Famous Writers Who Have Dipped Their Toes in the P.I. Pool
Private detective and hard-boiled novels, as with most genre fiction, are frequently dismissed as mere trite formulaic scribbling by the literary poohbahs-that-be. And when something in the genre does meet with their approval, they promptly disavow it’s part of any genre at all, condescendingly claiming it “transcends the genre.”
Yet there must be something to the P.I. form that attracts writers from other fields, luring everyone from the purest nose-in-the-air literary types to our brother and sister grunts in other lowly fiction genres. Some of the results were truly sad, but several outliers have left their mark, or at least some droppings, on the genre.
The ones to really beware of, though, are those that the blurbs loudly proclaim “transcend the genre.” In real life too often that’s simply publisherspeak for “can’t write in the genre worth shit.”
- Koke Abe
The acclaimed Japanese playwright and novelist came up with one real headscratcher of a P.I. tale, 1967’s The Ruined Map.
The author of Three Magic Words (1954), a best-selling and very intellectual book about positive thinking, evolution, and the Law of Attraction, read by luminaries like Elvis Presley and Wayne Dyer, also squeezed out a handful of novels, including Hard and Fast (1956), a cheesy, hard-boiled P.I. tale told in–get this–present tense. That he put his own name on such a potboiler speaks of a “certain amount of conviction and even courage,” according to Steve Lewis.
- Kate Atkinson
Atkinson was already known for three fairly well-received literary novels (and had already nabbed the 1995 Whitbread award for the first) when she published Case Histories (2004), which introduced private detective, Jackson Brodie, a particularly emphathetic gumshoe. Three more in the series (and a television show) followed, all to much acclaim. “What Atkinson does is take the trappings of the PI novel structure to answer deeper questions, and succeeds incredibly well at doing so,” says Sarah Weinman, “it could be said to transcend genre. But that’s not what it does, because it’s simply an excellent book.”
- Paul Auster
This long-time fan of the genre took its conventions and cliches and converted them, distorted them, and turned them inside out in his high-falutin’, sometimes exasperating, but acclaimed and literary-as-hell New York Trilogy. In fact, his very first novel, written under a pseudonym, was a rather more traditional P.I. novel, Squeeze Play, featuring New York eye Max Klein.
- John Banville
The celebrated Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist, writes crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, most featuring Quirke, a Dublin-based pathologist, as well as The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014), featuring Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe continuation.
- Thomas Berger
The man behind Little Big Man, Reinhart in Love, Neighbours and several other bestsellers was also responsible (although he may deny it) for the P.I. parody/travesty Who is Teddy Villanova?, featuring New York eye Russell Wren.
- Ray Bradbury
Even the much loved sci-fi writer tried on the fedora, in the bittersweet ode to pulp writing and crime fiction, Death is a Lonely Business (1985), which skirts around the edges of the P.I. game. The book was dedicated to Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain and Ross MacDonald, as well as his friend and mentor Leigh Brackett, and the police detective in it was named Elmo Crumley (presumably after P.I. author James Crumley). But the real hero is the unnamed narrator, a wide-eyed young pulp writer trying to make a go of it in tattered, shabby Venice Beach in the early fifties, who gets drawn into investigating a string of increasingly bizarre murders. The young writer (essentially Bradbury himself) and Crumley, now a private eye, teamed up again in A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990) and Let’s All Kill Constance (2002).
- Richard Brautigan
The counter-culture -fave wrote a trippy private eye spoof called Dreaming of Babylon (1977), featuring San Francisco P.I. C. Card.
- Michael Crichton
Best known for creating the blockbuster book and film franchise Jurassic Park and the equally blockbusting TV show ER, Crichton also wrote several crime thrillers early in his career under the pen name of John Lange. Much later on, he wrote a pretty nasty little P.I. story featuring LA gumshoe Ray Chambers.
- Howard Fast
Under the pseudonym of E.V. Cunningham, he wrote Sylvia, about a P.I. named Alan Macklin.
- Neil Gaiman
Acclaimed for his short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, nonfiction, audio theatre, and films, Gaiman mythology-laden tales of fantasy (including the comic book series The Sandman and novels Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book, have won numerous awards, but I was still surprised to discover he’d written a private eye story, “Murder Mysteries,” about Raguel, a private eye angel. In Heaven. On a job for Lucifer.
- Jim Harrison
Unapologetically manly and outdoorsy as fuck, Harrison was Hemingway without the ego and self-consciousness, and arguably the better storyteller (so shoot me). He left behind a huge mountain of work: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, children’s literature, memoirs, screenplays, book reviews, literary criticism, and essays on food, travel, and sports, but his last two novels, The Great Leader (2011) and The Big Seven (2015), featured Sunderson, a retired Michigan State cop who retreats to his cabin in the Upper Peninsula to brood, drink, fish and pursue a couple of private investigations.
- Robert E. Howard
Yep, sword’n’sorcery pulpster supreme Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, tried his hand at many a genre, including the shamus game. His contribution was private eye Steve Harrison, a relatively generic gumshoe, although Howard gets extra credit for working some “weird menace” and “adventure stuff” right into the mix, in the handful of short stories he wrote about the character.
- James Jones
The acclaimed writer of From Here To Eternity wrote 1973’s A Touch of Danger, which relates the tale of Frank “Lobo” Davies, an aging American private eye set loose in Europe.
- Neil Jordan
Acclaimed filmmaker (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire, etc.) Jordan’s first first foray into the shamus game, The Drowned Detective (2016) is an odd little gem, a shadowy, enigmatic and possibly supernatural look at love and loss, dressed up in film noir rags.
- Stephen King
The horror meister supreme and genre-jumping giant wrote a short novella, entitled Umney’s Last Stand, an affectionate and well-done homage to, and nod at Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler, featuring reality-challenged private eye Clyde Umney, and more recently he’s unleashed a full-tilt trilogy of novels featuring private eye Bill Hodges.
- Louis L’Amour
Not so much a dabbler as an explorer, pulpster L’Amour wrote whatever would pay, including several stories about boxers turned LA gumshoes Kip Morgan and Neil Shannon. The westerns ended up paying better, although L’Amour’s years as a pug served the Kip stories well.
- Jonathan Lethem
Like King, a genre-hopping gadfly, but Motherless Brooklyn, his dead-on take on a Brooklyn P.I. suffering from Tourette’s syndrome, tracking down the killer of his adoptive father figure, is a literary tour-de-force that nabbed the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. And his first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music (1995), a wide-open spoof/parody/tribute to the private eye and sci-fi genres, featuring private inquisitor Conrad Metcalf and assorted pistol-packing marsupials, and the short story “The One About The Green Detective” ain’t too shabby either.
- David Mamet
Mamet, of course, is the the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Untouchables and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Glengarry Glen Ross, but nobody expected him to write Chicago (2018), a thriller that follows tough guy reporter Mike Hodge through the mean streets of 1920s Chicago on a quest to avenge the murder of his girlfriend.
- David Markson
The author of several postmodern classics that fooled around with narrative, character development and plot, including Springer’s Progress, Reader’s Block, The Last Novel and, most famously, Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988), which was hailed by David Foster Wallace as “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country,” started his career with two excellent private eye novels back in the late fifties, featuring Greenwich Village gumshoe Harry Fannin.
- Arthur Miller
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright responsible for Death of a Salesman and The Crucible wrote the original screenplay for the moody, broody P.I. flick Everybody Wins, starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger.
- Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2009) is an impenetrable shaggy dog story featuring Doc Sportello, a early seventies era gumshoe wandering around the counter-culture fog of early seventies Southern California trying to help an old girlfriend out of a jam and maybe, just maybe find some semblance of plot. Of course, most of the critics are afraid to admit this thing’s a turkey (some of the convoluted critical logic is almost as difficult to follow as the book itself), but take it from me, a great detective novel this is not. Nor does it particulalry work for me as parody. Or as a film.
- Ishmael Reed
The American poet, playwright, screenwriter, songwriter, novelist and intellectual prefigured Pynchon by almost forty years, with his sureal P.I. novel Mumbo Jumbo, about 1920s Harlem “astro-detective” PaPa LaBas on the hunt for a missing voodoo text, while the U.S. is caught up in a rapidly spreading virus that sounds suspiciously like boogie fever.
- J.K. Rowling
You may have heard of her. Her first stab at crashing the mystery party came in 2012 with the decidedly adult The Casual Vacancy. It sold like crazy but received mixed reviews, with many slagging the book for, well, not being Harry Potter. Taking a hint, her next mystery, The Cuckoo’s Calling (2012), was released under the male pen name of Robert Galbraith. The book, which introduced Cormoran Strike, a hardluck London private investigator who left part of his leg back in Afghanistan, received much more favourable reviews but sold squat — or at least until the muggles found out who Galbraith really was. It promptly started to sell skedillions, as have its three (and counting) sequels and a television series.
- Graham Swift
The author of such modern literary classics as Waterland, Out of This World and the Booker Prize-winning Last Orders, also wrote The Light of Day, a stream-of-consciousness private eye novel featuring obsessed, brooding London private eye George Webb, that has more than a few echoes of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon going for it…
- P.G. Wodehouse
Best known, of course, for creating Jeeves, the ultimate “gentleman’s gentleman” and Bewrtie Wooster, the perennial upper class twit, Wodehouse never wrote a genuine hard-boiled detective story in his life, but it turns out that over the years several desperate characters in the Wodehouse canon employed the services of such private eyes as Elliot Oakes and Paul Snyder, Henry Pifield Rice, Percy Pilbeam, Adrian Mulliner, Mr. McGee and J. Sheringham Adair.
Preliminary list compiled by Kevin Burton Smith. Merci, Karin. Suggestions and comments welcome.
6 thoughts on “They Wrote What?”
John Banville, under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, has written several novels in the genre, including a Marlowe continuation.
Dang, you’re right. And I’ve got him listed elsewhere on the site, for doing just that. Looks like I’ve got some revising to do…
Glad to have been a nuisance of help!
Cecil Day Lewis, former UK Poet Laureate, wrote mysteries as Nicholas Blake. James (“Lost Horizon”) Hilton wrote a couple of crime novels, and A.A. Milne did one too.
Now we’re wandering into non-P.I. stuff, which is off my stomping grounds.
Between 1952 and 1954, Gore Vidal, using the pseudonym Edgar Box, published three mystery novels featuring publicist and amateur sleuth Peter Sargeant.
He did indeed, but as you point out, Sargeant was a PR man, not a P.I.