RARA-AVIS: Re: The popularity of the Private Investigator

From: jimdohertyjr ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 19 Feb 2006


Re your comments below:

> I don't think people are really looking for "realism",
> anyway. While it's true that the busy little forensic
> details of "CSI" and similar shows seem to be part of
> their appeal, and while there's always been a small
> diehard group of fans obsessed with authenticity in
> their police procedurals and the like, in general I
> think people look to fiction to escape their reality.

As one of those who is "obsessed" with authenticity in the police procedural, I take some exception to that comment.

The reason procedural readers like procedurals to be accurate is because the sub-genre is defined by the accurate depiction of the profession of law enforcement. If it doesn't do that it's not delivering what it's supposed to deliver.

That's not obsession. That's simply a reasonable expectation.
> So if the PI's run is really up, I don't think it has
> anything to do with him/her not being "realistic"
> anymore. Never mind what "real" PIs do: at heart the
> fictional PI is an incarnation of the traditional
> American hero -- individualistic to the point of
> isolation, deeply moralistic, violent, stoic, a
> Romantic, etc. That figure will probably stick around
> as long as there's an America.

Here you have a better point. The hard-boiled PI of cition, Gores, Ellin, and (arguably) Hammett notwithstanding, unlike the procedural cop, was a figure of fantasy, a fictional construct designed to fulfill a purpose in the story, not to be a authentic, albeit fictional, representative of a particular profession.

Still, there is a fascination, and always has been, with fiction that accurately depict people at work, at least if the work is interesting in itself. That's one of the appeals of MOBY DICK, an accurate look at 19th century whalers. That's one of the appeals of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, an accurate look at the peacetime military. And I think PI novels that DO try to accurately depict PI work in the same way police procedurals try to depict law enforcement, like Gores's DKA novels, appeal to readers who might be put off by the comic book heroics of a Mike Hammer or even the tarnished romanticism of a Phil Marlowe.
> Now, whether it'll be incarnated ever again as the
> traditional "I get a hundred bucks plus expenses" and
> a bottle in the bottom desk drawer is hard to say. My
> guess is that he/she will probably be back again in a
> big way, but not for awhile. My guess is that we're
> living through an unsettled age and a PI needs to be
> in a settled time, since his/her whole raison d etre
> is to confront the corruption that undergirds the
> seeming stability. (This is the same reason why spy
> fiction, my other major interest, has somewhat receded
> as of late. It too is predicated on stability.)

I'm not sure that what you're saying about "unsettled times" bears scrutiny. The hard-boiled PI was conceived, born, and thrived, between the wars, during the gangsterism of Prohibition, the economic woes of the Depression, and the anxiety over the rise of fascisim in Europe and Asia. What was particularly "settled" about that era?

Hoever, you do imply a good point about the PI, like the western gunfighter, being a creature of his era. That, I think, is why so many PI writers are writing historical PI stories. Even Sue Grafton has retroactively decided that all future Kinsey Milhone entries will be set no later than the '80's.

As for spy fiction, I've noted a rise, not a decline, in recent years. Nothing like the the levels of popularity seen in the mid- 60's, but certainly a spike. The sub-genre DID decline quite a bit with the end of the Cold War (a time of apparent "settled stability") but took an upsurge with 9/11 and the consequent "War on Terror"
(inarguably unsettled times).

Regarding the general theme of this thread, I can only point out that the St. Martin's PI Contest gets all kinds of entries every year, and that there are more than enough first PI novels every year to glean five nominees for the PWA's First Novel Shamus. That's hardly the sign of a declining sub-genre.
> Actually, as I type this, it strikes me that this is
> an age for horror (and we do see a lot of horror
> efforts in pop culture nowadays) and, strangely, the
> Western. If somebody could reconceive the Western to
> speak to these times, they'd probably make a killing.

How about combining the two? Maybe if someone wrote a screenplay about a legendary Old West outlaw who encounters a vampire from Transulvania. Yeah, that's it! We could call it BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA.


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