In a Nutshell…
This site is, officially, for “private eyes, and other tough guys and gals who make trouble their business — not their hobby.”
It’s not about cops, amateur sleuths, spies, plucky librarians, nosey old spinsters, pastry chefs or talking cats… Sorry. Charlie Chan is NOT a private eye. Jessica Fletcher isn’t. James Bond isn’t. Kojak isn’t. Over the years, I’ve spent way too much time arguing about it. Simply wearing a fedora and trench coat doesn’t cut it.
But I’ve given myself enough leeway to include some journalists, lawyers, professional criminals, bounty hunters, bodyguards, insurance investigators and the like.
Still, I’m not a complete Nazi — I’ve stretched that already loosey-goosey definition even further for my Word on the Street listings, where I try to include new (or new-ish) crime fiction items I hope will be of interest to followers of this site. Someone who loves Chandler might get a kick out of, say, Michael Connelly.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can hear you muttering, “But what is a private eye, then?”
Here are a couple of pretty good definitions you can pretty much take to the bank:
- “Any mystery protagonist who is a professional investigator, but not a police officer or government agent.”
— The Private Eye Writers of America
- “(A private investigator is someone who) seeks clients, accepts pay for his services, and is not a member of an official law enforcement agency; thus both Sherlock Holmes and Mike Hammer are included…as are investigators working for private firms — such as insurance companies — and lawyer-sleuths.”
— Allen J. Hubin in The Mystery Story (1976)
Simple enough, right? But if you want to split hairs…
* * * * *
The English scholar and noted expert on crime fiction, in his excellent Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction (1989), suggested that the Private Eye was radically different from the Private Detective. Under the title “The Schism of the 1920s“, he goes on to explain:
Okay, that last bit’s hokum. Even in 1989, much of Binyon’s thesis seems woefully out of date, such as his suggestion that the genre doesn’t travel well outside the U.S. (!), or that the private eye story must take place in an urban setting. By 1989, there was plenty of evidence to the contrary. Yet much of the rest of his bold attempt seems dead on the mark.
Robert J. Randisi
If you read P.I. fiction, eventually you’ll have to deal with Bob. He not just writes the stuff — he lives and breathes it. He founded the Private Eye Writers of America and knows exactly how many P.I. beans make five (well, most of the time). In 1986, he wrote a guest editorial for the May issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, in which he took a whack at it also, adding a little historical perspective along the way, and dropping a few names…
Indeed. I might add that as long as they keep writing, we’ll keep reading.
Gary Warren Niebuhr
A former librarian (it shows) and contributor to this site, Gary worked out an analytical formula for determining what a private eye is, or is not, in his absolutely essential A Reader’s Guide To Private Eye Novels (1993). “This is the edited version from my slide show on the history of the P. I.,” he adds, “but it will suffice to show that it is wide open to interpretation.”
Here’s one more stab, by our old pal Paul, who offered this liberal definition:
Kevin Burton Smith?
Me? Personally, I think both T.J., Bob and Gary are all pretty close. My personal take is that the private eye story started as an American attempt to update the earlier cowboy mythos, placing them in a contemporary American urban setting. But it’s not that simple. The cowboy mythos is itself merely a frontier update of a much earlier tradition. Grab a piece of chalk, and trace a line backwards from Three Gun Mack to Nick Carter to Sherlock Holmes to Wyatt Earp to Hawkeye in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, and then continue to Robin Hood and Ivanhoe and Lancelot and King Arthur et al.
Circle the last name of the author of La Morte d’Arthur, Thomas Mallory, and draw a new line to the name of one of Chandler’s early eyes. Draw another line from Hawkeye and Chingcachook (think of ’em as an early version of Spenser and Hawk) studying some footprints in The Last of the Mohicans to that scene where Holmes explains the significance of footprints to Watson.
But of course borders are tricky, nebulous things, and it didn’t take long for the shamus game to go global. Or viral. Circle the fact that Chandler was educated in England, and that Ross Mcdonald (Kenneth Millar) was half-Canadian, and simple definitions based on national chest-thumping start to seem not so simple. So, what are we left with?
There are always those who will stand for the law, while standing outside of it. and if they can make a little scratch from it, well, why not? A private eye makes trouble his business, not a hobby.
But of course, there’s more to it than that. What sort of person would choose this kind of life?
Well, fortunately, we had someone to map it all out for us. Members of the congregation, please turn to The Gospel According to Brother Ray…
This topic will no doubt go on (and on), wandering the oceans of nitpicking, without much chance of hitting any iceberg of conclusion, but, as Paul suggests, that’s what makes it kinda fun. Feel free to send me your comments below.