Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Is the PI Novel Dead?

Steve is going to murder me for doing this, but I got a little distracted this week. My wife and I have a baby on the way, so my focus hasn't been there. Because of that, and after reading Joelle's post, I decided it's time to republish an old blog post I wrote in 2007 about the death of the PI. I have edited it some:

William Ahearn posted this article on his website. It's entitled The Slow and Agonizing Death of the Private Investigator. Obviously, since I write PI novels, I have a stake in this.

The PI has grown and expanded to become both more realistic and at the same time more exciting...The PI no longer is a cypher in which to see the mystery unravel, if it ever was. The PI was always personally involved in their stories. Spade tried to solve the Falcon case because his partner was murdered--and despite him saying, that's just what you do, and his sleeping with his partner's wife--I have a feeling Spade cared. If Chandler hadn't died, it appeared that he was well on the way toward marrying Ms. Loring.

The character taken umbridge with the most seems to be Lew Archer, a character who had "feelings." It strikes me that Archer is the character who changed the least. He killed a man in the first novel and it was mentioned only once more in the course of the series. He met a woman in The Blue Hammer, but we don't know if anything came of that. In fact it seemed that Archer was the character who we most saw only the case. Did he beat anyone up? Occasionally, but not if he didn't have to. But we always knew he could. Did he care about people? Yes. But how cases affected him, that was always to be deduced by the reader.

Characters these days, the article seems to say, are only wussy men or women who drink for no reason or see psychiatrists or do things that the old PIs never did. Guess what, times change. The series has always been about the character. Things have to happen to the PI for us to care. Seeing a psychiatrist is an interesting way to look at a character's depths, I think. (It worked in THE SOPRANOS and Tony was still willing to get his hands dirty.) As far as the psycho sidekick works, yes, it has become a cliche (just like the bottle in the top drawer, the article seems to love so much).

I don't think the PI is dead. I think-at some point-it's going to thrive again. There are great PI writers out there... Pelecanos, Lippman, Crais, Parker, Lehane. (Kenzie was a character, one who was conflicted by his job, commited a murder when he saw no other option, but had to let an even worse character go, when he couldn't get to him. He got scared, he fell in love, and he got beat up. There was much more to him than the "clutter" on the surface.)

The detective stories were always about the detective in the novels. Marlowe played chess by himself (clutter?).. . Spade was after the killer of his partner, as I said, and didn't care much about the bird. Nick and Nora drank way too much and were much more interesting than whatever the case they were solving was.. Sherlock Holmes did cocaine..

(I would bring Spillane and Hammer into this more, but... alas... I haven't read him... and I'm willing to admit that. Though I've seen one of the movies (the one with the nuclear stuff and the house that blows up because of it) and it struck me as just plain silly.)

PIs who have psycho sidekicks (or don't) still get their hands dirty... which was one of the things you said the old PIs that you enjoyed did, but new ones didn't.

Kenzie and Gennaro executed a gang member (but the article says the reader threw the book across the room, so I'm not sure he got that far).

Tess Monaghan killed a man and it still comes up in the series.

Spenser has set up men to be murdered by his hands.

Evils Cole has killed many men and been willing to shoot, punch, and do what it takes to get the job done.

In fact, the point of the article is that the current PIs have a conscience. They kill but they feel it. It strikes me that if Hammer, Spade, and Marlowe didn't feel it when they killed someone (and Marlowe definitely felt it...James Bond felt it too in the novels)... they would be psychos themselves. They are not heroes, they are cold blooded killers as well.

I find the novels now, more exciting. There is more intense action and there are reprocussions to this action. I want to see how characters are affected by the violent worlds they live in... to me, that is more exciting.


Dana King said...

I'm with you on this, and you may have pinpointed the reason Macdonald's books don't resonate with me. Fir years I keep hearing how he's the shit, and keep giving him another try. I can appreciate intellectually what he's going, but he doesn't get under my skin the way Cole, Kenzie, Marlowe, Charlie Parker, Ed Loy, and others do. (Tess Monahan is a special case. I don't care much for her books, but Lippman's standalones and short stories kick ass.)

I don't remember reading this the first time you used it, but it's well timed for me today. I'm in the process of returning to a PI protagonist I'd set aside for a few years. he kills people, and the circumstances of their deaths become slightly less justifiable as the (as yet unpublished) series progresses. This year's book is when his chickens come home to roost, where he has to examine what kind of person he is becoming. I've been a little worried about this detracting from the story. Your post here has reminded me, that IS the story; the plot is merely the vehicle I'm using to deliver it.

Congratulations on the baby. Make time to enjoy this. The first one only happens once. Remembering how I felt when The Sole Heir was born (she;s 21 now), I'm actually a little jealous. Those first few weeks with her at home were the best time of my life, and I've led a pretty happy life.

John McFetridge said...

Everytime I hear this about the PI novel I want to read more of them.

What I like is the potential that the PI novel has to seek out truth - not just admissable evidence like a police procedural.

We all know that at the end of every police procedural is another entire process involving lawyers and scientists and 'expert witnesses' on payrolls and deals being made and all kinds of things that can still go wrong.

But a PI isn't after something that can be taken into court, the PI is after something to be taken to the client. It's not about the justice system, it's personal.

The violence doesn't really interest me that much one way or the other.

Fred Zackel said...

The PI novel is fine. You just haven't been looking for it in the right places. Check most women's mysteries. Yeah, yeah, I know. You think you ARE including women PIs. But only the big names are you mentioning. To get truly started, begin with urban fantasies. Yeah, the supernatural stuff invisible to most guys. Witches, vampires, and the like. Most are PIs, just not the kind you favor. Sue Grafton thirty years ago said, Fantasy is the Great Equalizer. That's why she started writing. If you consider PIs as a fantasy figure, as a way to "equalize" your world view ... look at what the women are writing. Nope, they're not hard-boiled, they don't read BEAT TO A PULP or PLOTS WITH GUNS, they don't chitchat rara-avis ... but they happily fill shopping baskets and satisfy their audiences. In fact, they dominate the market.

Dana King said...

Re: John's comment above. Cops are about closing cases; Pis are about closure. Entirely different types of stories.

RJR said...

The "slow agonizing death" of the PI novel has been going on for 40 years, and it's still here.


william said...

Far be it from me to argue. Really. I don't regret or retract anything and I think a point about Archer was missed but that's the nature of the game. That piece has generated a lot of conversations and if I can get people to think about the form -- and how it may be changing -- then I think it was successful and I thank you for taking the time to read it.

William Ahearn