I’ve been lucky over the past few weeks to have read three books that reminded me why I got interested in crime fiction and writing in the first place: first person private investigator stories.
Libby Fischer Hellmann’s Easy Innocence takes the attitudes of an affluent suburb and shows consequences not often considered. Her detective, Georgia Davis, avoids the pitfalls of many female protagonists. She is not a man in a skirt, ready and willing to kick ass as necessary; neither is she dependent on either a big, strong man or divine intervention to get her out of tough spots. Best of all, she’s smart enough to know the difference and act accordingly.
The Silent Hour, by Michael Koryta, is a cold-case story. Lincoln Perry has many of the characteristics of a stereotypical PI—former cop who left under a cloud, bends and breaks his own rules, trouble maintaining relationships—though Koryta never lets him fall off that edge. His problems are the problems anyone in his situation could have, and he’s anything but omnipotent. Perry takes a beating and keeps on ticking, learning about himself as the books progress.
Declan Hughes’s detective, Ed Loy, takes beatings that make what Perry endures seem like air kisses from a friendly but distant aunt. In All the Dead Voices, Ed inadvertently finds himself cleaning up leftovers from the Irish Troubles, caught between republican terror groups, drug gangs, and government agencies whose interests do not include what most would call a classic sense of justice.
What all three have in common—aside from tight plots and uniformly exceptional writing—is what makes the PI series the highest form of crime fiction; they’re primarily character studies of the hero. (Or heroine, in Georgia’s case.) A good series—as all of these are—works even better, allowing the character to evolve. Attitudes change, as do relationships. Physical and emotional trauma accumulates. The character may grow emotionally, or become embittered. What he deems worthy of description, and how it is described, matures.
For all the talk of the decline of PI fiction, the quantity of expert practitioners isn’t hurting. James Lee Burke and Robert Crais still have hop on their fastballs after twenty years. (Burke’s Dave Robicheaux is actually a cop, but the length of leash he is provided in New Iberia and his personal journey through the series make his stories read more like PI fiction than police procedurals.) Relative newcomers like Sean Chercover and Reed Farrell Coleman prove the talent pool is deep as ever. Dennis Lehane’s upcoming Kenzie-Gennaro novel is much anticipated.
The fictional PI can look into things the average cop never touches. Could Ross Macdonald have explored the rotting foundations of crumbling families with a cop, or did Lew Archer have to be a PI? A cop concerns himself with who and what; why is nice, but is primarily important as a way to get to what, or to help to convince a jury as to who. His caseload is too great to do otherwise. Private eyes are paid to find out why, which often compels some worthy introspection. Cops are about closing cases; PIs are about closure.
PI stories are also better suited for ambivalent endings. A cop’s job is to catch the bad guy. The PI can appreciate the bittersweet nature of all cases, balancing the satisfaction of solving the mystery with the knowledge of his pre-ordained failure: no matter what he discovers, things can never be put right. The dead are still gone. The cop can catch the killer and exact a measure of justice; the PI may be brought in to clean up the mess that doesn’t quite meet the necessary standard of illegality.
It’s no surprise so many of the “genre” writers who receive acclaim from the “literary” community come from detective fiction. Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, and Burke are all accepted as great writers, not subject to the backhanded acclaim of “great genre writer.” No one thought Lehane presumptuous when The Given Day looked into issues well beyond crime; he’d been doing it for years. Gone, Baby, Gone is as thought-provoking a book as one is likely to read.
Declan Hughes may be the foremost advocate of the virtues of detective fiction, not just in his novels, but in his public statements. If I had a transcript of his comments from Bouchercon 2008, I would have printed them here and saved you the trouble of reading my interpretation; his is clearer and more impassioned. Few books—of any genre, or of no genre—are more likely to make you wonder, “What would I do here?” or, more hauntingly, “What would I have done differently?” When done well, what more can anyone ask from a book?