Where You Come From*

One of the interesting things about fictional PIs is the diversity in their backgrounds. The profession isn’t limited to people who have a particular academic degree or job experience. This means that the author has a lot of flexibility when it comes to a PI’s background. And that can make for intriguing layers of character development, to say nothing of plot points and other characters.

There are some fictional PIs who decide early in life that that will be their profession. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, chose the profession quite deliberately. And, in A Study in Scarlet, he describes himself to Dr. Watson as

‘…a consulting detective, if you can understand what that is.’’

He’s carefully prepared for his career, too. In fact, his focus is so much on being the finest detective that he doesn’t take a lot of interest in topics unless they’ll be helpful to him professionally.

There are many fictional PIs who are former police officers. This means that they may very well have connections within the police community. And that can either be a source of valuable information, or an obstacle, depending on how the author wants to use that relationship.

For instance, Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a former member of the Saskatoon Police Service (SPS). He decided that life on the police force wasn’t for him, and hung out his own shingle. But he still has contacts on the force. He doesn’t spend a lot of social time with his former colleagues, and he’s much happier as a PI. But he’s established a useful and mutually beneficial relationship with the SPS.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he used to be a member of the Belgian police. That career ended, and then life changed abruptly with the advent of World War I. Poirot went to England as a refugee and started a career in private detection there. Interestingly enough, Christie doesn’t delve very much into Poirot’s early history. There are a few stories (right, fans of The Chocolate Box) that shed some light on Poirot’s life as a police detective. But he doesn’t maintain ties with his former colleagues.

Sometimes, fictional private investigators get into the business unexpectedly, or even accidentally. For instance, Dick Francis’ Sid Halley was at one time a well-known jockey. But he suffered a riding accident that severely injured his left hand and ended his riding career. At loose ends, so to speak, he got a job working for a large private detective agency, Hunt, Radnor and Associates. Private investigation wasn’t in Halley’s plan, and he’s bitter over the loss of his racing career. Still, he’s had to find some sort of job. His real career in private detection, though, begins in Odds Against, when his former father-in-law asks him to uncover a plot to take over the Seabury Racecourse for development. This case, which brings Halley back into contact with the racing world, also, as you might say, brings him back to life. He becomes a racetrack investigator; and, although he misses riding, and is still sometimes bitter, he manages to put himself back together.

Some PIs start by doing informal investigations, mostly to help friends. It’s only later that they make it an official business. Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is like that. As the series begins (in Devil in a Blue Dress), he’s been laid off from his job at an aircraft manufacturing plant. It’s shortly after the end of World War II, and several former aircraft, munitions, and other war-related factories are closing or downsizing. Rawlins has to find some way to earn a living. So, when his friend, a bar owner named Joppy, introduces him to a man named DeWitt Albright, Rawlins listens to what Albright has to say. Albright is looking for a woman named Daphne Monet, who seems to have gone missing. He wants Rawlins to find her, and is willing to pay well for it. Rawlins is in serious need of money, so he agrees. But, as he soon discovers, this isn’t a simple case of finding a woman who may be in hiding. It involves theft, blackmail, and murder. Rawlins solves the case, and he does get paid, but he works informally for the first few novels in this series. Mostly, he does things for friends and their acquaintances.

That’s also the case with Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder. He was a New York homicide detective (another former police officer!). But a tragic accidental shooting changed everything. As the series begins (with The Sins of the Fathers), he doesn’t really have a ‘regular’ job. But he does know how to find people and get answers. He works very informally. As he puts it:

‘‘Sometimes I do favors for people. They give me gifts.’’

He doesn’t get his official PI license until later in the series.

Some PIs have very unusual backgrounds. Leigh Redhead’s Simone Kirsch for instance, is a former stripper. She still does gigs now and again. It might seem unlikely that a stripper would make the change to a career as a PI. But for Kirsch, there’s a reason. When she got the point where it was time to quit, she tried to join the Victoria Police. That’s because she’s still grateful to the police for saving her life and her mother’s and brother’s when she was younger. But,

‘Either I didn’t have the moral credentials to be a girl in blue, or the Victoria Police had enough scandal without dropping a stripper into the mix.

She’s not accepted into police training, so she decides that the PI course is the next best thing. And she’s good at it, too. It helps that she stays in close contact with several people in ‘the business.’ They’re often good sources if information.

Fictional PIs (real ones, too) sometimes have some fascinating backgrounds, or at least unusual ones. That can add to a story, and make for solid character development and contexts.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dick Francis, Lawrence Block, Leigh Redhead, Walter Mosley

18 responses to “Where You Come From*

  1. Howard

    I very much liked the Shifty Lou Anderson stories by William Murray. Shifty wasn’t a PI per se, as I recall. He was a professional magician and serious horse-race gambler, who every now and then got involved in investigating a mystery.

    • Oh, that’s a series I haven’t tried yet, Howard. Interesting combination, too: magician and investigator. It reminds me a bit of Elly Griffiths Max Mephisto series. Thanks for mentioning Murray’s work.

  2. Col

    I think I prefer PI-type stories to police investigations if I’m honest. I think they have a bit more latitude in their actions, not so bound by rules, though you’ll always get the maverick cop as well.

    • I understand what you mean, Col. PIs do have more flexibility in what they do and how they go about it than do cops. And because they vary so much, the author has a lot of flexibility, too.

  3. neeru

    Margot, I wonder why an author decided to turn a stripper into a PI. Is it because of the shock-value, the novelty, or does her earlier career help her in solving the case(s) as say in the books of Dick Francis.

    • It’s certainly true, Neeru, that Simone Kirsch has access to a number of contacts in the sex industry because of her background. And her creator has said she wanted a ‘badass woman’ as her main character. The result, in my opinion, is a really interesting PI.

  4. Margot: Sasha Jacson, the hard boiled P.I. of Jill Edmondson, was a bartender and phone sex operator before she turned to being a private investigator.

    • Right you are, Bill. Sasha has an interesting background, and I’m glad you mentioned her. That plus her rock-and-roll background gives her character some interest and depth.

  5. Well, I never knew that about Poirot!

  6. Oh good old Dick Francis is making an appearance and I do think it is more credible when the PI can use their knowledge or former connections to solve cases rather than coming out of nowhere – I didn’t know that Poirot had been a refugee, how did I miss that?

    • He doesn’t make much of it in a lot of the stories, Cleo, so you don’t see it discussed much. And I agree: it adds to a story when PIs can use their own particular backgrounds, connections, and so on. I think it makes for lots of possibility for character development and so on.

  7. Spade & Dagger

    I love a feisty female PI-based crime novel & have to mention Stephanie Plum (Janet Evanovich), VI Warshawski (Sara Paretsky) & Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton) – all are long series of books & personally I prefer the earlier ones in the series. I also really like the Grace Smith series by Liz Evans & the Sam Jones series by Lauren Henderson, which are similar in style to the above but set in the UK. All of these have a great deal of humour as well as crime solving.

    • I’m glad you mentioned them, Spade & Dagger. What I like about those sleuths is that they are smart and brave. They don’t always make wise choices, but it’s not for want of courage and brains.

  8. I finally thought of an example: William Campbell Gault wrote a series of books about Brock Callahan, an ex-L.A. Rams lineman who becomes a private investigator. I have only read the first book in the series but I loved it.

  9. Kathy D.

    Glad my favorite p.i., V.I. Warshawski, was mentioned here.
    I didn’t know about Grace Smith and Sam Jones; will have to search them out. Adventurous women sleuths with wit! Up my alley.
    Where would we all be without the Great Detective in our early crime fiction-reading lives? I enjoyed the books but also learned a lot about scientific investigations. I think most of us did, too.

    • I think so, Kathy. I know I did. And it really is interesting to learn about a fictional PI’s background. They’re so varied and interesting, and I think that adds a lot to a character.

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