The November 1998 P.I. Poll
The private eye novel has been a mainstay of the mystery genre forever, it seems. Think of all the classic private eye series, from Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Jonathan Latimer’s Bill Crane to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser or Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.
And yet, and yet, and yet…
But what about the stand-alone private eye novel? And by stand-alone, I mean, one book, and out. No sequels, no prequels, no short stories. The flexibility of the stand-alone has made for some memorable books. After all, if you’re not counting on the hero to ever show up again, almost anything can happen to him. Prison, retirement, marriage, even death or taxes…
I asked my readers for their favourite standalones and this is what they had to say (and in some cases what I said in response—I was a much more chatty bugger back then).
From Paul Bergin in Sarasota, Florida
Adopting a necessarily liberal definition of private detective–one who is engaged in an investigation for a private party or for private reasons–as a starting point, my short list of great stand alone novels would begin, as I suspect many responses to this poll will begin, with The Glass Key. Hammett’s greatest book by far, and a milestone in American literature–genre or mainstream.
Other solo flights that in my opinion (the superiority of The Glass Key being a matter of demonstrable fact, and therefore exempt from such a disclaimer) can legitimately lay claim to greatness include, in no particular order of quality:
Blue Lonesome by Bill Pronzini. The author’s masterpiece, and as fine a crime novel as I have ever read.
The Drowner by John D. MacDonald. I’ve read most, but not all, of John D.’s novels, and this is the only one I can recall that actually features a detective as protagonist. It is also one of his most accomplished and gripping yarns. The truly memorable villain is as spooky as they come.
Where is Janice Gantry? by John D. MacDonald. A departure for John D, in that his hero is less than the likable, altogether decent sort of guy one has come to expect of the author. Viewed objectively, Sam Brice is a self-pitying, grudge-nursing prick. Fortunately, he is also determined, fiercely loyal to his friends, and tough. It all balances out. One of JDM’s two or three most masterful works. A paperback original, it has been out of print for 18 years and can be difficult to find.
The City When It Rains by Thomas H. Cook. Dark, richly atmospheric, deeply humane. While drawing upon the conventions of crime literature past, Cook confronts contemporary issues head-on and existential issues, such as the horror of dying utterly alone in a city of millions, compassionately and with rare intelligence.
From Kevin Burton Smith in Montreal
Well, this is a toughie. Paul’s comments about John D. MacDonald made me remember the powerful The Brass Cupcake, about a cynical insurance investigator, Cliff Bartells, and A Flash of Green, with reporter Jimmy Wing, in perhaps the first environmentally-correct hardboiled novel (think of it as “green noir.”) Both heroes, in my opinion, qualify as P.I.s, and both are, surprise! surprise! set in Florida! And both are definitely worth tracking down.
But I think my all-time favorite (so far) is Jonathan Latimer’s Solomon’s Vineyard (1941), featuring private eye Karl Craven, a hard-as-nails private op looking into the murder of his partner in a town not unlike Hammett’s Poisonville in Red Harvest. Anyone expecting a sort of Bill-Crane lightweight screwball cocktail caper will be surprised at this out-and-out hardboiled classic, a true slice of nastiness, corruption, violence and perversion that is every bit as good as the best of Hammett, Chandler and Whitfield, and lays the groundwork for BOTH Ross Macdonald and Mickey Spillane.
From David White in Rutgers Univerity, Piscataway, NJ
Okay… Here’s an odd one. I don’t know if you’re going to count it as a PI, but Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch (Jackie Brown) has Max Cherry, a bail bondsmen who is a lot like a P.I. in that he hunts down people. He’s world-weary and literally steals the novel from the rest of the character’s, including Jackie Brown or whatever she was called in the novel (been a while since I read it, but it’s great). Tell me what you think…
Well, you won’t get any arguments from me, David. Many of Leonard’s heroes, even back in his western days, tend to be what I’d call private eyes (or maybe I should say that many of Leonard’s heroes, even now in his post-western days, tend to be what I’d call cowboys). Regardless, Leonard writes some of the best hard-boiled crime fiction around, no matter what his protagonist’s job title is. By the way, I thought Rum Punch was a miles better film than the over-rated LA Confidential. And I know it was a one-off, but I’d love to see Robert Forster as Max Cherry again.
From Jim Doherty in Chicago
A few years ago, I would have said Joe Gores’s Interface, but then Joe went and wrote a short story featuring the same character, Neil Fargo, so it no longer counts as a stand-alone.
Another contender would have to be Jonathan Latimer’s Solomon’s Vineyard, possibly the best town-tamer novel except for Hammett’s Red Harvest.
But one book I have to mention because it’s by a writer not generally thought of as a PI writer, short story ace Stanely Ellin. The novel is 1958’s The Eighth Circle and it features Murray Kirk, a young lawyer who’s become the head of one of the most prosperous PI firms in NYC. Ellin studied several PI agencies before writing the novel, so the book is a far more authentic look at real PI work than most PI novels. In its way, it anticipates the “private-eye procedural” type of story that Joe Gores would make his stock-in-trade a decade or so later. It’s also one of the few PI stories to win the MWA Edgar in the top category, Best Mystery Novel.
Ellin went on to write three more PI novels, 1969’s The Bind (which became a reputedly awful movie called Sunburn), and two novels featuring his only series character John Milano, Star Light-Star Bright and The Dark Fantastic.
Your problem with including Gores’ Interface, Jim, is the same one I had with Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. But at least Gores short story was pretty good. I found Hammett’s three Sam Spade short stories disappointing.
From Bill Fischer in Montclair, NJ
My favorite standalone PI novel is The Cosgrove Report by G.J.A. O’Toole. A detective working for Pinkerton’s investigates the assassination of Lincoln in 1867. A stunning ending.
From Duke Seabrook in Sydney
I have to admit to a fondness for Raoul Whitfield’s Death in a Bowl. Chandler and Hammett get all the glory, but this one’s as good as anything they ever pulled off. A true classic.
From Susan Lippman in San Diego, California
I’m not as up on all the old classics as you guys (don’t any women visit this site?) but there’s a handful of recent stand-alones that I’ve just loved. In fact, I prefer standalones, because you never know what’s going to happen. An Occasional Hell by Randall Silvis, about PI/college professor Ernie DeWalt, who’s got “bum kidneys” and a world of hurt, Teri White’s Thursday’s Child, about a private eye, Gar Sinclair, and a hit man both after a fifteen year old on the run, and James Ellroy’s Brown’s Requiem, about a sick puppy P.I., Fritz Brown, loose on the streets of LA. Best of all, this was written back when Ellroy still thought his own shit stank. Oh, and this is a GREAT SITE! I just wish I could order books right from here.
From Jim Doherty
You might want to add a note to Duke Seabrook’s entry about Death in a Bowl (which, as he says, is a great book). The hero, Ben Jardinn, appeared in at least one short story in addition to novel, so, as with Joe Gores’ Interface and Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, it doesn’t really qualify as a stand-alone.
From Jim Thomas in Texas
Growing up reading mysteries and P.I.’s being my favorite, I was surprised when I discovered that Sam Spade could be so famous and The Maltese Falcon be the only novel featuring that character. I was ever more shocked that (especially after all those wonderful films) there was only one Thin Man novel. It’s my favorite, just off the top of my head but there have been many that I just can’t recall.
Seems to me that as fun as the TV show was, the Perry Mason series was pretty boring (possibly because he dictated them), formula stuff. Speaking of series, does anyone remember one of my guilty pleasures, Shell Scott?
For guilty pleasures, Jim, you should check out the results of our Summer 1998 P.I. Poll: The Cheese Stands Alone-Alternative P.I. Classics. And a new, improved Perry Mason file is in the works, by one of our contributors, which digs up the dirt, and reveals Perry’s secret past as a hardboiled private eye who just happened to be a member of the bar.
From Mark Sullivan in Silver Spring, MD
Way back when, I asked a local bookseller for private eye novel recommendations after having read all of the Chandler, Hammett and Ross MacDonald I could get my hands on. He handed me The Fifth Grave by Jonathan Latimer (along with the great Paul Pine novels by John Evans/Howard Browne). I liked it okay, but he was right that I should try to find a copy of the uncut editon, Solomon’s Vineyard. When I finally did read the unexpurgated version, I found it to be a sick, twisted, kinky private eye novel. In other words, my kind of book.
From Dennis McMillan
No Good From a Corpse by Leigh Brackett is the best stand-alone PI book ever published, or, certainly, one of the top five (and I do like Raoul Whitfield a hell of a lot!). Of course, I’m reprinting it, plus Leigh’s eight other pulp crime stories (one’s a short novel of 93 pages), with an intro/reminiscence by Ray Bradbury and an afterword by Michael Connelly. It’s a 576-pager, with artwork by Joe Servello, and should be out early next year.
Dennis McMillan (the man and the company) is responsible for some of the tastiest , classiest, hardboiled treats around, all slip-cases and limited edition-type stuff.
From Jason Powell in Canada, eh?
In my not-so-humble opinion, nobody (at least not that I’ve read) can beat Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. They were the first PI books I ever read and I’ve fallen in love with the genre since.
From Mike Greer in New Jersey
Without a doubt my favorite P.I. is Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. The post war film noir atomosphere can be cut with a knife. Plot twists and turns abound, you can’t put them down until you’re finished. The feeble 1975 TV series could not do the books any justice.
Well, Jason, and Mike, you won’t get much argument from me about how good Chandler or Macdonald are, but the poll is about stand-alone (ie: non–series) novels, eh?
From Jim Doherty in Chicago
Although I’ve already cast my vote for Stanley Elin’s The Eighth Circle, I wanted to mentioned three more worthy stand-alone efforts before the close of November. All three are award-winners, and all three are paperback originals, which is, simultaneously, the medium that has produced more PI novels than any other (including pulp magazines), and the medium that is most likley to be overlooked.
The Old Dick by L.A. Morse, is the only novel to feature Jake Spanner, a retired PI who, although pusing 80, straps on a gun to take on one more case. Mining the same vein as the great 1978 PI film The Late Show, The Old Dick won the MWA Edgar for Best Original Paperback Novel of 1982.
Warren Murphy is, of course, the creator of Devlin “Trace” Tracy (aka “Digger” Burroughs in the earlier Pocket Books entries and Daedalus Murphy in the short-lived TV series). In 1985 he wrote a one-shot called The Ceiling of Hell featuring former US Treasury Agent Steven Hooks. Still a serving federal cop when the novel opens, he quits the Secret Service in disgust after a attempted presidential assassination leaves Hooks crippled and his wife in a persistent coma. Opening his own security agency, his first case gets him involved in a Neo-Nazi plot to take over the world. It sounds ridiculously melodramatic here, but, to quote the Continental Op, “In the book it was real as a dime.” The Ceiling of Hell won the PWA Shamus for Best Paperback Original.
Rodman Philbrook’s Brothers and Sinners won the 1994 Shamus in the same category. The story of two brothers, one a disbarred lawyer and the other an ex-cop on disability retirement following combat injuries incurred during military service, who open a PI agency in post-war Boston. Replete with soap-opera sexual entanglements, Brothers and Sinners evokes its period excellently and is a great read. As far as I know, Philbrook hasn’t, to date, written a sequel.
From Jake McCabe in New Jersey (but pining for Texas)
Came across this book, supposedly rare as hell, called Texas Wind by James Reasoner. It’s just damn good, one of the best books about a Texas PI I’ve ever read (and there’s some damn good ones, like Rafferty and Dan Roman). Made me homesick. According to your site, supposedly there’s some short stories out there, so I guess I’ll have to track ’em down. This guy Cody‘s the real deal. Why wasn’t there a sequel? Oh, and sorry about no e-mail. I’m on the road again, hopefully heading home…
From Jim Thomas in Texas
I submitted The Thin Man but I realize that doesn’t count because of the movie series and perhaps there were stories also. There is, however, a novel by Charles Williams (remember the movie Dead Calm) entitled Touch of Death which I read years ago and it still haunts me. I’m not sure that this character was a P.I., and I don’t even recall the plot very well, but it was a helluva novel (Gold Medal original paperback, I think). Anyone remember this or know where I can get a copy? Probably more of a Noir type where everyone is out to trick everyone else and …. Anyway I would love to read this again. If the character is a P.I., it gets my vote. I do think it was a 1st person narrative. Does anyone at all recall this book?
From Ted Fitzgerald in MA
As usual, I’m a day late and a dollar short , but since the poll is stand-alone detective novels, here’s my buck . . . I second Jim Doherty’s recommendations of Stanley Ellin’s The Eighth Circle and Rod Philbrick’s Brothers and Sinners. Ellin’s book is a certifiable classic which won the Edgar for Best Novel of 1958, was reprinted as part of Dell’s Great Mystery Library in the mid-1960s, and was adapted for television on the Desilu Playhouse with Hugh O’Brian (probably a very good choice circa 1959) as Murray Kirk. It’s been a few years, but I remember it as a particularly adult take on the PI.
As for why there’s never been a sequel to Brothers and Sinners: I met Rod Philbrick shortly after it was published and asked him if there would be a sequel. His answer was “No.” The publisher apparently wasn’t interested and, as a guy making his living by his keyboard, he had to concentrate on writing what publishers would buy. A shame.
But I’d like to add Wade Miller’s Deadly Weapon to the list. Published in 1946, it was the first novel by the team of Bob Wade and Bill Miller (who also wrote as Whit Masterson), was set in San Diego and narrated by P.I. Walter James. It opens with a murder in a burlesque house and moves from there. I can’t tell you much more than that since it has what Ed Hoch correctly describes in the St. James Guide as “an ending unique in the private eye genre” both for it’s time and, I think, since. Hoch also said it’s a book “too little known today.” Deadly Weapon was reprinted in paperback up through the 1960s, so a good used book store may be able to yield up a copy. The Miller team, by the way, went on to pen the very good Max Thursday novels. Austin Clapp, the cop in the Thursday novels also appears in Deadly Weapon, but since he’s the link, not the PI, I can’t see this jeopardizing the stand-alone definition.
Wouldn’t it be nice if some enterprising small publisher could reprint any or all of these books? Till then, check those bookstalls.
- One and Done
For more Stand Alone P.I. Novels, check out this list of some great private eyes who’ve appeared in only one novel.
Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith.