's goal can be finding the truth, rather than finding court admissable evidence.

So, I think the PI may be put of fashion a little because our world is so much more about, "You can't prove that," and whatever people can get away with becomes right. And everyone has their own truth.

Anonymous said...

If you're looking for a PI recommendation, IN SEARCH OF MERCY by Michael Ayoob won Best First Shamus this past year and it was terrific. The protagonist is not a PI in the conventional sense, but it'll scratch that PI itch.

Nick said...

I'm with Thomas Pluck. I'm bored with it. There's so many better books out there that are about police procedurals. The private detective is just kind of done. Back in the 1950s maybe they were cool. Maybe there really were private detectives walking around in hats. But there aren't anymore. And from what I can read, these dames in these books these days can take care of themselves.

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Bryon Quertermous said...

You know, one of these days I'm going to take offense at all of the times people preface agreeing with me by saying "I hate to do this."

But this is not that time.

Brad, I liked In Search of Mercy but it didn't really scratch my itch. As much as I hate to say it (see, I can do it too) my favorite PI debut of recent years and the voice that best captures what I'm looking for in a PI novel is Mr. Parks himself. I just wish his character was a PI instead of a damn reporter.

And Tommy, I don't buy that argument about how many murder PIs solve in real life. In truth very few police detectives "solve murders." It's a lot of footwork and lucky breaks and really, really stupid criminals telling other people what they did. I followed a real PI and a real police detective for a newspaper story and the real PI by far had the more interesting life.

Also, in these days of underfunded police departments the PI is picking up a lot of the slack. There's also the reposessions, background work, missing persons work, and other stuff that's more than just murder.

Ray Garraty said...

I liked how Charles Ardai in his great SONGS OF INNOCENCE used Internet to make his story believable and fresh with old tropes.

Jay Stringer said...

I think folks should read OLD GOLD in July to see if I have anything to say on the PI.....

Thomas Pluck said...

I agree - and I don't hate to do so- that Carter Ross is one of the best new sleuths. And one of my reasons for liking him is that he's not a PI. He's got his own set of classic journalist tropes to contend with, and Mr. Parks handles them quite well, so the story remains very compelling.

I didn't say PI's led boring lives- I said I'm bored with the PI tropes, realistic or not. It takes a good story (realistic or not) to grab me, and that may be a matter of personal taste. I enjoyed Christa Faust's Butch Fatale novel very much, and it's pure classic PI. It's also very funny and full of interesting characters.

But in general, maybe it's what Dana said- that in these times, we prefer our hero to be a state official. FBI, CSI, police, etc. To believe they can fix what we perceive as broken. But that's never worked for me. I grew up among corrupt police, and for me there is an emotional detachment when I read about someone doing their job, especially one that burns you out.

Lately, for me, the outlaw has been more interesting, or those close to the victim.

Gerald So said...

For me, the appeal of the P.I. is along the lines of what John McFet said; they can champion those in society that no one else sees or cares to see. That kind of story doesn't depend on the latest tech or a particular image of the P.I. That kind of story will always be compelling.

Bryon mentioned Parker's achievement, and I agree he pulled off no small feat, but several to come after Parker have built fine careers on P.I. novels: Crais, Lehane, Rozan... Parker may be more revered from a historical perspective, but I wouldn't be surprised if Crais, Lehane, etc. were as if not more popular than Parker's final books.

For every author, it takes time to build popularity. Parker wasn't immensely popular until the late 70s-80s. It's impossible to predict off the bat who the next popular P.I. writer will be.

Jeri Westerson said...

Well yikes. Bored with it? But we are free to enliven it with so many new permutations. For my novels, I write medieval mysteries I style as "medieval noir" with an ex-knight turned PI. I take the tropes and run with them. Nothing noirer than the Middle Ages.

I've always been attracted to the odd man out, the guy who has to face his own demons as well as society's. Totally relevant now. Probably always will be. No matter how you couch them.

Mike R said...

PI novels are great for people who don't like difficult books. There's a crime and then someone solves it. Real straightforward.

Dana King said...

I'm a big fan of a good PI story. I few years ago I blogged about why.

"The fictional PI can look into things the average cop never touches. Could Ross Macdonald have explored the rotting foundations of crumbling families with a cop, or did Lew Archer have to be a PI? A cop concerns himself with who and what; why is nice, but is primarily important as a way to get to what, or to help to convince a jury as to who. His caseload is too great to do otherwise. Private eyes are paid to find out why, which often compels some worthy introspection. Cops are about closing cases; PIs are about closure."

I don't find good PI fiction straightforward at all. Often the PI has to figure out what the crime is--if any--then try to solve it. Often the book is only tangentially about the crime under investigation. (THE MALTESE FALCON) comes to mind.)

Stringer Belle said...

You know, if you'd waited for me to say something about Old Gold you would totally look like less of a dick right now Stringer.

Less books about PIs, more about PIE I say.

Or perhaps a loveable mathematical constant called Pi. Who fights crime.

Anonymous said...

You should Yann Martel's LIFE OF THE PI, that is about nonfiction lives of PIs.

jvdsteen said...

I've been promoting PI fiction for 5 years now on my blog, http://sonsofspade.blogspot.com/.
It shows the diverse ways the main PI theme (one loner against great odds, tough on the outside, tender on the inside) can still be relevant and new. I mean, just recently I've blogged about a bounty hunter tracking monsters, a Taoist detective and a financial accountant / hitman.
If you want a good PI fix but clearly set in the current time just take a look at what old pro Les Roberts did with The Cleveland Creep which deals with internet and voyeurism.
There's still PI stuff coming out, but less and less labeled as PI. All that to avoid people who say they are fed up with PI's and really mean to say the fifties cliche of PI fiction. I have to admit that's why I usually ''advertise'' my own Noah Milano as ex-mob fixer and security specialist instead of PI.
I seem to have succeeded in making him a valid update on the PI though, as James Hall (who writes about another PI that is not officially a PI) said: ''The writing is fresh and vivid and lively, paying homage to the past while standing squarely in the present."

wayne d. dundee said...

Sing the PI death knell all you want, but I'm betting (and have been, for some 30 years now) that the PI as a fictional staple will continue to be around for a lot longer. There will be ebbs and flows, as there always have been - Hammett/Chandler set the stage, Spillane re-vitalized it in the '40s & '50s, Parker did the same thing in the '80s and beyond (and is still going strong even after death). I don't see it as having all that much to do with reality or technology. It's characterization and pace and fresh writing. Plus the quasi-loner operating on the fine line between the law and the lawless will always have an appeal - Westerns seem to be re-surging in popularity for that same reason, and *if* PIs are at a low ebb now, I predict that cycle will come around again, too. Especially in this age of unrest and corruption. The "little guy" needs a champion and he sure as hell can't always find it from authorities - even un-corrupt ones - strangles by rules and regs and legal mumbo-jumbo.

Dan_Luft said...

I always thought the PI story had more to do with voyeurism than championing the little guy. The investigator is poking his nose into the secrets of all tax brackets and sections of society. It is rare for a non-crime novel to go from billionaire's homes to meth labs in the space of a few pages.

I think the trench coat thing is over with mostly thanks to Rockford Files and James Crumley books. The modern, hi-tech PI could be a viable option. The book might just be more like the old movie THE CONVERSATION.