One Bite at a Time

Friday, July 26, 2013

Why a Private Eye?

It’s common to read of the demise of the PI novel. In a post-9/11 world, people seem to be more drawn to escapist, non-stop action thrillers starring the superhuman heroes they’d like—and many in authority would like them—to think of as who stands between regular folk and becoming fodder for the 24x7 news cycle.

So why am I reaching back for books I worked on as much as twelve years ago, if no one wants to read them? It’s not like I made so much money from Wild Bill and Worst Enemies I can write what I want and thumb my nose at conventional wisdom. I didn’t make any money worth mentioning from either book, and I’m not going to retire on the proceeds from A Small Sacrifice. I have no sales to lose. I can write—and publish—whatever I want, and I want to put out some PI novels.

Part of this is to inspire what I hope will be cross-pollination: Nick Forte plays a supporting, but pivotal, role in Grind Joint. (Available for pre-order now; in stores November 21, in case you forgot.) He walked into Penns River as a fully formed character, having already been the star of four novels and a flash piece. All I had to do was plug him into the story and let him have at it. People tend to like the character, and I have more of him to share, at little investment of time and effort. It seems to be a natural.

That sounds like a good reason. It might also be an excuse.

The fact is, I still believe that PI fiction, when done right, is the highest form of crime fiction. As I wrote here several years ago, cops are about closing cases; PIs are about closure. As important as it is to find a legitimate reason for the fictional PI to investigate a crime—they rarely do that, you know—it’s the PI who can dig into the peripheral issues surrounding the causes and the victims. The cop needs an arrest and, ideally, a conviction. That may be when the PI’s job begins.

Or maybe he’s working the other end, where there’s no overt crime to be investigated, but something stinks to high heaven and he’s hired to look into it. Or even something that doesn’t seem like much when he starts turns into way more than he, or his client, bargained for. As one man—possibly with assistance—looking in from outside the system, he is free to observe and comment on things in ways cops and prosecutor can’t.

This is likely why the best PI stories are written in the first person. A wise, late friend of mine told me once the benefit of writing in first person is the ability to characterize the narrator by what he notices, thinks is important, and how he chooses to describe it; the ultimate in “show, don’t tell.” Why do Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Spenser, Elvis Cole, and Ed Loy inspire such loyalty in their readers? Because we lived in their heads and know them as intimately as we know any real person. Maybe more so. And we like tem. They’re not perfect, but we’d like to think we’d respond much as they do to the extraordinary circumstances into which their authors place them.

It’s become a cliché, and sometimes the subject of ridicule—as in Robert Altman’s film adaptation of The Long Goodbye—but I believe Raymond Chandler’s description of the detective hero from his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” best defines the most lasting detectives, and is still what I aspire to, for better or for worse:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

I was not aware of Chandler’s thoughts when I became enamored of detective fiction, nor when I first came up with the idea for Nick Forte. I was all in when I realized Chandler had summed up what I looked for in a detective hero far more eloquently than I could have conceived it.

There are those who would say such a man is an anachronism; Altman said so forty years ago. It’s entirely possible they are right, and I am wrong in believing such a man exists today, or is necessary. If I am wrong, I don’t want to know about it. I’d never get out of bed.


Mike Dennis said...

Great post, Dana. Chandler's passage is one of my favorites, and was the inspiration for my own private eye series.

Good luck with yours. I'm sure it'll be a knockout.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I really like PI or police detective books. Reading Giles BLunt just now.