Re: RARA-AVIS: 1st & 3rd

From: Peedie Monk (
Date: 23 May 2002

----- Original Message ----- From: "Jim Beaver" <>

> What are some P.I. novels written in third person, and what do
> think of third-person P.I. novels? Is first person a tradition that
> not be lightly broken? Does it provide something to the P.I. novel that
> vital to success? And what methods are available to the first-person P.I.
> writer for describing scenes that his protagonist is not present for (or
> such scenes anathema to the first-person story)?

Lots of PI novels have and always will be written in third person. After all, one of the greatest of them all begins, "Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony..."

The main benefit of first person narrative is that "colloquial" writing is expected (you're writing the character's thoughts in the manner in which they speak). The main drawback is, as you pointed out, it's hard to write about a scene if the protagonist isn't physically present. Techniques for circumnavigating this problem usually involve some form of eavesdropping or having another character tell the story to the protagonist retrospectively.

Lawrence Block, genius that he is, uses the following ploy in "A Walk Among The Tombstones". The first chapter is third person and reportorial: "On the last Thursday in March, somewhere between ten-thirty and eleven in the morning, Frances Khoury told her husband she was going out for a while, she had marketing to do." Chapter two is first person Scudder. Part-way through Scudder says, "He took me through it, giving me the story essentially as I recounted it earlier." (ie Chapter One).

Another drawback of first person is that it's hard to describe the physical appearance of your protagonist without sounding vain. And any kind of self-praise sounds arrogant.

Incidentally, I know two people who won't read what they call "I" novels. First question they ask, if I recommend something. But I've never heard of anyone with an aversion to third person narrative. I also know someone who has a complete aversion to present tense novels. But that's another topic...

Al Guthrie

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