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.


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.”

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.


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.


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, like his Facebook page, or visit his website.




Papa Was Wrong: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Challenges Hemingway’s ‘White Bull’ Metaphor

max picOn Hemingway’s metaphor for writing: But Papa’s whole bit about the blank page being akin to a writer facing down a “white bull” is just bull—-. Worse, it’s macho bull—-.  Sure, the “white bull” is a useful metaphor, and it certainly jibes with the Tough Guy/Big Game Hunter/Hard-Drinking persona Hemingway cultivated. And yes, Hemingway did win a Nobel Prize in literature, so who am I to argue with the man?

By Max Everhart

Aside from leaving behind at least two literary masterpieces (The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea), as well as the only perfect short story in existence (“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”), Ernest Hemingway was extremely quotable, and in today’s sound bite-driven culture where attention span’s are measured in nanoseconds, and celebrities become famous for their sex tapes and being witty on twitter, and. . .


Forgot where I was going with that.

Right. Hemingway.  Yeah, the man made for good copy, my favorite among his quotes being this gem: “Always do drunk what you said you’d do sober.” That has heft to it. Speaks to a person’s character. I like that.


But Papa’s whole bit about the blank page being akin to a writer facing down a “white bull” is just bull—-. Worse, it’s macho bull—-.  Sure, the “white bull” is a useful metaphor, and it certainly jibes with the Tough Guy/Big Game Hunter/Hard-Drinking persona Hemingway cultivated. And yes, Hemingway did win a Nobel Prize in literature, so who am I to argue with the man?

Well, I’ll tell you who I am: a guy who took 3rd place in the Reflections Writing Contest when he was eight; a guy whose written countless short stories, mostly for now defunct publications; a guy whose novels have sold in excess of 100 copies. That’s who I am.

So, now that we’ve established my impeccable credentials, I can explain, in eloquent, yet pity detail, exactly why Hemingway’s metaphor is bull—-.

It annoys me.

Hemingway took himself (and his work) too seriously, and we all know how that turned out. Too, and pardon me while I trample on the man’s grave, the “white bull” metaphor just adds fuel to the fire of Papa’s legend as a writer/adventurer who valued (overvalued?) “grace under pressure.” (Sidenote: the whole Camelot-JFK myth rubs me the wrong way, too, as that pretty boy was NOT a good president; he was just a guy with a silver spoon in his mouth whose father bought him a Pulitzer Prize and a presidential election).


Which leads me back to my point (if I had one to begin with): don’t over-complicate things; don’t be pretentious and insecure, man.  When it comes to writing, forget about Hemingway’s white bull nonsense.  Instead, remember Max’s Dog Rule: Sit at your computer, and stay.

Okay, maybe bang your head against the desk if things aren’t flowing the way you’d like.



Book Review: ONE DEAD, TWO TO GO by Elena Hartwell

one dead two to goReleased today by Camel Press. Only $4.95 on Kindle, $14.95 for a paperback.

Attention mystery fans hungering for the good stuff: One Dead, Two to Go by Elena Hartwell is a full course buffet. Infidelity, murder, and kidnapping are all on the menu, but the main course is Eddie Shoes (great name!), who is an engaging, resourceful, and tough female P.I. Throw in her poker-playing, Mafia-connected, breaking-and-entering mother named Chava and a pot-boiler of a plot, and I finished this book with a full belly, yet starving for more Eddie Shoes adventures. The writing is cinematic and vivid, the characters well-drawn, but the dynamic between Eddie and Chava, which reminded me fondly of Cagney and Lacey, is what makes the story. Fans of the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich should definitely check out One Dead, Two to Go. Recommended.

Note: I was given a free copy of this book by Camel Press in exchange for an honest review.


It’s Sooo Easy: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Explains How to Write a Private Eye Novel

max picHey, would-be writers of mystery!: To celebrate the launch of my latest book Ed, Not Eddie, I thought I’d show everyone just how easy it is to write a P.I. novel. Follow these simple steps and join the pantheon of great detective writers: Raymond Chandler, P.D. James,  Ross MacDonald. . .Fill-In-Your-Name-Here.  

by Max Everhart

Part One (average length: one to two chapters at most): P.I. meets client. Client describes the case, usually withholding some important information.  In classic noir tales, the P.I. will be sarcastic, jaded, and more than likely attempt to talk the client out of engaging his/her investigative services. But, reluctantly, the detective is hired, and then he/she asks pertinent questions about the case and the people involved. This initial meeting sets up Part Two.

Tips for Part One:

  • Establish a clear setting, which includes not only the physical environment, but the time period as well.
  • Establish the narrative perspective and tone of the book.  Most private eye tales are in either first person or a tight third person narration, but there are exceptions. Regarding tone, ask yourself if you want the book to be funny, serious, whimsical, satirical. . .whatever, just write accordingly. And keep it consistent throughout the narrative.
  • Sprinkle in interesting details about the P.I., but do not, under any circumstances, do an information dump.

usual suspects

Part Two (average length: four to seven chapters, depending on the complexity of the case): P.I. meets/interrogates all relevant suspects/witnesses. He/she asks basic questions that establish each character’s motive, means, and opportunity regarding the crime, all the while taking notes (mental or otherwise).  During this phase, the detective also performs research, collects “clues,” and forms general impressions about the suspects/witnesses and the case at large.

Tips for Part Two:

  • All suspects should have a credible motive, means, and opportunity regarding the crime. Translation: anyone could have been responsible for the crime in question.
  • Create an atmosphere of distrust, especially between the P.I. and all the suspects, but it helps for the P.I. to start to doubt the intentions of the client as well.
  • Establish a clear timeline for the crime. This helps the reader better understand the crime and allows him/her to investigate right alongside the P.I.
  • Write scenes, not chapters. Scenes are based on action; characters in a particular place, hopefully an interesting one, working out the basic dramatic conflict.
  • Periodically have the P.I. briefly summarize what he/she “knows” or “thinks” about the case thus far. Keeps the reader orientated. Helps you, the writer, as well.
  • Keep the pace brisk. Translation: move the story forward, always. Remove any long-winded backstory, exposition, or stalled scenes.

red herring

Part Three: (average length: three to four chapters): P.I. narrows the pool of suspects. Accomplish this by eliminating suspects that could not have committed the crime in question. Have the P.I. hone in on his/her favorite suspects and really squeeze them.  At this point, the dramatic tension gets ratcheted up a notch, which helps lead toward the climax and resolution.  Typically, the detective will bark up the wrong tree a bit before discovering the true villain(s). Keeps the reader guessing. Keeps the detective on his/her toes.

Tips for Part Three:

  • Throw in a red herring or two.
  • Have the P.I. involved in a dangerous scuffle/gunfight or two. Helps increase the tension and build toward a satisfying conclusion.
  • End each chapter provocatively—with a startling image, interesting dialogue. . .anything that demands the reader keep reading til the end.


Part Four (average length: two to three chapters): P.I. figures out the culprit.  A showdown ensues (aka: the climax).  Depending on the type of mystery (hardboiled, cozy, murder, etc), the climax may or may not involve violence, but remember, there need not be bloodshed in order to create drama and excitement for the reader. Just remember that the ending should be surprising, yet inevitable.

Tips for Part Four:

  • Don’t cheat! No acts of God. No surprise villains. You have to play fair with the reader, which means you should have given the reader just barely enough information to deduce the ending.
  • Make it dramatic! Novels can have flaws and problems (and all of them do), but if you play fair and still wow them in the end, it’s a successful book. And those same readers will want to read another one by you.

pd james

Recommended Books and Articles

Well, that’s about it. Tune in again when I discuss the two basic types of private detectives: Intuitives and Scientifics. Until then, go buy Ed, Not Eddie!




Introducing Mac McClellan, P.I.

character mattersMcClellan’s biggest fear: Letting someone down.

Today we are pleased to welcome retired U.S. Marine-turned-private investigator Mac McClellan to #MotiveMeansOpportunity. Mac retired from the Marines a few years ago after a twenty-four year career. He has graciously agreed to answer a few questions that might be of interest to the readers of MMO and his Mac McClellan Mystery series.
MMO: Welcome to our humble blog, Mac.
Mac: Thanks for having me. Good to be here.
MMO: Tell us a little about your background. When and where you were born, your education, military service, what brought you to the Florida panhandle after your retirement, etc.
Mac: There’s not a whole lot to tell. I was born and raised in Brevard , North Carolina . I played baseball and football, and loved to go camping and hiking in the mountains around there. After graduating high school I joined the Marine Corps on my 18th birthday, August 8, 1990. My training ended just in time for me to participate as a rifleman in Operation Desert Storm. My unit was involved in taking the airfield at Kuwait City in late February of ’91. The Iraqis put up quite a fight and it took us several hours to secure the area. I took a round through and through the left thigh during the battle and earned my first purple heart. Nothing bad, just some bleeding.
After the First Gulf War I did a two-year stint with Division Recon until I blew out a knee during a training op. After rehab I was transferred back to a rifle company. By the time President Bush Two decided to invade Iraq , I was a staff NCO. I served as Platoon Sergeant on my first deployment. Later I was promoted to Gunnery Sergeant and served as company gunny during my next two deployments. My last deployment to Iraq was in 2004. It included the Second Battle of Fallujah in November. Fallujah was a bitch. Enough said.
What brought me to the panhandle? A good buddy of mine used to brag about this area all the time. We made plans for a fishing trip after Fallujah, but he was KIA. When I got home my wife told me she was tired of playing father and mother, and wanted out of the marriage. I knew she was seeing someone, but we agreed to stay together a few more years until our twins, Mike and Megan, finished high school. They left for college shortly after I retired. Jill presented me with the divorce papers. I signed them before a judge, bought a camper and headed for Florida .
MMO: So, your Marine Corps friend and your divorce brought you to the panhandle; what made you stay?
Mac: It’s complicated. The Corps had been my home for twenty-four years. I was newly divorced. My wife was living in “our” dream retirement home with her Navy pilot boyfriend. The kids had flown the nest. I came here to fish, relax, and think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
deadly catch
One morning I snagged a badly decomposed body while fishing near Five Mile Island . The body was that of a popular local young woman who was supposed to be honeymooning with her husband in the mountains of Georgia or North Carolina . She also happened to be the niece of the local sheriff. We butted heads, and I was warned not to leave Dodge. Then a baggie of marijuana was found stashed aboard my rental boat. Just so happens a bale of the same strain of pot had washed ashore near where I discovered the body. I knew then somebody was setting me up to take the fall. One thing led to another and I was able to solve the murder and bust up a connected drug-smuggling ring. Oh, and Kate Bell had a little something to do with my staying. She works at the local marina. We hit it off right away, and she was a big help in helping me solve the case.
MMO: Interesting. You enjoyed the “thrill of the hunt” so much that you decided to take it up as a vocation and become a licensed private investigator?
Mac: (Laughs.) Not exactly. You can thank Kate and her “Uncle” Frank for that. I’m an old movie buff. One night Kate and I were coming out of the theater when she saw who she claimed was her former boyfriend. Problem was, the guy had been dead for over ten years. I tried to get her to listen to reason, but she kept insisting it was the same person. I went with Kate to see Frank Hightower. Frank’s a very close friend of the Bells, a retired cop who now runs his own private investigative company in Destin, Kate’s hometown. Kate had kept Frank informed about the murder and drug case I’d solved. Frank thought I had the makings of a decent PI. Together they conspired to get me to snoop into Kate’s old circle of friends and find out if there was anything to the boyfriend’s reappearance or not. In exchange for my time, Frank offered to pay all fees while I worked on becoming a bona fide investigator and Kate’s case. Voila!—Mac McClellan, PI.
MMO: What makes Mac McClellan “tick?”
Mac: I’d say a strong sense of duty, dependability, and responsibility.
MMO: Those are certainly admirable traits. What about faults?
Mac: (Laughs again; pauses … thinking.) I’ve put on a few pounds. I need to drop about ten to get back to my fighting weight. And Kate thinks I drink too much. I guess she’s right. Maybe.
MMO: Moving along, are you a religious person?
Mac: No, not really. My parents took me to church and Sunday school when I was a kid. I don’t think it did me much good. I’ve seen too much crap to believe in a loving and benevolent God. How many times have you seen some natural disaster on television, like a tornado. They interview some guy standing outside his demolished house and he’s saying, “The good Lord was really watching out for us today.” And down the street a mother and her two young kids were crushed to death or sucked out of the house and killed. Where was “the good Lord” when that was happening? Life is a crapshoot. Call me agnostic. I’m not saying there isn’t a god, but if he/she/it exists, he/she/it doesn’t give a crap about the human race.
MMO: What does combat-hardened former Marine Mac McClellan fear most?
Mac: Letting someone down.
MMO: Short and succinct. I like that. Favorite food?
Mac: Steak and shrimp. And BLTs.
MMO: Drink?
Mac: Yes. (Laughs.) Water, Scotch, and beer.
MMO: Tell me the first word that comes to mind when I say: women.
Mac: Pedestal.
MMO: War.
Mac: Peace.
MMO: Surrender.
Mac: No.
MMO: Very good. What are you especially proud of in your life?
Mac: My kids. They’re both good people. Kate Bell. I’m a better man for knowing her. And I like to think I’ve done my best, or given my all when it comes to interacting with people in general. The Marine Corps had a lot to do with molding me into who I am today.
MMO: A commendable answer. One last question: is there a code or creed that you live by?
Mac: Absolutely—Semper Fidelis. Always faithful. To me, that says it all.
MMO: Thanks for being with us today, Mac. It’s been a pleasure having you.
Mac: Thank you. It’s a pleasure being had.