The Promise of the P.I.: Disputing Claims that Private Investigators Shouldn’t Be in Modern Mysteries

By Max Everhart

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.

tension

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.

 

 

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17 thoughts on “The Promise of the P.I.: Disputing Claims that Private Investigators Shouldn’t Be in Modern Mysteries

  1. Max, I believe Ms. Hays has missed the boat on traditional PI stories. And you’ve done a commendable job of defending such. My own series protagonist, Mac McClellan, inevitably spends time on his laptop doing necessary research. But, that in NO WAY takes away from his time beating the bushes afoot checking out leads and possible important clues. The premise Ms. Hays seems to present reeks of BOREDOM! as opposed to the time-tested PI standard. Shoe leather and grunting it out with intensive trail-sniffing will never be replaced by spending the majority of researching by online sleuthing. Boots on the ground will win out every time, in my honest opinion! Thanks for a very interesting post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mike. I think the article kind of leaves out the important element of “suspension of disbelief,” which, as readers, we all must do. We know that certain aspects of the PI game are workaday, so as writers we gloss over those and get to the good stuff. My guess, she hasn’t spent a ton of time reading classic PI mysteries, or if she has she just didn’t like them, and that’s okay, too.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sue. I was wondering if it was just me being a grumpy old man about my beloved private eye mysteries, or perhaps I was missing something in her article. One thing though: I have heard women writers state, correctly I might add, that many of the classic noir PI mysteries from early twentieth century were overtly sexist. That’s absolutely true. Perhaps Hays was coming at them from that angle. Anyway. . .

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You might be right. But honestly, to shred a genre for that seems a little…for lack of a better word, petulant. Meant to add, there’s a fantastic husband/wife who are working PIs and authors. They have an excellent site, too, filled with loads of information. The name escapes me. Do you know who I mean? If not, I’ll dig up the link for you. You’ll love their site.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Max, I forgot to mention that my next Mac McClellan Mystery finds my protag doing a stakeout and tail job for an insurance company. The guy was in a bad auto crash, T-boned by a teenager with a rich father. The father’s insurance company paid dearly, and the company wants Mac to find out if the guy is faking the extent of his injuries. Other things soon happen murder-wise, but that’s a side-plot that becomes part of the overall mystery.
    My point is, yes, our private eyes take on mundane jobs to make a buck, but writing about the mundane won’t cut the mustard with mystery buffs.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more! A good detective story is a good detective story, regardless of the period it’s placed in. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (one of my favorites) is a perfect example of this, as she brought his character through the rapidly changing times between WWI and WWII. To me, the most important aspects of a good PI mystery are 1) the likeability of the detective and 2) the complexity of the mystery- whether that involves a murder or not. To bring a little bit more of the technology aspect into it wouldn’t really hurt the genre IMO, since there will still be a need for what’s thought of as the more “classic” detective methods like stakeouts and reconnaissance. As long as people lie and have something to hide, there will be a need for private detectives (and detective novels) no matter how technologically advanced the society. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I like mysteries and read them for relaxation. I don’t expect everything to be plausible, just possible and interesting. I like the noir movies too and they are a good escape for me. I don’t care if they are sexist it’s boring to be politically correct all the time. This is, in its own way fantasyland. I have spent many afternoons reading mysteries and had a lot of fun. I am as interested in the PI as the plot. If he’s a charmer, I like it, if he’s quirky I like it. If he’s a she, I like it. The concept of being elastic is good. As for technology, it has to be there to a degree, but considering the hours I spend staring at a computer I honestly want to get away from it and read about people moving around.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Sorry for the delayed response. Just catching up after a crazy week. Excellent blog, Max. KD Hays seems to have some sort of axe to grind against the PI genre. Seems to me she is making an to impress her likes and dislikes as general rules. I like PI stories. Some are more believable than others, but know what, I expect to suspend reality in fiction to a certain extent and it works for me. In my line of day job, I actually know some PIs. They are former police officers and are fully capable of solving crimes on their own. The often work with currently serving police, but they don’t usurp investigations–which fictional ones often do. And that’s fine too. When I want to read about police catching the bad guys, I’ll read a procedural.

    Does the crime in a mystery always have to be murder? That’s a question I’ve often asked myself as a writer. So far, all of my books have featured murders, but my short stories, nope. There are lots of other delicious crimes to write about, graft, corruption, robbery, burglary, counterfeiting. Ah, the list is endless. And as MJ says, if the protagonist is likable…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Kait, I think is very cool and invaluable that you know real PIs and lawyers. That gives your work a level of authenticity and credibility many readers look for. Hayden Kent, to me, feels like a genuine paralegal and that added to my enjoyment when I read Death by Blue Water.

      Liked by 1 person

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