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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
- Do you agree with any/some/all of Hays’s assertions about private investigators? If so, which ones?
- Do you think a mystery must involve murder?
- How often do you read PI mysteries?