Clem Snide

Created by William S. Burroughs (1914-97)

"The name is Clem Snide -- I'm a Private Ass Hole -- I will take on any job any identity any body -- I will do anything difficult dangerous or downright dirty for a price..."

-- Clem introduces himself in The Soft Machine

CLEM SNIDE is a character who appears in several books by Beat writer William S. Burroughs, including Naked Lunch (1959), The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962) and Exterminator! (1973), but his star turn was as the globe-trotting private detective from the 1970s who's hired to track down a missing child who may -- or may not -- have been taken as part of a magical ritual in Burroughs' Cities of the Red Night (1981), the first novel in what would become his Red Night trilogy.

Not that the sprawling, kaleidoscopic and defiantly loopy Cities of the Red Night is in any way, shape or form a typical private eye novel. Clem is just part of a much larger tapestry of flamboyant characters and outrageous events, including time-traveling aliens, a radioactive plague, homosexual pirates, space vituses, genocide and jealous goddesses. Oh, and plenty of deaths by hanging.

I should also mention that Clem also claims to be psychic. And that most critics consider his character to be a surrogate for Burroughs himself.

It's clear the author, at least, is having some fun here...

Burroughs, of course, is generally considered a founding father of Beat movement, along with his pals Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Born into a wealthy St. Louis family, he worked a wide variety of jobs before turning to writing, including bartender, reporter, advertising copywriter, exterminator and briefly -- get this -- as a private detective.

He liked the idea of being a "private eye" (he was a long-time fan of Chandler's, and even as a child, his earliest writings were adventure and crime stories), so in 1944 he applied for a job with Chicago's Merit Protection Services, whose offices were at 612 North Michigan. He was hired to do security work for stores, verifying the honesty of employees and prevent theft, and was dispatched to work the Iowa and Ohio area with the rest of his team (two women and a male supervisor.) Soon bored with the work, however, Burroughs quit, after only three months. But twenty years later he savaged his former co-workers in Nova Express (1964), where he dismissed his boss as a badge-carrying Fascist and his two female workers as "cunts."

Classy guy, this father of the Beats.

His first book was Junkie (1953), a vivid account of his years as a heroin addict, but he's best known for his third novel Naked Lunch (1959).


  • "The idea anyone would employ Burroughs to verify the honesty of employees and to prevent theft is amazing in hindsight."

-- Andrew Nette on Twitter



  • The Boston alt-country band took their name from Burroughs' character.


  • "The Name is Clem Snide".. Buy it!
    Performed by William S. Burroughs
    Spoken recording
    From the album The Best Of William Burroughs
    (2012, Giorno Poetry Systems)

This version is paired with "Mr. Hart Couldn't Hear The Word Death."


A slightly expanded version of Burroughs' brief foray into gumshoedom.

Real-Life Eyes Who've Written P.I. Novels

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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