RARA-AVIS: RE: What is a private eye?

From: Dick Lochte ( dlochte@home.com)
Date: 22 Aug 2001

Jim Dopherty noted:
"An insurance investigator is just a private investigator who specializes in investigating insurance cases, so, for our purposes, insurance investigators are PIs.

"Incidentally, that seems to be how the Private Eye Writers of America feel about it, too."

The bylaws must be even broader than that in their definition. Jonathan Kellerman's psychiatrist would seem to be an amateur sleuth, but he has been nominated for a Shamus. As I recall, with some clarity, the late Wayne Warga's first novel, "Hardcover," featuring a rare book dealer detective, won the Shamus the same year my first, "Sleeping Dog," was nominated.

So, where does that get us in defining a fictional private eye? A while back, I was asked to write an episode of "Murder She Wrote." The producer and head writer enlightened me on an aspect of the show that, though not subtle, had eluded me. It had to do with evidence gathering. The information came to Jessica Fletcher. She observed things that took place around her; she did not influence the action until she exposed the killer. This was as opposed to Jim Rockford who had to go looking for his information. I think this distinction works as well as any in separating the amateur from the investigator. The private eye is a private sector citizen who actively inserts himself or herself into a situation in an attempt to bring order from chaos. Maybe he or she gets paid to do this. Maybe they're independently wealthy and do it for kicks. Maybe they're licensed, maybe not. Maybe they do it for the public good, maybe for personal gain. There will always be exceptions. No, I don't think that little snoop Nancy Drew quite qualifies as a private eye (though I've heard her mentioned as a source from writers of female private eyes). On the other end, there have been and will continue to be cops and FiBIes and other public lawmen who, because of circumstance, are forced to operate as private eyes.

The thing to bear in mind in trying to arrive at some workable definition -- private eye, noir, hardboiled, etc. -- is that, as entertaining as these discussions may be, in our heart of hearts we really don't want these kinds of categories. The books or movies or TV shows that most of us prize are usually the ones that don't slavishly conform to any established category. Or am I wrong?

Dick Lochte

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