Not 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.