Neither is Charlie Chan. Or James Bond. Or Philo Vance.
Yet in the eight-odd years (some odder than others) that I’ve been doing the Thrilling Detective Web Site, people have argued passionately for their (or some other favourite detective’s) inclusion on my site.
I calmly, patiently, tactfully try to explain. Ms. Marple is an amateur sleuth. So is Mr. Vance. Mr. Bond is a spy. Mr. Chan is a police officer. Not a PI. Sorry, Charlie.
Granted, occasionally someone turns me on to a new private eye and I’ll only too happily (and gratefully) include them in my alphabetical listing of detectives. And Lord knows my site has expanded over the years to include not just PIs but also “other tough guys and gals who make trouble their business—not their hobby.”
Maybe that’s just a little too glib for some folks, but it boils down to this: no cops, no amateur sleuths, no government agents of any kind, be they DEA, FBI, CIA, RCMP, or E-I-E-I-O. And no cats, thankyouverymuch.
James Bond, PI? NO.
The truth is, I find this apparent confusion over what a PI is to be more than a little baffling. After all, that tough-talking, straight-shooting urban cowboy we call the private eye has been around for over eighty years now, if you start from his earliest appearances in the pulps, courtesy of such writers as John Carroll Daly and particularly Dashiell Hammett. He’s an enduring cultural icon whose popularity has expanded far beyond the stereotypical pale male in the fedora and trenchcoat plying his trade in some American urban hell, cracking wise and dispensing justice out of a blazing .45. We now have eyes of almost any race, creed, religion, sexual preference, and nationality you can think of.
And yet, the essential core of the private eye hasn’t changed one iota.
He’s still the guy (or gal) who makes his living doing the job the official police can’t (or won’t) do. For money. Plus expenses. The one who is our guide, our own “private eye,” if you will, into a world where one man or woman might somehow, some way, make a difference. A world where, for just a moment, justice or something like it might be possible.
Charlie Chan, PI? NO.
The Private Eye Writers of America, who presumably would have a clue or two about the topic, define a “private eye” as “any mystery protagonist who is a professional investigator, but not a police officer or government agent.”
Allen J. Hubin, everyone’s favorite bibliographer and another guy you’d think would know how many beans make four, goes a bit further, defining a private investigator as one who “seeks clients, accepts pay for his services, and is not a member of an official law enforcement agency.” He goes on to include “investigators working for private firms—such as insurance companies—and lawyer-sleuths.”
I’d have to agree there—the private eye, as we understand the term, does not have to be a freelancer. After all, Hammett’s seminal eye, the Continental Op, was just one more operative in the large (albeit private) Continental Detective Agency. So you could also toss in journalists (or at least those like Pete Hamill’s Sam Briscoe and David Alexander’s Bart Hardin, whose jobs as investigative reporters might reasonably have them acting like detectives—but the gardening columnist or the nice lady who does the society news, on the other hand, are straight out of luck, no matter how many bodies show up in the rose bushes, the flower show, or at the Mendholsson wedding reception).
Tess Monaghan, PI? YES.
You’d also have to include hotel dicks (Chandler’s Tony Resick, for example, and Gil Vine’s Stewart Sterling), security specialists, bodyguards, and bounty hunters, as well as any other sort of privately hired or employed troubleshooter or fixer, be it William D’Andrea’s Matt Cobb, a TV executive in charge of “special projects,” Spencer Dean’s Don Cadee, the head of a large New York department store security, or even Oliver Bleeck’s St. Ives, a professional “go-between.” These guys’ hands-on approach to their jobs, which frequently (and once again, reasonably might) bring them into contact with some particularly nasty business, more than makes up for whatever occupation they declare on their tax returns.
Ditto “salvage consultant” John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, and Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder who, in his good old pre-sobriety days stubbornly insisted he was “just a guy who does some favors for friends.” They can call themselves what they want, but they’re private eyes, licenses or not.
Travis McGee, PI? YES.
Of course, we could wander these oceans of hairsplitting forever without much chance of ever hitting any iceberg of conclusion or agreement, but who qualifies as a private eye in a work of fiction is ultimately less about occupation and more about attitude, anyway. I mean, technically, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, and even Sherlock Holmes are all “private eyes” (or at least “private detectives”), but when the average mystery fan in the know talks about private eyes, trust me—they’re not talking about these guys at all. Whatever else they may be, these gentlemen all lack that hard-to-pin-down hard-boiled “private eye-ness” that makes all the difference.
And that “private eye-ness,” has never been better expressed than by Raymond Chandler in his 1945 landmark essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” arguably the most quoted nonfiction piece on the mystery genre ever written. Sure, it’s a little dated—Chandler doesn’t seem to even consider the possibility that the dick may actually be a jane—but his definition as easily fits V.I. Warshawski or Tess Monaghan as it does Philip Marlowe. That’s because he eschews the brouhaha about job descriptions and cuts to the chase. You’ve read this before, but feel free to join in as we recite the mantra:
V.I. Warshawski, PI? YES.
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.
He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks—that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.
Midnight Louie, PI? NO.
The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.
To which all I can add is: Amen.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #95.