Private Eyes by the Number

P.I.s in Men’s Adventure Books


Ah, those Men’s Adventure novels of the seventies and eighties!

To an Anglo kid growing up in the early seventies in the woodsy Quebec boondocks where English-language books were few and far between, a bi-weekly visit to the Greenfield Park shopping centre always included popping into–with my parent’s permission–Book Mark, a tiny bookstore that sold English-language paperbacks, comic books and magazines.

The appearance, seemingly overnight, of row upon row of cheesy paperbacks with cookie cutter covers bearing names like The Death Merchant, The Destroyer, The Executioner and Body Smasher, all featuring grim looking men flashing very large guns (and occasionally also very large-breasted women hovering in the background). It all suggested a world far, far away from my innocent little neck of the woods, far too “adult” for me to even consider reading.  And what was the deal with all those numbers, so conveniently splashed across the covers? I thought only comics and the Hardy Boy books did that!

Of course, given the sometimes questionable literary merit of the books themselves, the speed with which they were pumped out, and the fill-in-the-blanks and repetitive nature of many of their plots, more than one cynic has suggested that numbering the books was perhaps the only way for loyal readers to keep track of them.

Not that I read any of them back in the day, of course, being the sweet naive doofus I was. But those covers bothered me in ways I didn’t quite understand yet, but I’ll never forget how they spread across the spinner racks and bookstore walls over the next few years, like some sort of literary rash, displacing my beloved movie tie-ins, Tarzan novels and comic books.

These so-called heroes, the blood-splattered bastard children of Mickey Spillane, displayed a casual racism and misogyny that is still staggering in retrospect. They were almost all loners, out on perpetual (and usually personal) missions of vengeance against the Mob, Nazis, Commies and renegade hippies and freaks. They were generally armed to the teeth and not shy about accepting sexual favours from a seemingly endless stream of willing women, often featured on the covers in various degrees of undress. These macho, macho men were soldiers, cops, spies, space travelers, vigilantes, cowboys, blade-wielding barbarians, mercenaries, gunslingers and assassins. But there were also sometimes private eyes, bounty hunters, insurance investigators, skip tracers, freelance fixers and other miscreants who made trouble their business–not their hobby–and therefore fall into our turf.

The Trash Fiction Champion Web Site generously provided an initial list of them back in 2018, and I’ve been dutifully tinkering with it ever since.

Some were successes, some barely made it to a couple of books, many were total crap, and some were, even back then, horribly and toally offensive. And some were as good as anything out on the market at the time, but all of the following boast heroes who could legitimately be considered private eyes of one sort or another, and all the books posess  that “Men’s Adventure vibe,” as Trash Menace (the man behind the Trash Fiction Champion Web Site) put it. They were certainly presented as such, even if they often had little true connection to the genre except a cynical marketing strategy that only went as deep as their covers (like, does Shaft really belong here?), and a certain tilt toward blood and thunder and a pulpy, hard-boiled (some would say over-boiled) machismo.

And while they may not flood the paperback racks as they once did, the spirit of Men’s Adventure books lives on.

In sci-fi, fantasy and westerns (like Bob Randisi’s apparently never-ending Gunsmith series), and in Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips on-going ode to the genre, the eighties-set Reckless series about a surfer/slacker P.I.

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

2 thoughts on “Private Eyes by the Number

  1. Jeez, Louise. I just want to leave a positive comment with a coaching tip. All your self-appointed wisdom disappears when you cannot even spell Boyles. The old joke says a writer couldn’t spell cat if you gave him the c and a. But where you really fail is talking about once young writers like you and me, hoping to get published, and supporting families in my case, etc. I am not admonishing you. It’s just that you lack the courtesy to ask me for a quote. Does that mean you are lazy sack of peat or you have your mind made up all ahead. When I write about you, be sure that I will give you the courtesy never game me and ask if I am accurate. Tiny was a piece of work it is true, but except for the rape scenes he imagined that I deplore in 2023, he was a storyteller without education, polish, or sophistication. But I appreaciate what you are trying to do, just you strike me as a lazy writer, and one that could get sued in the future, because you don’t ask the people you write about for quotes. I’ve now read your postings. You are too good a writer and thinker to turn out shabby postings. I truly thinik you are talented and an original thinker, but you have to attack your own creative self as I have.

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