We Are Detective, Come to Collect*

PIsOne 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jill Edmondson, Julie Smith, Lawrence Block, Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Walter Mosley

18 responses to “We Are Detective, Come to Collect*

  1. kathy d.

    Great that you mention Sara Paretsky’s birthday. Happy birthday to a terrific author and woman! Yes, she is one of the best writers of private-eye fiction, with her character, V.I. Warshawski popular with readers, especially women world-wide.
    The world of private-eye fiction has expanded so much since I began reading it as a teenager in the Middle Ages. I read the profess of scientific deduction, Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, with some Hercule Poirot thrown in and one or two books by Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey. The Mike Hammer/Mickey Spillane paperbacks turned me off with the violent, sexist covers. Even at 15, pre-women’s movement, I was turned off by those and wouldn’t read the violent plots.
    So, how wonderful that the women’s movement arose and then so did Kinsey Millhone, Sharon McCone and Detective Warshawski, all good news.
    But since my beginning mystery reading days, thousands of private eyes have appeared here and more worldwide. What a plethora of riches to crime fiction gluttons — meaning we can never get enough! We have so many choices of genre, country, author. It’s amazing that it’s all under the category of “private eye” crime fiction as the differences are so great.
    But we all find good books to read. We may disagree on genres and certainly do have individual taste and preferences, but having so many options if all good.

    • Kathy – I think that’s one of the truly great things about today’s crime fiction: we have so many choices. And I’m grateful too for work of Muller, Grafton and Paretsky in making the genre so much more inclusive than it had been before.
      One of the other great things about PI fiction too is that it’s not just varied in terms of who the sleuth is (although it is that). It’s also varied in terms of how light/bleak the series is, how violent it is(n’t) and so on. This gives the reader more options than ever. And of course, a longer TBR…*sigh*.

  2. And don’t forget the delightful and curvaceous Mma Ramotswe of Alexander McCall Smith.

  3. Margot: Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris is set in Saudi Arabia. Nayir ash-Sharqi is asked by a friend, Othman, to find out for the family why his sister, Nouf, died. Nayr is vaguely like Travis McGee residing on a boat with no clear occupation.

    In a new Canadian series by Ian Hamilton the sleuth, Ava Lee, is professionally an accountant but has become a debt collector of last resort. While she uses her accounting skills Ava is really a P.I. though I expect she would bristle at the description.

    • Bill – I’m glad you mentioned Finding Nouf. That’s a very good novel I think and it introduces a new kind of PI. And I’m also very glad you mentioned Ava Lee; She’s someone I need to become better acquainted with than I am so far. And that example makes me think a bit of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish, who isn’t officially a PI, but does a lot of PI work.

  4. I think of myself as not liking PI series that much, but I can come up with several I am partial to. I guess it really just comes down to the author’s ability to make the story entertaining.

    My favorite private investigator is Nero Wolfe with the help of Archie Goodwin. Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther is a hard-boiled Berlin detective before, during and after WWII. Another favorite is Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie. I have read only read one of the Sam Turner series by John Baker, but I liked that one a lot.

    • Tracy – Oh, you’re absolutely right. It’s not so much whether a series is a PI series or not, but whether it’s well-written and with solid and interesting characters. That’s what matters. I agree with you that the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin series is an excellent PI series and one of the things I like best about it is their partnership. And thanks for mentioning Jackson Brodie, whom I find really an interesting characters. And I’ve heard the John Baker series is good – must sample that.

  5. col

    I must check out Paretsky soon (more females please) plus at least one Lew Archer novel. I did get the song choice before reading the confirmation, I loved the Thompson Twins – late 80’s?

    • Col – I like the Lew Archer character; he’s not as ‘rough and tumble’ as some of the other ‘hard boiled’ PI sleuths are, but he’s a good guy. And Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski series is excellent in my opinion. Oh, and yes, The Thompson Twins hit their stride in the late ’80s. Good memory!

  6. Great selection, as always. Thank you for mentioning VI Warshawski and her creator – this strong female character is one reason I turned to crime fiction (and stayed with it) – I mention that in the article below:
    I also quite liked P.D James’ s Cordelia Gray, her curiosity and tidy mind. It’s a shame that the author stopped writing about her (apparently after being rather disappointed with the TV adaptation of the books).

    • Marina Sofia – Thank you – And I’m not surprised that it was V.I. Washawski who got you interested in crime fiction. She’s a terrific character. Oh, and folks, do please read about the other four books that got Marina Sofia hooked on crime fiction.
      Thanks to for mentioning Codelia Gray. I like her character very much and it is a shame that James didn’t continue with that series.

  7. Ah – I recognise the song title this time. I love PI books and it’s nice when we get modern ones, such as by Christopher Brookmyre. I also love Sara Partesky but I’m behind in the series.

    • Sarah – Ah, yes, The Thompson Twins :-)… And thank you very much for reminding me of CHristopher Brookmyre. It is nice that people are still writing modern PI novels. And it’s quite interesting to see how the PI novel has evolved as technology has.

  8. Great selection there Margot, and also I’m with TracyK, love Jackson Brodie. And let’s have a shoutout for the Miss Climpson in the Dorothy L Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey books – she may not have been a traditional PI, but her business was to follow up on Lord Peter’s investigations, and go to the places he couldn’t reach…

    • Moira – Thanks – And I agree; Jackson Brodie is a great character. Thanks too for mentioning Miss Climpson. As you say, she’s not a professional PI, but she certainly does a lot of very good PI work for Wimsey. I like her character too.

  9. Paretsky and Grafton got me into crime fiction many years ago too, but I haven’t read much of the hardboiled stuff like Chandler. Like you, Margot, I appreciate all the variety in PI books. Thanks for an interesting post.

    • Rebecca – I appreciate the kind words. It is a very good thing for the genre that there is so much diversity, even if you look at just PI novels. And I give so much credit to authors such as Muller, Grafton and Peretsky for widening the field, so to speak.

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