Last week I posted a 20 question interview done by Holly West with author and friend-of-the-blog, Dana King. It was really interesting. It was also a repeat.
I was supposed to have posted an interview I did with Dana. Or rather, Dana’s response to my one question. What is it with PIs?
So, a week late, here it is:
I’ve read private eye stories since I was old enough to choose my own reading material. Encyclopedia Brown. The Hardy Boys. Sherlock Holmes. Mickey Spillane. In college I moved toward non-fiction for quite a while, until I found myself divorced and no longer a musician. I had a nine-to-five job and time on my hands. The local library featured a Raymond Chandler book—might have been his birthday—and the name rang a bell, so I picked it up.
Then I had to read them all, pretty much one after the other. Moved to Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Robert B. Parker, and keep right on going, through Dennis Lehane and Robert Crais and too many others to list. Chicago PI Nick Forte was the first character I created. He’s stayed with me though four novels (including the just-released The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of), a fifth to come, and even made a guest appearance in my other series.
So what is it with PIs?
I hadn’t thought much about it myself, just that they were fun to read and write. My epiphany came on Sunday, October 12, 2008, in Baltimore. Bouchercon Sunday morning. Everybody hung over, Declan Hughes moderating a panel on PI fiction. High-profile panelists, yet all I remember is Hughes, who gave an impassioned and well-reasoned argument against the disrespect that had befallen the PI genre. He asked the audience to remember how the scales fell from our eyes when reading Chandler, Hammett, or Macdonald for the first time, reminding everyone, were it not for Hammett and Chandler, none of us would be here this week.
Not only was the PI novel woefully undervalued, Hughes maintained, when done well, it is the highest form of crime fiction. A first-person PI allows the author to make his own comments in the guise of the detective, who becomes the novelist within the novel. The reader becomes more involved by seeing through the eyes of the PI and having to interpret for himself. Last—far from least--societal commentary runs through PI novels as an integral part. (This is why I take notes at all Bouchercon panels. Bunch of smart people there.)
To use a term Hughes would likely appreciate, I was gobsmacked. In no more than five minutes he’d changed me from a guy who enjoyed writing stories to someone who was proud of his chosen path. He didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know (at some level), yet everything he said felt new. I never thought the same way about writing PI stories again.
Because, of course, he was right.
The archetypical PI story uses a first-person narrator, the ultimate way to characterize. The author need tell the reader nothing. The character does it, in every word on the page: what he notices (or doesn’t), how he describes it, how he responds to events, how he treats people. Everything about the telling of the story informs the reader about that character. He is somewhat unreliable as a narrator by definition—he can only share what he knows, and not necessarily all of that—yet the reader must trust him, as his word is all we have. There is no distance between the reader and the story. You’re in it with him now, for better or worse.
PIs can also look into things the police won’t, or can’t. Cops take whatever cases come to them, with a mandate to close it to the satisfaction of the legal system. This may leave as many questions unanswered as answered. That’s where the PI comes in, to provide some kind of closure. With luck, to make things come out right, or at least as close as he can get it.
The PI is the outsider, not restricted in the same ways a cop is by politics or power. (Fictional detectives, we’re talking about.) Look at the popular crime fighters most likely to leave lasting impressions: Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Mike Hammer, Spenser, Elvis Cole, Easy Rawlins. PIs, all. Which cops come to mind? Harry Callahan, Columbo, Dave Robicheaux, Popeye Doyle, maybe Steve Carella, and the partnership of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. With the exceptions of Columbo and Carella, the best-remembered cops are those who operated outside the system, or bent it to their own purposes.
I’ve heard it said that PI stories are currently in eclipse because Americans aren’t enamored of the outsider since 9/11. They want stories about how the omnipotent government agency or hero—think Jack Bauer—keeps them safe. (Never mind all the talk about how government is too big. Ever hear any of those guys want to cut Defense or Homeland Security?) That seems to be a plausible explanation. If it’s true, then look for PIs to come roaring back, as dissatisfaction over the means with which government keeps us safe continues to grow, and shades of gray move toward the center of consciousness. And conscience.
As for me? Doesn’t matter. I’ll keep reading and writing them as long as I’m able. It’s the big leagues.