Parker's Brothers by Lenny Picker
Thriller author Harlan Coben, who read Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels in college, once observed, “When it comes to detective novels, 90% of us admit he’s an influence, and the rest of us lie about it.”
Almost two years after the death of Parker, an academic who wrote his thesis on Raymond Chandler and completed a Chandler manuscript (Poodle Springs), many authors and critics specializing in crime fiction about private eyes still share Coben’s assessment of Parker’s role in revitalizing that subgenre.
Harry Hunsicker, author of the Lee Henry Oswald series set in Dallas featuring a Gulf War veteran (Crosshairs, St. Martin’s, 2007), remarks: “Robert B. Parker has been a huge influence on my work and that of an entire generation of writers. It’s hard to overstate how important he’s been to the PI genre.” Loren D. Estleman, who’s been writing Amos Walker PI novels since 1980 (Forge published the 21st, Infernal Angels, in July) considers Parker making “the case for the modern detective story as American literature... his most enduring legacy.”
Kevin Burton Smith, who runs the Thrilling Detective blog, considers Parker “as big an influence on writers from the ’80s until the present as Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, and Spillane were in their day. Each, of course, built on the previous writers, but there’s no denying Parker’s influence on the PI genre in terms of commerciality, regionalism, women and relationships, and race.”
Max Allan Collins points to Parker’s impact on publishers: “Every so often, a private eye writer comes along and makes an impact that opens doors for other private eye writers. Parker encouraged editors to consider other private eye fiction for publication. He’s been hugely influential on a lot of other private eye writers, some of whom, like Walter Mosley and Bob Crais, have been very successful themselves. With his Boston setting, Parker also opened the door for regional mystery writers, and that went way beyond just private eye fiction.”
Collins himself continues to add to his prolific inventory of PI work, which now includes his 15th Nate Heller novel, Bye Bye, Baby (Forge, Aug.), in which the private sleuth, whose casebook includes most of the major crimes of the 20th century, gets involved in sorting out the questionable death of Marilyn Monroe.
Readers who haven’t sampled PI fiction lately may be reluctant to, based on outdated stereotypes, unaware that Chandler’s mean streets are no longer the sole address for gritty crime fiction featuring a detective-for-hire whose first loyalty is usually to the client footing the bill. Or, as Ace Atkins puts it, “Those unfamiliar with PI novels often [assume there’s a] fedora, cigarette, and smoky office. While a great novel can contain all of those, it can also be a hell of a social commentary. A PI is a wonderful vehicle for a good author to explore so much—he/she can go anywhere and write about anything.” Atkins, formerly a crime reporter in Florida, made his name with hard-edged period pieces, including Devil’s Garden (Putnam, 2009), in which Pinkerton agent Dashiell Hammett narrates his efforts to assist the defense team representing Fatty Arbuckle in his 1920s manslaughter trials.
The where is very much in play these days. Some of the best contemporary authors have found ways to introduce the conventions popularized by
Hammett and Chandler into what Conan Doyle labeled “the smiling and beautiful countryside.” Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight, a former Detroit police officer who watched his partner die and still carries a bullet less than a centimeter from his heart, works as a PI in the small town of Paradise, Mich. Hamilton chose the setting to make things more challenging for himself: “For me, it’s a lot more interesting to see what kind of trouble your PI can get into when he lives in a cabin in a very small, remote town on the shores of Lake Superior.”
The eighth McKnight novel, Misery Bay (Minotaur, June), deals with the unexpected aftershocks from a young man’s suicide in a lonely corner of the Upper Peninsula. (And, in fact, Hammett’s Red Harvest takes place in a small mining town.) McKnight’s ninth, Die a Stranger, will be published by Minotaur in July 2012.
The crimes being probed by today’s PIs aren’t limited to murder, extortion, and political corruption. Peter Spiegelman, whom Reed Farrel Coleman, creator of Moe Prager, has dubbed “one of the most underappreciated PI writers today,” had his PI, John March, helping his brother with an Internet stalker in 2007’s Red Cat (Knopf). Coleman himself is at the top of many cognoscenti’s lists of the best in the subgenre. His seventh novel starring Prager, The Hurt Machine (Tyrus, Dec.), has the part-time wine merchant, part-time shamus attempting to learn why two EMTs on a meal break let a man who suffered a stroke die. Coleman’s plots illustrate how elements of fair-play whodunits can be successfully grafted onto a grittier view of the world than the English cozy. His work blurs the line that some would draw between PI fiction and noir; as film noir expert Eddie Muller once put it, in the Prager books, “the truth always makes things worse”—the quintessence of noir.
Those looking for a PI story line set against the backdrop of recent history will welcome Ed Kovacs’s debut, Storm Damage (Minotaur, Dec.), in which private eye Cliff St. James navigates a post-Katrina New Orleans in search of a missing person whose fate may be connected with the CIA. St. James is a typical PI protagonist—self-destructive, willing to use extralegal means to achieve his goals—and will return in 2012’s Good Junk (Minotaur), where he looks into the murder of a U.S. government “black projects” engineer tied in with a murky network of seedy arms dealers and foreign intelligence agents purchasing state-of-the-art weaponry and high technology.
And private eyes aren’t all ex-cops gone into business for themselves; 2010 saw the latest memorable journalist-as-PI make his debut. Bruce
DeSilva’s Rogue Island (Forge), which won an Edgar Award for best first novel, drew upon the author’s many years covering Rhode Island as an investigative reporter for the Providence Journal to create Liam Mulligan, who finds that a string of arsons may be tied to a redevelopment project.
But if experts are generally in accord about Parker’s fictional footprint, there’s more disagreement about whether PIs must be moral. Otto Penzler, in the Huffington Post last year, wrote that “the private detective story separates itself from noir... because it also has a character with a moral center.”
By contrast, Coleman believes, “There is a huge measure of immorality in how PIs function. Haven’t you ever wondered what Sam Spade would have done in The Maltese Falcon if he could have figured out a way to come out unscathed and if the falcon was real? I think we shouldn’t confuse a PI’s code of ethics—which can be completely skewed—with morality. I mean, look at Easy Rawlins. Is he insulated from the immorality of Mouse simply because he doesn’t overtly sanction Mouse’s murderous nature? Of course not. There’s a tacit approval. PIs operate in all sorts of immoral ways even if in the name of justice and morality.”
Rawlins’s and Mouse’s creator, Walter Mosley, returns to his other series character, the ethically compromised Leonid McGill, in All I Did Was Shoot My Man (Riverhead, Jan.), in which the PI tries to atone for framing a woman in the largest Wall Street robbery in history. Mosley continues his unique contribution to the field by examining race relations in the U.S. through his detective fiction.
The large number of gifted writers laboring in the field suggests that Parker’s legacy will be a lasting one. Many actually improve upon Chandler, who was notoriously cavalier about his plots, in at least one respect; in a 1949 letter, he confessed that he didn’t know who killed one of the victims in Philip Marlowe’s debut, The Big Sleep. Hammett had some of the same failings; Estleman writes, “As many times as I’ve read The Maltese Falcon and seen the movie, I still don’t know why Brigid killed Miles.” The best of today’s PI writers work very hard to make the plot hang together, even if the subgenre invites, if not actually requires, messier endings than Agatha Christie would have concocted.
As to the near-future, Hamilton believes the PI market “is on a downswing now. I imagine pure impatience on the part of the publishers is one factor. They’re running a little scared in this tough market and are less willing to let a series find its legs and grow. You have to hit it out of the park on the first try, and that’s not necessarily what most PI writers are built for.”
Estleman’s a bit more optimistic: “The market’s more flexible than many publishers think. When they think it’s flooded with PIs or whatever, they back off, thus fulfilling their own prophecy. Then something fresh and powerful comes along and busts the market wide open.”
PI fiction’s obituary has been written many times, but despite the uncertainties plaguing book publishing in general, it’s hard to bet against the enduring appeal of a subgenre that, as Sean Chercover (creator of the Ray Dudgeon series) writes, “is the perfect framework for the social novel. Because it deals with behavior so universally reviled that it has been outlawed, it demands that the plot have consequences beyond the angst of the protagonist, and encourages us to shine a light into the dark corners of our nature and the hypocrisies in our society.”
And its popularity in the U.S. will always be tied to its origins here. As Hunsicker puts it, “It’s an extension of the frontier mentality, the rugged individualism that characterized the early settlers of our country.” To quote Jackson Donne’s creator, Dave White, author of When One Man Dies (Three Rivers Press, 2007), ”It grew out of the Western vigilante and into the postwar pathos. America needed a hero who wasn’t tied down by laws and government, a lone wolf who could set things right. The PI filled that void when the western novel started to fade. But he is an American hero, as American as Natty Bumpo. He’s also a tragic American hero, his only mission to fix other people’s problems.”
And for Spenser fans mourning Parker’s death, they’ve not seen the last of their hero. Earlier this year, Parker’s estate tapped Atkins to continue the Spenser franchise. Putnam will publish his first effort, Lullaby, in May 2012.
A Suitable Job for a Woman by Jordan Foster
“An unsuitable job for a woman?” Cordelia Gray interjects in P.D. James’s 1972 private eye novel of the same name when a man comes up short trying to describe her chosen profession.
In the most backhanded of compliments, he tells her women are “entirely suitable” for a job that requires “a penchant for interfering with other people.” Credited with introducing the female PI subgenre in the U.K. with her Cordelia Gray series (The Skull Beneath the Skin followed in 1982), James paved the way for the first wave of American female private eyes who hit the shelves in the late 1970s and early 1980s, notably those of Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller. As Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski was setting up shop in Chicago, Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone was settling in the fictional Southern California town of Santa Teresa, and Muller’s Sharon McCone was hanging out her shingle in San Francisco, back in Great Britain Liza Cody introduced U.K. readers to the next incarnation of the British female private PI with Anna Lee in 1980’s Dupe.
Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade may have spent a fair amount of time drinking, smoking, and shooting the breeze, but when it came to the job of detecting, they were all business. “I hadn’t read much except Chandler and Hammett,” Cody says. “I thought they engaged with the messy reality I saw around me in a way that the British cozy tradition didn’t. I loved the terse, witty writing, but I hated their women characters.” And so Anna Lee was born, “an ordinary English woman, without super powers, at the center of that kind of story.”
Grafton’s Millhone may not have super powers, either, yet consider these opening lines from A Is for Alibi, written nearly 30 years ago: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and that fact weighs heavily on my mind.” No shrinking wallflower here. Putnam will publish Grafton’s 21st installment, V Is for Vengeance, this month. Then there’s Victoria “V.I.” Warshawski, less than 10 pages into Paretsky’s first book, 1982’s Indemnity Only, and already questioned by a client who doubts her abilities because of her gender. “You got a partner?” the client asks, and the reader seethes right along with V.I. when she says no, even more so when the client says, “Well, this really isn’t a job for a girl to take on alone.” No one would dare tell Marlowe or Spade that he wasn’t man enough to take on a case, not unless they were looking for a right hook to the kisser.
As Kelli Stanley, whose heroine Miranda Corbie is a PI in 1940s-era San Francisco, puts it, “We as a society still tend to attribute certain traits to gender: strength, toughness, and directness are associated with men while patience, tenderness, and intuition are the woman’s domain. But a female PI isn’t a ‘man in a skirt.’ She’s a woman, a tough woman if she’s successful and a smart one if she wants to stay alive. She’s also a moral woman, with her own code.” Stanley’s second Corbie book, City of Secrets, came out from Minotaur in September.
For Laura Lippman, whose long-running series features Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan, the question of Tess’s profession came down to narrative practicality. “I didn’t need to find plausible explanation after plausible explanation for Tess to be drawn into investigations, as opposed to amateur sleuth mysteries.” Though, as she points out, “PI fiction is actually even more unrealistic than amateur sleuth fiction because PIs just don’t work that many criminal investigations.” Lippman’s latest stand-alone, The Most Dangerous Thing, was published by Morrow this August.
Of course, the average cat-sitter, cake decorator, or horticulturalist isn’t usually sucked into a web of murder and intrigue either, as is the case in amateur sleuth mysteries. Jassy Mackenzie made her Jade de Jong a private investigator in Johannesburg both because it gave her a reliable set of eyes and the ability to “operate above and beyond the law when it suits [her], which the police cannot.” Soho Crime will publish the fourth de Jong installment, The Fallen, in April. And if Mackenzie ever decides to abandon her writing career, she’d choose the PI route over policing any day: “the hours are more flexible, the dress code is more creative, and the pay’s higher so you can drive a nicer car and afford a better quality of doughnut.”
This person on the fringe, accountable to her client and the truth, is partially what appealed to S.J. Rozan, whose Manhattan-based series features two PIs, Chinese-American Lydia Chin and her partner, Bill Smith, last seen in Ghost Hero (Minotaur, Sept.). “The PI is an outsider voice,” says Rozan. “The character has antecedents throughout Western literature, always as someone who can see clearly what’s going on because he or she stands apart from it.” Just as Mackenzie’s de Jong can circumvent the law when it suits her purposes, Dana Stabenow’s Alaska national park investigator, Kate Shugak, can use this outsider status to her advantage. “Someone once said to Kate, ‘Let’s face it, you never met a rule of evidence you liked,’ ” says Stabenow. “Kate can get away with much a sworn officer cannot. She’s very results oriented and not one to worry about fruit of the poisonous tree if she can nail a perp who is hurting her park rats.”
It’s said that location is everything. PIs are creatures of habit just like the rest of us, and most of them don’t stray far from their familiar patch. But that doesn’t mean that these patches aren’t spread far and wide. From Grafton’s Millhone on the West Coast to Rozan’s Chin and Smith on the other side of the country in New York, the United States is full of female PIs. In California alone, in addition to Millhone, there’s Sharon McCone, the investigator and heroine of 30 Marcia Muller novels starting back in 1977; Stanley’s Miranda Corbie (if you rewind 60 years or so to the 1940s); and quirky Izzy Spellman, narrator and youngest PI in a family of off-the-wall investigators in Lisa Lutz’s Spellman Files series. Lutz’s fifth installment, Trail of the Spellmans, is forthcoming in March from Simon & Schuster.
The stronger the ties between detective and setting, the deeper the wounds will cut when a crime is committed on a familiar street. International crime is no different. For Jassy Mackenzie, “A tough place like Johannesburg requires a tough-minded PI to operate successfully within its boundaries, meeting violent criminals head-on with violence while showing a kinder and compassionate side to the less fortunate.” Even when the characters aren’t knocking each other off, the setting is essential. “The Kate Shugak novels,” says Alaska native Stabenow, “are as much—or more—about Alaska as they are about crime fiction.”
While the writers may be contemporary, several current series feature historical PIs who are also wedded to their milieus—and times. Jacqueline Winspear, whose series features Maisie Dobbs, a psychologist and investigator in post-WWI England, admits that it was her interest in history, not any predecessors in the PI world, that spurred her to try her hand at writing crime. “I hadn’t planned to write fiction, and if anything, I was inspired by my lifelong interest in the Great War and the generation of extraordinary women in Britain who because the first generation of women to go to war, and into ‘men’s work,’ in significant numbers in modern times.” Dobbs, who lives in London, is “at home in her territory,” according to Winspear. “But the territory is also the social landscape of the time, and her ability to navigate her way through the social strata of the period also defines her character.” Elegy for Eddie, the ninth Maisie installment, will be published by Harper in March.
Only a decade or so removed but worlds away, “the three biggest fiction influences on Miranda Corbie,” says Kelli Stanley, “were Marlowe, Spade, and the film noir Gilda. Since the books were set in the ’40s, her prototypes are mostly male, and I wanted to avoid any attitude that smacked of postwar feminism.” Miranda, “who is often labeled a ‘broad’ and has been called much worse,” embodies the city of San Francisco, which is going strong after rebuilding itself from the 1906 earthquake.
Are there inherent differences between male and female private eyes in crime fiction today? Perhaps more important, do these differences matter? For Rozan, who has the unique perspective of writing a series with both a female and a male PI, “There are differences between the way women and men operate in the world, based on the way the world reacted to them when they were growing up, though these differences are cultural not inherent.” Kelli Stanley sees the issue of gender as one that exists, to a point, as much or as little as the writer wishes to engage it. “It comes down to how a writer approaches gender,” says Stanley. Qualities like strength, toughness, and intuition “are human, not male or female, and belong to both, or all, genders. At the same time, men and women are different. Our brain and body chemistry is different.”
Liza Cody—who ended her Anna Lee series with 1991’s Backhand and whose work since has been stand-alones, including 2011’s Ballad of a Dead Nobody (iUniverse)—says that when considering the differences between male and female private eyes, so much comes down to the expectation that the PI should be a tough guy, an expectation less to do with the job and more to do with the genre.
“It was interesting that all those years ago,” Cody says, “Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and I, quite independently, all made our PIs runners. We all felt we had to deal with toughness by making our heroines fitter than the average woman. Even while we were subverting the genre we had to accept the tradition. Punchups were expected. We dealt with it.” But in the midst of those punchups, at least for Laura Lippman, comes the question of parenthood. “Children can be introduced into the male PI’s life with relatively little effort,” she says, “but my personal experience is that it’s harder to show a female PI with kids. The genre’s need for suspense usually means risk for the main character.” The question of the female PI with children putting herself in danger for the sake of a case—and to what degree—is one that’s simply not addressed often in the subgenre. Lippman admits, “As a new mom—newer than Tess, by the way—I am still trying to figure this out. Personally, I couldn’t bear to read a novel in which a woman didn’t think about her child when doing something incredibly risky.”
Nearly 40 years after Cordelia Gray inherited Pryde’s Detective Agency under rather grim circumstances, the subgenre she helped usher in is still going strong. V.I. Warshawski will be back in her 16th adventure, Breakdown (Putnam, Jan.), while Sue Grafton is steadily working her way through the alphabet. Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone series hit 30 books this October with City of Whispers (Grand Central). Every one of these women is her own boss, with her own code, her own set of lines that can’t be crossed. Some will bend the law when it suits them; some follow the rules and work the justice system to their advantage. But all of them are formidable in their own way. “Would anyone but a fool dismiss V.I. Warshawski because of her gender?” asks Stabenow, whose 19th Kate Shugak novel, Restless in the Grave, is due from Minotaur in February. “Or Kate Shugak? Not unless they wanted their nuts handed to them on a platter.”