Private Eye Novels
The topic was Stand-Alone Private Eye Novels. 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...
There have been tons of stand-alone private eye novels, some of them out-and-out classics. But what about the stand-alone private eye novel? And, by stand-alone, I mean, one book, and out. No sequels, 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...
(Another time, we'll probably do the Great Series...)
ATTENTION ALL YOU WHO WANDERED IN FROM
Bergin in Sarasota, Florida
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 likeable, 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.
Burton Smith in Montreal
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.
White in Rutgers Univerity, Piscataway,
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 hardboiled 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.
Doherty in Chicago
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 feature 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 Eighth Circle 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.
Fischer in Montclair, NJ
Seabrook in Sydney
Lippman in San Diego, California
Thomas in Texas
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.
Sullivan in Silver Spring, MD
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.
Powell in Canada, eh?
Greer in New Jersey
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?
Doherty in Chicago
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 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.
McCabe in New Jersey (but pining
Thomas in Texas
Fitzgerald in MA
As for why there's never been a sequel to Brothers and Sinners: I met Rod Philbrick shortly after Brothers 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 canít 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.
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