You Get to Meet All Sorts in This Line of Work*

PI InterviewsNot long ago, Angela Savage suggested that I do a post on crime-fictional PI interviews with their clients. It’s really a fascinating topic, if you think about it. PIs have to make a living, so they want to make a positive impression. On the other hand, the client, too, has to convince the PI to take the job. There are, after all, things that PIs are and aren’t allowed to do, and things that one or another PI will or won’t do. And, since fictional PIs are an important part of crime fiction, it really is interesting to see how they do what they do.

Savage’s own creation is Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney (a series, by the way, that I recommend highly). In The Half Child, Jim Delbeck decides that Keeney is the best choice for what he wants to accomplish. Delbeck is an Australian, whose daughter Maryanne served as a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya. Tragically, she died in a fall from the roof of the building where she was living. The police report indicates that she committed suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t believe it. So he wants to find out what really happened. Keeney appeals to him as a PI because, being an ex-pat Australian, she can communicate easily with him. At the same time, she is fluent in Thai and very much accustomed to the local ways. On the one hand, she’s a bit put off by Delbeck’s apparent attitude towards the Thais. On the other, she can see that he’s a distraught parent. Maryanne Delbeck might not have been a perfect angel, but here’s a man who’s lost his child. Keeney agrees to take the case, and travels to Pattaya, where she goes undercover as a volunteer at New Life. In the end, she finds out what really happened on the day the victim died. She also finds out about some things that have been going on at New Life.

One of the iconic PIs of the Golden Age is Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. He’s the essential ‘good guy trying to negotiate a very messy world.’ In The Big Sleep, he is more or less summoned to the home of wealthy General Guy Sternwood, who has a commission for him. Sternwood has received an extortion letter that makes reference to his daughter Carmen. The blackmailer is book dealer Arthur Geiger, and Sternwood wants Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him. Marlowe is, to say the least, not impressed with Sternwood. In fact, here’s how Sternwood himself describes both Carmen and her sister Vivian:

‘‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had.’’

Marlowe has a sense already of the decadence and cynicism of this family. But he agrees to take the case and tracks down Geiger. By the time he does, though, Geiger is dead – murdered in his shop. Carmen is a witness, but she’s either been drugged or had a mental breakdown, so she can’t tell Marlowe much. He gets her to safety and with that, thinks that the case is over. After all, Geiger has been stopped. But then there’s another death. And despite his desire to be well and truly rid of the Sternwoods, Marlowe finds himself involved in the investigations.

In Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, we are introduced to Dobbs, who has just hung out her PI shingle. One of her first clients is Christopher Davenham, who wants her to investigate whether his wife is having an affair. She isn’t overly eager to do so, for as she puts it,

‘‘To follow a person is an invasion of the right of that person to privacy. I If I take on this case – and I do have a choice in the matter – I am taking on more than the question of who did what and when. I am taking on a responsibility for both you and your wife in a way that you may not have considered.’’

She takes the consequences of what she does very seriously, and at first, Davenham is put off. But he finally agrees to her terms, and she begins work on the case. And in the end, she finds that the solution is quite different to what Davenham had thought.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant has a rather awkward interview with a client in Date With a Sheesha. In that novel, Pranav Gupta wants to hire Quant to find out what happened to his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ According to Gupta, Neil was in Dubai giving a set of guest lectures, as well as researching antique carpets. He was killed in an open-air market in what police claim was an attack by thugs. Gupta doesn’t believe that, though, and wants Quant to find out the truth. What makes this interview awkward is that Gupta’s wife Unnati most emphatically does not agree. As she puts it, her husband wants revenge, not peace. It makes for a few tense moments, but Quant agrees to take the case. And in the end, he finds that Neil Gupta’s death was much more than a chance mugging gone wrong.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has had his share of awkward interviews, too. For example, in Third Girl, he gets a visit from a young woman who tells him that she may have committed a murder. But after a moment or two, she blurts out that he isn’t at all what she had imagined. In fact, he’s too old. Then she leaves without even giving her name. Not surprisingly, Poirot is not too happy about that, and he tells his friend Ariadne Oliver about it when he speaks to her shortly thereafter. As it turns out, Mrs. Oliver has met the young woman, and dredges up her name: Norma Restarick. By the time Poirot finds out who Norma is, though, she has disappeared. Her father and stepmother say she’s in London, but her London roommates say that she hasn’t returned from a weekend away. Now Poirot and Mrs. Oliver face not just the question of whether there’s been a murder, but also, what happened to the possible killer. I know, I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.

A PI never knows what a prospective client is really going to be like. And a person in need of PI never knows exactly what that PI will be like at first. So it can make for a very interesting dynamic when they first meet. Thanks, Angela, for the inspiration.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dire Straits’ Private Investigations.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Jacqueline Winspear, Raymond Chandler

20 responses to “You Get to Meet All Sorts in This Line of Work*

  1. I’m reminded of Precious Ramotswe from the Alexander McCall Smith series — she’s a gem when it comes to that first chat with a prospective client.

  2. No point in the client trying to fool Sherlock Holmes in that initial interview, as the King soon discovered in A Scandal in Bohemia!

  3. kathy d

    I would take issue with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe implying that cats have no moral sense. They sure do. They do not commit violence for reasons of greed, money, jealousy, ambition, or just plain meanness.
    Cats have to fight for food in the wild, protect their territory from predators, protect their young and their dens. Males do vie for the attention of females, but so do those of many species.
    But as far as gratuitous violence; cats don’t do it.
    I used to watch my neighbor’s dog provoke the cat, usually over
    food she thought he had gotten or if some noise or disturbance
    happened, she’d blame him. But he’s practice peaceful
    co-existence and run off, so as to avoid a fight.

    • Isn’t it funny, Kathy, how cats have gotten a bad reputation that way. In fact, I think one could really say that about a lot of animals. It’s interesting how humans sometimes think about other animals.

  4. A.M. Pietroschek

    First I failed with my attempt of ‘Warlock Holmes – Case 14’, and then I could feel my health failing during a measly attempt of writing a fantasy version of ‘The Maltese Falcon’… Personally I am not good enough to author anything worthy in that league.

    Reading here reminded me how shamefully often I only knew the TV adaptations.

    And though from a neighboring field: Nigel Findley’s novel ‘2XS’, ISBN-10: 0451451392 & ISBN-13: 978-0451451392 IS alike Philip Marlowe in a future, but still hard-boiled, setting.

    • Thanks for sharing these, André. It’s interesting when authors take characters such as Holmes or Marlowe and place them in different contexts. It can make for an innovative story.

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        One strength (or task) of Nigel Findley was to make the, back then, new ‘Shadowrun’ understandable to those who didn’t know it. Besides that 2XS is so hard-boiled that it simply deserves to be known beyond ‘RPG’. Many reviewers mention Chandler and other classics in comparison.

  5. Quite a variety of PIs in this post, Margot, And for once I have read at least one book about each of them.

  6. Margot, I like reading about PIs who stick their necks out even when they knows there’s nothing in it for them. I think it reflects their dedication, curiosity, and spirit of adventure. Poirot, who is unlike any other hardboiled PI, loves a good challenge. I also think PIs have a kind heart that they should go out of their way to help the victim/defendant and solve tough cases, often at risk to their own lives.

    • You make an interesting point, Prashant. There are certainly some dedicated PIs who really do care more about finding out the truth than they do about earning a lot of money, or about (sometimes) their own job security or even safety. There is such a thing as recklessness, but in general, I agree with you that PIs with that kind of integrity and compassion are interesting characters.

  7. Then there’s Cordelia Gray, in a couple of PDJames books – she was quite a trailblazer in her time. In Unsuitable Job for a Woman the client’s requirements turn out to be. a twisty business.

  8. Col

    One of my favourite PIs is Pronzini’s Nameless. I’ve not known him to turn down a case yet, economics usually overcoming any misgivings.

  9. Margot, I’ve just been catching up on some backed up email alerts and came across this post. So chuffed to have inspired what was a terrific read. And thanks as always for your support for me and Jayne 🙂

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