Yeah, yeah, I’ve already heard all the negative propaganda: fictional private investigators are a dying breed. The brilliant but eccentric sleuth who carefully pieces together inscrutable clues and the cynical, loner gumshoe who solves murders only after mixing it up with both corrupt officials and corrupting femmes fatales have both gone the way of the passenger pigeon. In our era of smartphones and Google searches, mass shootings and invasive electronic surveillance, the resolute PI plodding through a case, dissecting myriad motives and doubting the truthfulness of everyone he or she encounters, simply does not excite readers any longer. As a consequence, publishers are now turning out more and more tales of international terrorism, a redundancy of bleak police procedurals and ever-bloodier serial-killer yarns to penetrate our increasing complacency in the face of horrific crimes.
The old-fashioned shamus, it’s said, is no longer welcome because he’s no longer credible. Not that he ever was. Indeed, Raymond Chandler wrote in a letter back in 1951 that “The private detective of fiction is a fantastic creation who acts and speaks like a real man. He can be completely realistic in every sense but one, that one sense being that in life as we know it such a man would not be a private detective.” Only in the fluttering leaves of fiction could a freelance peeper be as stony-hearted as Sam Spade or as compassionate as Lew Archer, as determined to exact justice as V.I. Warshawski or as prone to wanton violence as John Shaft, as agoraphobic and grouchy as Nero Wolfe or as comical as Toby Peters, as idealistic and willful as Tess Monaghan or as much of a magnet for celebrity slayings as Nathan Heller.
Yet it was a postwar private-eye escapade that first got me hooked on crime fiction, and it’s to private-eye yarns that I still turn whenever I’m in the market for dependable entertainment. I couldn’t care less that Loren D. Estleman’s Amos Walker (Infernal Angels, You Know Who Killed Me) is an unapologetic throwback who should probably be under a tombstone or in a Detroit rest home by this point. It doesn’t bother me one iota that Mike Hammer (King of the Weeds, Kill Me, Darling) manages—even in his dotage—to pack more heat and sex appeal than a dozen other trench-coated New Yorkers ever dreamed might be possible. And don’t bother pouring out your whine to me about how Bertha Cool and Donald Lam (The Bigger They Come) could not possibly have cracked all of the labyrinthine mysteries Erle Stanley Gardner pitched their way. I don’t read PI stories for their realism; I read them because I want to escape my reality. I crave tales that transport me into distressed families and direly duplicitous business relationships and ominous events born of past misdeeds. And while others may prefer novels about terrorist threats, psychotic killers and world-altering events, I look to gumshoe fiction for more small-focus, character-rich narratives.
Such stories continue to be published, despite talk about fictional PIs being passé. Below are five recent additions to this subgenre that I particularly relished.
And Sometimes I Wonder About You, by Walter Mosley:
I’ve long been a fan of Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins novels, set in post–World War II Los Angeles but exploring, in a more general sense, the 20th-century African-American experience. (Little Green, the 11th Rawlins outing, even won a spot on my favorite books of 2013 list.) In 2010’s The Long Fall, though, Mosley introduced another private eye, Leonid McGill. A height-challenged, middle-aged resident of modern New York City, McGill is, like so many of his ilk, not popular with police (“In my younger days I had been the danger. I was a private investigator who only worked for underworld figures setting up other crooks for their crimes. I had relinquished my evil ways but the police never forget and rarely forgive, so cops who weren’t even out of high school when I was active knew my mug shot.”). Yet he’s the tougher-than-he-looks sort you want in your corner when things go bad. After enjoying the amorous advances of a 30-something women he met on a commuter train, one who is apparently under threat from ruffians employed by her ex-fiance, McGill gets caught up—most reluctantly—in the woes of Hiram Stent, a luckless former finance officer who’ll be eligible for a hefty reward if he can locate a female relative fit to inherit a fortune. When Stent is subsequently stabbed to death, McGill acts out of guilt to track down the missing woman himself. Meanwhile, he’s worried about his suicidal wife; his son, who has become embroiled in seriously shady doings; and the radical socialist father he thought had exited his life forever. Mosley augments his action with witty philosophical musings.
Robert B. Parker’s Kickback, by Ace Atkins:
Since Bob Parker’s death in 2010, Mississippian Ace Atkins has added four more novels to the late author’s already extensive series about the Boston snoop known only as Spenser. This newest one finds our wisecracking gourmet hero going to work for Sheila Yates, whose 17-year-old son, Dillon, was arrested for the seemingly minor offense of making fun of his suburban school’s vice principal on Twitter…only to then be relegated to a particularly oppressive, corporation-run juvenile-detainment facility in Boston Harbor, supposedly for his own good—an instance of “tough love.” As Spenser probes deeper into this affair, he concludes that a corrupt deal has been struck whereby the zero-tolerance judge behind Dillon’s sentencing benefits monetarily from locking up at-risk teens in that private “boot camp.” Yet the PI will require the help of his leg-breaking cohort, Hawk, along with some of Dillon’s frightened fellow students to prove such malfeasance. Parker did especially well with stories that found Spenser coming to the aid of young people in trouble, and Atkins follows that same theme in Kickback (as he did in his first Spenser revival work, Lullaby). Atkins also expertly captures the timbre of his predecessor’s voice, though there are times when the tone of his dialogue seems far wittier than the actual words.
Vixen, by Bill Pronzini:
Described by Bill Pronzini as an “expansion and revision” of his 2012 novella Femme, this 40th Nameless Detective novel sees the San Francisco PI being engaged by 28-year-old willowy brunette Cory Beckett to fetch her brother, Kenneth, out of hiding. It seems he’d fled the city and jumped bail after being accused of filching a valuable necklace that belonged to the alcoholic wife of Andrew Vorhees, a union leader and political powerhouse who’d hired Kenneth to maintain his yacht. Pronzini has smartly allowed his sleuth to age in the years since he first appeared in The Snatch (1971). Nameless not only became a father in his 60s but has expanded his solo-man shop into an agency. It’s one of his associates, quondam Seattle cop Jake Runyon, who ultimately runs Kenny to ground at a marina on San Pablo Bay. When the fugitive’s story about the errant necklace diverges from that told by his elder sister, Nameless begins asking questions that reveal considerably more devious and dangerous facets to this case than he’d imagined. Cory Beckett may not be the uniquely monstrous seductress Pronzini paints in this book’s prologue, but she certainly knows how to make men dance for her pleasure.
Shadow of the Hangman, by Edward Marston:
Writers hoping to recapture the golden-age allure of fictional gumshoes often root their tales in the early to mid-20th century. Edward Marston goes back a good deal further than that in Shadow of the Hangman, to 1815 and the prime of the Bow Street Runners, London’s first professional police force. This opening installment in a new mystery series has twin brothers Peter and Paul Skillen, private inquiry agents and “thief-takers” well tutored in the arts of personal combat, being tasked with tracing a pair of escaped American convicts, while they also try to discern what has became of the British Home Office’s valued but vanished cleaning lady. As if those assignments weren’t sufficient to keep them hopping, the siblings must also contend with the rival Runners, who wish to expose them as dilettantes and drive them out of business. Marston, familiar for his novels about “Railway Detective” Robert Colbeck (A Ticket to Oblivion) and World War I–era Scotland Yarder Harvey Marmion (A Bespoke Murder, Deeds of Darkness), brings his typical light touch and fondness for interweaving plot lines to Shadow of the Hangman, and does a superior job of illuminating his twin protagonists—Peter the responsible one, and Paul the dreamy lothario, who here becomes involved with a comely but demanding actress-on-the-rise.
Killing Frost, by Ronald Tierney:
At age 72, Indianapolis shamus Dietrich “Deets” Shanahan should be well into his retirement. Or his convalescence. He underwent brain surgery not that long ago and his left hand and arm aren’t working reliably. Yet Shanahan, who trod onto the crime-fiction stage a quarter-century ago (in 1990’s Shamus Award-nominated The Stone Veil), returns here for what may be his swan song. His latest client, elderly Alexandra Fournier, doesn’t even disclose what she wants him to do for her, before she’s gunned down in his driveway. Soon, Fournier’s high-profile sister, Jennifer Bailey, who founded “an organization to help kids with juvenile crime backgrounds get educational grants,” summons Shanahan to ask that he determine what had troubled Alexandra enough to turn to a PI for assistance. As he hobbles about, enduring pain and the miasmas caused by his meds, Shanahan slowly reveals the contours of a puzzle involving a dubious real-estate development, a politically ambitious attorney and a perhaps-crooked cop. Tierney’s talents as a writer have improved since 1990, and he uses them especially well in crafting a playful, affectionate relationship between the oft-cranky Shanahan and his 25-years-younger girlfriend, Maureen Smith, a onetime massage parlor worker who can still make his heart skip a beat, even when it just wants to give out entirely.
This summer has even more PI novels awaiting release, including Sara Paretsky’s Brush Back, Ken Bruen’s Green Hell, Michael Koryta’s Last Words and X, Sue Grafton’s 24th entry in her Kinsey Millhone series. So don’t lecture me on how fictional private investigators have no future. It seems to me those gumshoes still have a lot of tread left.