Killer Year–The Class of 2007

Is the PI Novel Dead?
June 17, 2007, 11:35 am
Filed under: Killer Year Members

William Ahearn posted this article on his website. It’s entitled The Slow and Agonizing Death of the Private Investigator. Obviously, since I write PI novels, I have a stake in this. On Detectoday, I responded with:

The PI has grown and expanded to become both more realistic and at the same time more exciting…The PI no longer is a cypher in which to see the mystery unravel, if it ever was. The PI was always personally involved in their stories. Spade tried to solve the Falcon case because his partner was murdered–and despite him saying, that’s just what you do, and his sleeping with his partner’s wife–I have a feeling Spade cared somewhat. If Chandler hadn’t died, it appeared that he was well on the way toward marrying Ms. Loring.

The character taken umbridge with the most seems to be Lew Archer, a character who had “feelings.” It strike me that Archer is the character who changed the least. He killed a man in the first novel and it came up only once more. He seemed to meet a woman in The Blue Hammer, but we don’t know if anything came of that. In fact it seemed that Archer was the character who we most saw only the case. Did he beat anyone up? Occasionally, but not if he didn’t have to. But we always knew he could.

Characters these days, the article seems to say, are only wussy men or women who drink for no reason or see psychiatrists or do things that the old PIs never did. Guess what, times change. The series has always been about the character. Things have to happen to the PI for us to care. Seeing a psychiatrist is an interesting way to look at a characters depths, I think. (It worked in the Sopranos and Tony was still willing to get his hands dirty.) As far as the psycho sidekick works, yes, it has become a cliche (just like the bottle in the top drawer, the article seems to love so much.).

I don’t think the PI is dead. I think it’s going to thrive again. There are great PI writers out there… Crumley, Pelecanos, Lippman, Crais, Parker, Lehane. (Kenzie was a character, one who was conflicted by his job, commited a murder when he saw no other option, but had to let an even worse character go, when he couldn’t get to him. He got scared, he fell in love, and he got beat up. There was much more to him than the “clutter” on the surface.)

The detective stories were always about the detective in the novels. Marlowe played chess by himself (clutter?).. . Spade was after the killer of his partner, as I said, and didn’t care much about the bird, it seems to me. Nick and Nora drank way too much and were much more interesting than whatever the case they were solving was.. Sherlock Holmes did cocaine.. The only detective who was a vehicle for story was Archer, that I can remember… and he’s the one disliked the most.

(I would bring Spillane and Hammer into this more, but… alas… I haven’t read him… and I’m willing to admit that. Though I’ve seen one of the movies (the one with the nuclear stuff and the house that blows up because of it) and it struck me as just plain silly.)

PIs who have psycho sidekicks (or don’t) still get their hands dirty… which was one of the things you said the old PIs that you enjoyed did, but new ones didn’t.

Kenzie and Gennaro executed a gang member (but the article says the reader threw the book across the room, so I’m not sure he got that far).

Tess Monaghan killed a man and it still comes up in the series.

Spenser has set up men to be murdered by his hands.

Evils Cole has killed many men and been willing to shoot, punch, and do what it takes to get the job done.

In fact, it seems to me the point of the article is that the current PIs have a conscience. They kill but they feel it. It strikes me that if Hammer, Spade, and Marlowe didn’t feel it when they killed someone (and Marlowe definitely felt it…James Bond felt it too in the novels)… they would be psychos themselves. They are not heroes, they are cold blooded killers as well.

I find the novels now, more exciting. There is more intense action and there are reprocussions to this action. I want to see how characters are affected by the violent worlds they live in… to me, that is more exciting.


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

It’s no wonder Ahearn doesn’t like the modern PI novel–he doesn’t have a clue. 🙂 Seriously, is he purposely missing the point? Was he just bored one day and decided to write a contrary article about the PI novel to generate some web traffic? While one might argue that the PI novel is on its last legs, all this guy does is site the last great authors of the genre and proceed to fault them with their strengths. Taste is relative, I suppose. But I think he’s got it all wrong.

Comment by Rob

The PI novel is dying every other day. Except when it isn’t.

Comment by Bill Cameron

And what may I not have a clue about? Funny how you fault my article but yet you offer nothing to suggest that I’m wrong. Except to say that I’m clueless and that taste is relative. The vein has been tapped and all that’s left is stealing Chandler’s bones or parody. Take your pick since taste is relative.

Comment by William Ahearn

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