RARA-AVIS: More Likable P.I.s?

From: Kevin Burton Smith (kvnsmith@sbcglobal.net)
Date: 13 Sep 2009

  • Next message: David Rachels: "Re: RARA-AVIS: More Likable P.I.s?"

    This is sorta thinking out loud, waiting for the coffee to kick in, but:

    Dave wrote:

    > It (FAST LANE/IN HIS SHADOW) starts that way, doesn't it? I had a
    > reviewer write me that I needed to learn how to make my PIs more
    > likable, that he had to quit halfway through because Johnny Lane was
    > making him too uncomfortable. Too bad he didn't make it through the
    > second half...

    Sheesh. He wanted your P.I. to be more likable? Boy, did he pick the wrong book (that's not a dis, by the way). In fact, he may have picked the wrong genre. And he wrote you personally halfway through reading the book to lodge his complaint?

    Granted, he may have meant something else entirely by "likable," but I'm assuming he means "affable." As in, "Gee, what a nice guy."

    In which case, what the fuck?

    Everyone knows I'm a sucker for P.I.s, but even I can't think right now of any P.I.s that are really, really affable. Or guaranteed comfort-enducing. Most of my favourites have holes in their characters you could driver a truck through. And that's definitely what makes their adventures so engaging to me. It's their flaws, as well as their strengths, that draw the reader in.

    The perfect, 100 per cent likable P.I. doesn't exist, as far as I can tell, except maybe in parody or those watered down semi-boiled housewife fantasy romantic suspense/semi-cozy mystery novels. And if he does exist, would any of us read about him?

    There are quite a few gumshoes I wouldn't mind having a few beers with, but most of them in real life would probably need very high maintenance to be actual friends with -- and you'd need to turn a really blind eye to their flaws. Even that most affable of gumshoes, Rockford, would probably be quite wearying in real life. A nice guy, to be sure, but how long would it take for him to pick up the tab?

    Which may be why so many of them are loners, for the most part, or surrounded, at best, by a very small circle of devoted friends.

    What say you guys?

    And is it a guy thing? Or more precisely, a straight pale male thing? Several female, gay, lesbian and minority private eye novels over the last twenty or so years have attempted to present their gumshoes as part of a larger, outsider community; a social network of like-minded family and friends, but it hasn't always been successful. Or convincing.

    Have they lost some of their outsider cred by being part of a larger community, even if it is dissident one?

    In fact, most of the detectives, at least in the harder side of the genre, tend to view that network, except when it suits their purposes, as intrusive. Laura Lippman's last blast, which was serialized in The New York Times, could be seen as one individual's struggle for self against the forces of family, friends and -- in her detective's case
    -- imminent childbirth.

    The major precedent is, of course, Chandler's first few chapters of POODLE SPRINGS, and the jury's still out on that one, although modern authors like Robert Parker, Bill Pronzini and Lippmann are apparently still presenting their cases, with varying but usually worthwhile degrees of success.

    So, at heart, must the private eye remain a loner?

    And do we really want really "nice guy" P.I.s?

    Kevin Burton Smith Editor/Founder The Thrilling Detective Web Site
    "Wasting your time on the web since 1998."

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