If you’re seeking expertise on the PI novel, it makes sense to ask a Shamus Award nominee. (For the uninitiated, PI stands for Private Investigator, or Private Eye.) You’ll want someone well versed in the oeuvre with a library of titles stored in the grey matter, ready for instant recall. Mastery of the craft goes without saying, and in the looks department your expert must seem at home behind a battered manual, or nursing a Wild Turkey at some local gin joint.
The first name that comes to mind is DANA KING.
I first heard Dana speak in Albany at Bouchercon 2013. He wasn’t the headliner, the room was restless as he walked to the podium, and my eye was roving to the exit for a quick getaway. But as Dana started to speak, the room quieted. A respectful attention took hold, and Dana let us know he had the goods. He knew Chandler’s writing, knew the genre, and knew how to blow long and soulful riffs of information that had us wide-eyed.
I never forgot that presentation. Spinetingler magazine published a glossy version of it in 2013, but here are the original notes, written in Dana’s noir voice which delivers clear and clean. May I suggest a little Chet Baker horn in the background as you read on?
Dana writes his own PI novels, of course, and A SMALL SACRIFICE, starring Chicago PI Nick Forte, was nommed for the Shamus Award’s Best Indie PI Novel for 2013. His earlier novels were praised by Charlie Stella, Timothy Hallinan, Adrian McKinty, Leighton Gage and more. His first traditionally published novel, GRIND JOINT (Stark House) was named by Woody Haut in the LA Review of Books as one of the fifteen best noir reads of 2013.
And now to the talk I never forgot…
I assume you’ve all read Chandler?
Have you read the essay, The Simple Art of Murder?
If you’ll indulge me a few minutes, I’d like to read the key feature, which is what this session is all about:
The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the finger man for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.
It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization. All this still is not quite enough.
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.
* * * *
Forty years ago, Robert Altman deconstructed Marlowe as a character in his film version of
The Long Goodbye.
- “Rip van Marlowe” on the set and when discussing the screenplay. (Written by Leigh Brackett, who also wrote the screenplay for the best Marlowe movie, The Big Sleep, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Of course, she had help from William Faulkner on that one.)
- Altman set out to show the idea Chandler ideal had become an anachronism, no longer relevant to the hipper 70s.
- The irony is, Chandler knew Marlowe was a man out of his time when he wrote him. There are two overt references to knights in The Big Sleep; in both Marlowe acknowledges he’s out of place, going so far as to say of a chess problem, “This was not a game for knights.”
Here’s the real question: if even Chandler knew his hero was an anachronism when he wrote him, when would Marlowe not have been?
- Think back to the description of Marlowe’s time. Substituting the vice of the day for Prohibition, when have those conditions not applied? They’re certainly true today.
- Are witnesses still afraid to testify?
- Are witnesses—and victims—abused in court?
- Who makes things right for these people, if the systems—both legal and de facto—do not?
The PI is, by definition, an outsider.
- Otherwise he’d be a cop, working on the inside. (You understand we’re talking about fictional detectives, right? The lives of actual private detectives resemble what we’ve come to expect not at all, with rare exceptions.)
- This has plusses and minuses, both in real-life and fiction.
- He cannot compel anyone to talk to him,
- he can be beaten up with impunity,
- arrested for doing things a cop can do almost without thinking.
- On the other hand, the PI gets to choose his battles. (At least fictionally.)
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.
The situations where a writer with some imagination can place a PI are almost limitless.
- Find a reason for the PI to be involved, and, if you want to be realistic, to get him paid.
- Ross Macdonald and Declan Hughes explore dirty family secrets.
- Travis McGee—not really a PI, but close enough—is, in most respects, an insurance investigator who earns a living collecting recovery fees, just not from insurance companies.
- The Maltese Falcon gives Spade an interest in the murder because it’s his
partner who has been killed, yet he never overtly investigates it. Spade solves the murder almost as an afterthought.
I’ll admit PI stories are currently in a decline.
- A sign of the times.
- People’s fear or terrorism has led them to seek out apocalyptic thrillers, here omnipotent government agencies send agents who’d whip James Bond’s ass and not break a sweat out to thwart baddies who want to destroy not just whole cities, but “our way of life.” (Jack Bauer, anybody?)
- This is not a time for outsiders; it’s outsiders who caused all this trouble in the first place. No one wants to deal with the troublemaker who turns our protectors on their back to show how much clay in their feet.
- Public perception to recent events may signal a change.
- Government interference into people’s lives—real and perceived.
- People may become more sympathetic to the outside who holds abuses up to the light when even a person of good conscience may not be able to do so from the inside.
- I don’t mean to make this political; I’m taking no sides here.
Who steps into the breach when people have had their fill of super-governmental agencies?
- Jack Bauer is not going to go private
- Jack Reacher walks his own path.
- It must be an outsider—almost by definition—but an outsider with an inviolable code.
- He won’t get everything he wants
- he understands he’ll never put everything right again; the ripples of what he’s investigating spread too far.
- He understands his victory is in the struggle itself. In the beginning of The Little Sister, Chandler wrote in Marlowe’s voice:
- It was one of those clear, bright summer mornings we get in the early spring in California before the high fog sets in. The rains are over. The hills are still green and in the valley across the Hollywood hills you can see snow on the high mountains. The fur stores are advertising their annual sales. The call houses that specialize in sixteen-year-old virgins are doing a land office business. And in Beverly Hills the jacaranda trees are beginning to bloom.
- The man we’re discussing can see both and not let one detract from his appreciation of the other.
- He’s a man who may need to appear to be not as straight as he is, but whose compass can be relied on to point him in the right direction.
When this man becomes irrelevant—well, we’ll have bigger problems than deciding which book to read.