One of the ways in which crime fiction has evolved in the last sixty or seventy years has arguably been the increasing variety of PI sleuths. And perhaps this is just my opinion (so do feel free to differ with me if you do) but I think it’s a good thing. In real life, private investigators take all kinds of cases, from spouses who suspect their partners of cheating to pre-hiring background checks to investigators who work with attorneys on their cases. And it hardly need be said that today’s PIs come from all kinds of backgrounds.
‘Gentleman detectives’ such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes paved the way for the modern PI novel, which today ranges from the light (e.g. Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe series) to the noir (e.g. Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series). One post is hardly enough to do the modern PI novel justice, but let’s just take a quick look at the sub-genre.
Authors such as Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Mickey Spillane were at the forefront of the ‘hard boiled’ PI novel. In Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool for instance, Maude Slocum hires PI Lew Archer to find out who sent a slanderous letter to her husband James. The letter alleges that Maude’s been having an affair, and she is afraid that if James finds out, the marriage will end in divorce. Archer takes the case and begins his investigation. Right from the beginning he learns of the dysfunction in the Slocum family. James’ mother Olivia is quite wealthy and uses her financial power to manipulate the family. Maude and her mother-in-law have never been exactly friends, and Maude resents the fact that James is somewhat of a ‘mother’s boy.’ So when Olivia is found dead one day in her swimming pool, there’s every chance one of the family could be responsible. But then again, oil magnate Walter Kilbourne wanted to drill on the Slocum estate and Olivia was firmly set against the idea. So the murder could be the work of Kilbourne or one of his paid ‘associates.’ As Archer investigates, we get to see the seamier side of the way the wealthy live.
Anthony Bidulka’s PI sleuth Russell Quant also sometimes sees the not-so-very-nice side of ‘the beautiful life.’ In Tapas on the Ramblas for instance, wealthy business executive Charity Wiser believes that someone in her family is trying to kill her. She hires Quant to find out who it is and invites him on a family cruise to get to know the other members of the Wiser clan so he can ‘scope them out.’ As he does so, he discovers that just about everyone in the family had a motive for murder. It’s not just a matter of greed, either. There’s a lot of dysfunction in this family and the better Quant gets to know the family members, the more he uncovers about the undercurrents of resentment. Then, there are two attempts at murder and later, a death. In the end, Quant puts the pieces of the puzzle together but not before he comes close to being a victim himself.
We get an interesting look ‘behind the scenes’ of a PI firm in Julie Smith’s Talba Wallis series. Wallis lives and works in New Orleans, where she’s employed by E.V. Anthony Investigations. The firm does background checks on potential employees and at the beginning of Louisiana Bigshot, we learn that Wallis also investigates cheating spouses. In fact that’s what her friend Clayton Robineau (who goes by the name Babalu Maya) hires her to do. Babalu thinks that her fiancé Jason Wheelock has been unfaithful and wants Wallis to find out whether it’s true. At first Wallis doesn’t want to take the case; she would rather Babalu simply break up with Wheelock than learn all of the sordid details of any affair he’s having. But Babalu insists, so Wallis begins to investigate. She finds out that her friend was right and breaks the bad news. Shortly after that, Babalu is found dead, apparently a successful suicide. Wallis doesn’t think it was a suicide though, and neither does Jason Wheelock. So Wallis starts to look into the case more closely. She finds that Babalu’s family history and someone’s desperate need to protect a reputation are the keys to the murder.
Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson doesn’t work for a firm; she’s set up in business for herself. And one of the very effective elements in this series is that we get to see what it’s like to try to build up one’s client base, take care of the bills and so on. And in Dead Light District we get an interesting perspective on why some people hire private detectives instead of going to the police. Candace Curtis owns a brothel which she staffs with only the best employees. The client list is carefully vetted too. It’s an illegal business though, so when one of her employees Mary Carmen Santamaria goes missing, she can’t call the police about it. So she hires Jackson to find out what happened to Mary Carmen. Jackson is uncomfortable about the case. For one thing, she’s not comfortable with the thought of young women who, as she sees it, are being exploited. For another, Mary Carmen could simply not want to be found. If so, why shouldn’t she be left in peace? But Curtis is persuasive and a fee is a fee, so Jackson begins her investigation. But this turns out to be much more than a missing person case. First an alleged pimp is stabbed to death in a hotel and then there’s another murder. Then Curtis becomes a target. Jackson finds that what started out being a case of a prostitute who’s disappeared has led her to the underside of Toronto’s sex trade.
Some PIs don’t really think of themselves as PIs – at least not at first. Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins doesn’t. In the first few novels, before he gets his PI license, he thinks of it as ‘doing favours.’ So does Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder. In fact in The Sins of the Fathers, he says,
‘Sometimes I do favors for people. They give me gifts.’
And yet in both of these cases the sleuths learn that the PI business can be, if not exactly lucrative, at least a source of income.
Today’s PIs are a very diverse group. There’s the wisecracking ‘world’s greatest detective’ Elvis Cole (courtesy of Robert Crais), the not-domestically-inclined Kinsey Millhone (courtesy of Sue Grafton) and lots of others too. And that variety has added to the sub-genre.
Now, you may be wondering why I’ve not mentioned one of the best known PI sleuths, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. I was saving this mention because today is (or yesterday was, depending on when you read this) Sara Paretsky’s birthday. So this post is in honour of what Ms. Paretsky has contributed to the crime fiction genre. V.I. Warshawski is one of the most popular PI sleuths in crime fiction. She’s a unique character with a strong commitment to social justice, a deep love of her home town (Chicago) and a true-blue sense of loyalty to her friends. She was one of the groundbreaking fictional female PIs and the novels featuring her have gained Ms. Paretsky a worldwide audience.
Happy Birthday Sara Paretsky and many more.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Thompson Twins’ We Are Detective.