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  • Jeff Somers 8:52 pm on 2015/11/16 Permalink
    Tags: , , detective fiction, , , , , , the pursuit of justice   

    The Socioeconomics of Being a Private Detective 

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    Writing fiction is a lot like playing chess: very few people actually understand how it’s done, and most seem to think it involves randomly moving things around and shouting out words (checkmate!). There are a finite number of moves, pieces, openings, and endgames, and the trick isn’t to invent a whole new way of playing, but rather to find creative ways to use the existing tropes and conventions.

    This is obviously more applicable in genre writing; genres bring with them a complex set of rules, and insist you at least pay tribute to them. Literary or mainstream fiction might not be able to include the odd vampire bowler as a character, but it can more easily play with traditional narrative and structure (please note: more vampire bowler characters, please). The more specific the genre, the tighter the rules, and sometimes these rules are a bit surprising, even perplexing. And detective fiction has one of the most bewildering tropes of any genre—the way it approaches the socioeconomics of being a private detective, inasmuch as private detective can be accepted as a real, actual career choice, a way people might reasonably expect to make money and earn a living. Because in most stories involving private detectives—that is, people who apparently take money in exchange for using their skills to investigate things the public sector can’t or apparently doesn’t care about—the detectives are either hilariously poor or obnoxiously rich.

    He’d Just Look at Your Heels and Know the Score

    It’s kind of remarkable, once you notice it. Almost every private detective throughout history is either nearly destitute, independently wealthy, or appears to exist in a universe where money has no meaning whatsoever. On the rich end, let’s start with Sherlock Holmes. Since he has no visible form of support, and chooses many of his cases from interest and curiosity instead of necessity (Holmes does not, after all, accept any boring cases he might solve in, say, five minutes, pocketing a nice payday without even getting out of bed), we must assume he’s moderately wealthy—possibly because he has solved a few high-profile cases for wealthy patrons, possibly because Sherlock Holmes is no doubt capable of embezzling billions without being caught. Either way, the man is rich enough that he can afford a serious cocaine habit while rarely leaving his apartment.

    There are plenty of rich detectives—sometimes referred to as Gentleman Detectives. Lord Peter Wimsey, an English Peer so laden with old money he can barely move under his own power, solves crimes solely out of passion, because he won’t have to leave the estate any time soon and get a job. Nick Charles of The Thin Man fame was wealthy, by virtue of marrying heiress Nora. In the modern day, we have examples like Stone Barrington, born into money, dispossessed, then reattaining his wealth as he squeezes detecting and investigation into a busy schedule of cocktails, learning new ways to knot neckties, and memorizing wines according to bouquet. Even Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, a nosy, gossipy old woman in a small English town, is obviously a woman of means, although she apparently never worked a day in her life. While not precisely rich, Marple can afford her modest lifestyle without any effort, never worries over bills, and investigates her crimes out of burning curiosity, a belief in the awful nature of mankind, and because solving the puzzle entertains her.

    On the other end of the spectrum is the classic, possibly more well-known private detective trope: the downtrodden, unlucky gumshoe who’s always fleeing creditors, always insisting on being paid in cash, and who often pursues his cases more out of desperation or economic necessity than any sense of justice. Most of Hammett’s and Chandler’s classic detectives would fall into this category, as would Easy Rawlins, Robert Parker’s Spenser, and Kinsey Millhone from Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. This doesn’t mean the detective character is necessarily destitute, or that they have no sense of honor or duty to their community. It just means that, unlike their tonier counterparts, they pursue their detecting out of economic need. Even a detective like Nero Wolfe, who enjoys a rich lifestyle, is presented as a man who takes on cases solely for a (very large) payout at the end, enabling him to maintain that lifestyle, since he’s not a British Peer sitting on a mountain of money so old it has grown mossy.

    It also doesn’t mean the detective in question cares about money at all. Jack Reacher is essentially an indigent private detective who takes on whatever cases call to him. He doesn’t take cases as jobs, doesn’t expect or accept fees for his services for the most part, and of course lives more or less as a disciplined homeless person, traveling from town to town owning nothing. Nevertheless he fits snugly into the bottom half of the Private Detective Income Scale as a man who has no steady employment, no assets, and no possessions (in fact a man who has an almost pathological fear of such things).

    In between these two extremes are the Outliers, the investigators and detectives who exist completely outside the framework of economics. As outliers, these characters are often not even, strictly speaking, private investigators, but rather people who find themselves tracking clues and solving mysteries for their own reasons. Jason Bourne, for example, is a man who investigates his own life and the implications of his past because he has no choice—but this also renders him a detective of sorts, chasing clues and interrogating witnesses, even while he apparently exists in a world where the basic necessities of life are free—or at least a world where amnesia-stricken superspies routinely hide thousands of dollars for future use. However it’s justified, one thing is clear: Jason Bourne never once sits down to count his money and make a budget, because it just doesn’t matter.

    The Otherness of Private Eyes

    The pattern’s pretty clear: private detectives are either wealthy or of independent means, poor and motivated by their constant economic desperation, or living in a fictional universe where their personal finances don’t really matter much. There are very few examples of detectives who live comfortably. Even characters like Kinsey Millhone, who live fairly comfortable lives, do so via unusual choices—Millhone lives in a tiny apartment and leads a life of extreme modesty when it comes to finances. Detectives in this category are just as motivated by money; it’s just that they’ve downsized their lives to match their meager incomes.

    There’s a good reason for this sort of economic pattern in detective stories: private detective characters need to be the Other in order to function properly.

    Most people work pretty hard to avoid being drawn into other people’s drama. We all have plenty of our own, and we’re generally more than happy to walk past things that aren’t our business. Most people also lack the time to investigate random crimes and seek justice for the downtrodden—we’ve got mortgages to pay and kids to raise and video games to play. In other words, investigating crimes and mysteries is decidedly not a mainstream activity, for both practical concerns—our time is committed elsewhere—and because society and civilization are built on a few basic supports, one of which is simple: everyone minds their own business. In order to be an effective investigator, you have to undermine this basic premise of civilization, because investigating isn’t just poking your nose into other people’s business, it’s a form of vigilantism.

    As a result, private detectives are Others. They exist just slightly outside the boundaries of society in order to be able to break these fundamental rules. This in turn allows them to break other rules, as well, including the simple breaking of laws and even the breaking of limbs as they attempt to chase down the truth. In modern society, there are a few ways of being the Other: you can be a little crazy, which works to a limited extent for a private investigator (see Sherlock Holmes again) but can ultimately be limiting because the private detective also has to be able to function within society to a great enough extent to have access to it; an insane, muttering person might be a brilliant detective on basic ability but is incapable of digging deeply into the lives around them simply because they cannot gain access to homes and businesses and are incapable of establishing trust with potential witnesses. The most effective way in the modern world to depict someone as an outsider without resorting to mental instability or extreme eccentricity is to depict them as economically Other, removed from the normal flow of income and outlay—either as desperately insolvent and thus pushed to being the Other out of necessity, or as wildly affluent and thus beyond caring about the negative consequences of their investigations. Money is a classic and easily accepted motivation for all sorts of terrible or unusual behavior, after all.

    The Windfall Cometh

    While economic desperation works pretty well as a motivator for private detectives as well as a character trait (as the explanations for being broke and in need of cash can range from personality defects to laziness, philosophical considerations, or simple bad luck), it can cause other problems for the writer, of course, like explaining in every book or story how the character continues to survive—or at least not suffer from scurvy or some other debilitating disease stemming from malnutrition—when they are constantly broke. Even if the character isn’t necessarily destitute but simply working hard to make a living, the mysteries they investigate often call for resources that aren’t quite believable when the character is depicted as swimming in the shallow end of the income pool. Even if the specifics of a case aren’t particularly resource-heavy, if your private eye is supposed to be poor and working hard to make a living, having them embroiled in a single case for weeks or months at a time can stretch believability. You can’t be dirt broke and yet paying your bills for months while you dig into a single mystery, after all.

    Enter The Windfall, a frequent occurrence in serials involving the downtrodden investigator. The Windfall is simple: it’s a lump of money the character chances into that serves to solve their immediate financial problems and frees them to continue their investigations without worrying about mundane details like how to afford food—without changing their basic situation or personality.

    Sometimes The Windfall happens in the character’s backstory, explaining how they’ve come to be a Gentleman (or Gentlewoman) Detective, but most often it happens after a few books have established the character, their lifestyle and universe, and the fact of their poverty begins to drag down stories because the author has to constantly justify it, subvert it, or ignore it in order to get the character into the situations they need to be in. Kinsey Millhone gets one in Grafton’s Alphabet series, a lump of money she puts in the bank and ignores because she is “miserly and cheap” and has no desire to travel or live the high life—a lump of money she specifically states allows her not to worry when her client list gets a little short. Jack Reacher, after years of being a near-penniless drifter, gets a windfall, too, though he has an even more extreme reaction to the money, maintaining his drifter lifestyle. But it allows him to have enough money to support himself despite not really working a job of any kind or even regularly leveraging his services as investigator and butt-kicker into regular paychecks (although he helps himself to ill-gotten gains from time to time).

    The Windfall excuses the writer from having to prop up the Otherness of their character, who by book number four or five or ten has been well-established in the role. An inheritance allows them to avoid the distraction of how they pay for their room and board and concentrate on stepping outside the boundaries of normal life in order to pursue justice with the single-minded energy most of us lack.

    And that pursuit of justice is a form of insanity, which is why we love these characters so much. Most of us can’t be bothered to investigate even the simple mysteries of everyday life—where that sock went, what that noise outside is, how in the world there is still such a thing as Miley Cyrus. Investigating the bigger things is simply beyond us, and that’s why we need the Other—the independently wealthy or absolutely destitute Other who has literally nothing else to drive them but the pursuit of justice.

  • Ellen Wehle 8:00 pm on 2014/12/18 Permalink
    Tags: , detective fiction, , , , , , , , , , rob thomas, , veronica mars   

    8 Female Sleuths to Add to Your Favorite Mystery Reader’s Stocking 

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    Rob Thomas's Mr Kiss and TellThere’s a slew of excellent mystery novels out this season featuring some of our favorite female detectives, from the whip-smart Agent O’Hare to to the brilliant Temperance Brennan. Why not make the mystery lovers in your life happy with a heart-racing new adventure from one of these unforgettable sleuths?

    Veronica Mars 2: Mr. Kiss and Tell, by Rob Thomas
    The TV show Veronica Mars was such a hit that creator Rob Thomas—reversing the usual order of such things—went on to write a book series based on the show. This time out, a woman is assaulted and left for dead in the Neptune Grand, the ritziest hotel in town. When Veronica is called in to investigate, she finds tampered security footage and holes a mile wide in the victim’s story.

    The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Café, by Alexander McCall Smith
    “Mrs.” has no memory of how she came to be in Botswana, or even her own name. Can Precious Ramotswe, expert at finding lost things, track down the woman’s missing identity? Meanwhile, Mma Makutsi has opened a restaurant for Gabarone’s well-heeled clientele. Dealing with temperamental chefs and crabby customers may be more than she bargained for, but, as always, friendship will see her through.

    Accused, by Lisa Scottoline
    Philadelphia’s all-female law firm is back and firing on all cylinders. Allegra Gardner’s sister Fiona was murdered six years ago. Although the accused, Lonnie Stall, confessed to the killing and was sent to prison, Allegra is convinced he’s the wrong man. When everyone from her wealthy parents to the justice system resists reopening the case, she turns to Rosato & Associates to find the real killer.

    The Job, by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg
    FBI Special Agent Kate O’Hare and con man Nick Fox are tasked with bringing down the leader of a global drug-smuggling empire. The catch? No one knows what the kingpin looks like—the only lead is his addiction to designer chocolates. With Evanovich’s trademark mix of snappy one-liners and surprising plot twists, this romp races to an unforgettable conclusion.

    Bones Never Lie, by Kathy Reichs
    If you love dark psychological thrillers, you must read Reichs’ first-rate series featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. In Tempe’s most harrowing case yet, serial child murderer Anique Pomerleau resurfaces in the United States after killing a string of children in Canada and eluding capture. Then another child is snatched, and the nightmare resumes…

    Festive in Death, by J.D. Robb
    Lieutenant Eve Dallas just isn’t feeling the holiday spirit: as if a corpse stuck with a kitchen knife isn’t bad enough, there’s her Christmas shopping to deal with. The victim, hunky personal trainer Trey Ziegler, left a long line of suspects, having loved and left half the gym’s female clientele. Dallas will have to sort through a sleigh-full of alibis to stop this killer in time.

    Betrayed, by Lisa Scottoline
    Maverick lawyer Judy Carrier takes the lead on a case that’s all too personal. When her beloved aunt’s housekeeper is found dead of a heart attack, Judy suspects foul play, and her investigation soon uncovers a shadow world of people too vulnerable to call the police. Besieged by personality conflicts both at home and the office, Judy must somehow find the strength to see justice done.

    Raging Heat, by Richard Castle
    Hurricane Sandy waits in the wings as Detective Nikki Heat investigates the death of an illegal immigrant. Clues will be hard to come by: the victim dropped out of the sky. At first Nikki’s happy to have her journalist boyfriend, Jameson Rook, ride along with her and share theories. But Jameson is looking for his next big story, and when he concludes that she’s arrested the wrong man for murder, it’s not just their relationship that’s in danger.

  • Jeff Somers 4:56 pm on 2014/11/21 Permalink
    Tags: detective fiction, , , hardboiled, inherent vice, , , ,   

    5 Oddball Detective Books That Are Made of Awesome 

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    Oddball Detective BooksIf you’ve been conscious at any time in the last century or so, you’re familiar with private detective tropes: the hardboiled operator who’s as quick with a biting quip as he is with a hand cannon, always getting mixed up with the wrong kind of girl as he doggedly follows the clues.

    At least, that’s the typical detective. Over the years there have been some notable exceptions to this mold, detectives who are recognizably in a detective story but either don’t play the part at all, or find themselves involved in truly unusual mysteries. If you’re looking to mix up your detective story habit, here are five oddballs who will satisfy your yen for mystery and your yen for surprisingly creative worlds.

    Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon
    Pynchon doesn’t really “do” plots, does he—at least not plots that make any sense in the conventional way. Which makes his decision to write a story structured similarly to a classic private eye story a fascinating one, but it works perfectly. Slacker/stoner detective Doc Sportello is an incredible entry in the category of literary detectives because he’s practically his own client: suffering from memory problems, apparent narcolepsy, and a myriad of other problems staying in sync with the real world, Sportello’s an unreliable narrator, seems aware of the fact, and isn’t troubled by it. While the central mystery is just a way for Pynchon to riff brilliantly for a few hundred pages, there’s a detective story at the core of this sprawling novel—one whose solution will surprise and challenge you. The book also serves as a lament of sorts for a moment in American history when it seemed like the Freaks were winning, which slots right in with the countercultural vibe of most detectives in modern literature.

    Gun, with Occasional Music, by Jonathan Lethem
    While most people seem to have forgotten or overlooked Lethem’s debut, it’s an absolute treat for anyone who loves a good detective novel and has a penchant for the absurd. In a sci-fi world where questions are considered rude and you can be punished for rudeness, how can a private detective work? The detective aspects of the story have a clear link back to Chandler, Hammett, and other classic detective novels, but the greatest trick Lethem has ever pulled (so far) is somehow making a kangaroo in a dinner jacket (an inspiration taken directly from a line in one of Chandler’s lesser works) feel completely organic to the story.

    Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams
    While everyone remains aware of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams’ other major novels, the two Dirk Gently books, get much less attention. Which is a shame, as they are brilliant. Gently is a “holistic” detective who disdains merely solving one aspect of a crime. Since everything is connected, he seeks to solve the “whole” crime. Even better, Gently is a psychic who denies being psychic and claims to simply be very, very good at guessing. As with all Adams’ novels, the best bits are the throwaways—like a couch that gets stuck in a stairwell despite it being technically impossible for the couch to be stuck in that particular way according to the laws of physics—but what really makes the Gently books great is the fact that these classic Adams throwaway gags aren’t throwaways. They all circle back and tie together in insane but spectacular ways.

    The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon
    This fantastic novel is an alternative history novel, and what truly sets it apart from just about every novel ever written is how well it’s constructed. The alternative timeline, wherein Israel is destroyed in 1948 and a temporary Jewish settlement in Alaska becomes the Jewish state (something that almost happened) is simultaneously subtle and ambitious in scope. Add in a mystery that’s well-constructed just as a mystery, a long list of creative and fascinating characters (and genius riffs on one of the world’s most musical languages, Yiddish), and you’ve got a tremendous book that also happens to be an oddball detective novel.

    The Robots of Dawn, by Isaac Asimov
    The third book in Asimov’s Robot trilogy, Asimov explodes both science fiction and detective novel tropes in a story that combines domed cities, a human population struggling with an ingrained fear of outdoor space, robot technology, and space opera politics—and that doesn’t even touch on the actual mystery. What’s truly remarkable about the book (and the trilogy in general) is how Asimov makes the detective novel fit so well into the sci-fi novel, creating a rare breed: a mixed-genre book where almost no seams show. Also remarkable? Robots of Dawn was published 26 years after the second book in the trilogy, but you wouldn’t know it from the prose, which is as fresh and exciting as Asimov’s best.

    What’s your favorite hardboiled (or not so hardboiled) detective story?

  • Melissa Albert 8:30 pm on 2014/07/01 Permalink
    Tags: amos walker, benjamin black, , , detective fiction, , loren d. estleman, , , , philip marlowe, , , , ,   

    Keep Cool With 5 New Detective-Fiction Classics 

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    New detective thrillers

    Nobody stays cooler than an old-fashioned detective, even when he’s sweating through his suit. As we head into the hottest days of summer, I suggest you chill out with the next best thing after central air: a detective thriller, full of scarred-up heavies, world-weary private eyes, and dames with a secret. Here are some of the year’s best so far:

    Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King
    A grizzled former detective, coming out of retirement for one last case. A crazed mass murderer, determined to kill again. In King’s first work of straight detective fiction, they’re a match made in summer-reading heaven (a place that also serves unlimited strawberry lemonade). The book takes its title from an unsolved crime in which a man behind the wheel of a Mercedes mowed down 15 hapless victims in a frozen midwestern parking lot. Bill Hodges was the presiding detective who never solved the case, and he’s just been pulled back in by a letter from the killer himself. Seatbelts on, and strawberry lemonade refilled. It’s not summer without a new title from King.

    The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith
    The last time we saw veteran and private eye Cormoran Strike, he was dodging flashbulbs after debunking a model’s suspicious suicide in The Cuckoo’s Calling. Now he’s investigating a seedy seam of London publishing, after a writer’s latest manuscript, a vicious roman à clef, leads to his macabre murder. J.K. Rowling’s second turn under pseudonym Galbraith is just as satisfying as her first.

    The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel, by Benjamin Black
    Hot summer day, steamy Los Angeles streets, beautiful woman who’s only telling half of what she knows: this is a Philip Marlowe novel, all right. When Claire Cavendish shows up in Marlowe’s office, she claims she’s looking for a missing lover—but the more he digs, the more the pieces of her story refuse to add up. Working off a proposed title left behind among the papers of Marlowe creator Raymond Chandler, Benjamin Black (a pen name for John Banville) adds a new chapter to the series, and he gets the rhythms right, filling his pages with crackling dialogue, existential fatigue, and vividly depicted supporting characters who both help the detective and throw themselves in his way.

    Don’t Look for Me, by Loren D. Estleman
    The 23rd installment in the Amos Walker series takes its title from a note written by a missing woman to her husband, who has turned to Walker to track her down. Like any good disappearance (or is it murder?), the case gathers complications as it rolls along, soon encompassing mob links, a porn studio, drug lords, and more than one woman with claws. The tale is told with the kind of growling, one-liner panache you want from your down-but-not-out fictional gumshoes.

    The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters
    Bonus title! It’s a 2013 release, but Winters’ entry into the hardboiled canon shouldn’t be missed. There’s a mysterious death, a detective with a nose for trouble, and a web of suspects who won’t or can’t talk, but all that is overshadowed by the slow approach of asteroid 2011GV1, which will soon make cellular mincemeat of life on earth. Even Detective Hank Palace can’t explain why he continues to do his job in the twilight before the apocalypse, but he trudges on anyway, collecting clues and searching for meaning in the shadow of certain death.

  • Melissa Albert 7:00 pm on 2014/06/27 Permalink
    Tags: , , , detective fiction, , , , , ,   

    J.K. Rowling’s The Silkworm Is a Masterfully Plotted Puzzler 

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    Robert Galbraith's The Silkworm

    In The Cuckoo’s Calling, J.K. Rowling (as Robert Galbraith) thrust her hard-luck, hard-nosed detective Cormoran Strike into the rarefied air of the ultrarich fashion set, as he investigated the suspicious suicide of a top model. In follow-up The Silkworm, he crashes the cutthroat London publishing world, in search of a novelist whose unpublished roman a clèf has made him public enemy #1.

    Strike, a burly, one-legged war vet, is ducking newfound fame and juggling clients in the wake of solving the case in Cuckoo, but the glitter’s starting to rub off. He’s still losing shoe leather to pay the bills, chasing down cheating husbands and lying mistresses, when a mysterious woman shows up in his office. Leonora Quine is the dowdy wife of Owen Quine, a C-grade novelist and an A-grade a-hole, who went missing just after delivering his latest manuscript to his long-suffering agent.

    In the grand tradition of fictional pitbull PI’s, who can’t let go of a mystery once it seizes their attention, Strike takes the case without a pound for his troubles. Quine’s disappearance is routine, but his manuscript, Bombyx Mori, isn’t: it’s a foul allegorical tale that libels countless members of the publishing elite in baroquely sadistic ways, and his agent’s running scared after leaking it to the wrong people. Then Quine is found dead, disposed of in a shockingly macabre display that mirrors the protagonist’s final fate in Bombyx Mori. Despite mounting physical complaints and a stalker with a knife, Strike jumps into the case in earnest, spurred on by the fact that the Keystone cops are closing in on poor Leonora, whose innocence Strike is convinced of.

    Rowling’s a brilliant plotter, and Strike’s investigation spirals out and doubles back on itself, as the pool of suspects expands and contracts. He’s assisted in his search by the faithful Robin Ellacott, who, at the end of Cuckoo, gave up a better-paying job and disappointed her stuffed-shirt fiancé by opting to stay on with Strike. Like all great romances between hardened PI’s and their unflappable Girl Fridays, the growing bond between Strike and Robin takes place at arm’s length. He has his fair share of female admirers, ranging from benign to treacherous, but his respectful relationship with Robin is The Silkworm‘s heart, and their shared love of the gumshoe life is as satisfying as a different kind of story’s declarations of affection.

    Of course Strike solves the mystery, gets (the respect of) the girl, and puts another one over on the feckless police who try to stand in his path. Grown-up Potter fans will greet Rowling’s cocktail of expert plotting, spot-on dialogue, and Austen-like grasp of the ridiculous as an old friend, and mystery readers will find this confoundingly twisty tale just as compelling as the book that introduced us to Cormoran Strike. We can’t wait to see where Rowling will drop him and Robin next.

    Are you planning to read The Silkworm?

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