The P.I. Poll Results

...and this time, it's personal!

It was true confession time, here, during March and April of 1999.

I had just finished an article for January (the online literary magazine) on Ross Macdonald, in which I confessed that my take on him, and his detective, Lew Archer, was less a critical, than an emotional response (you can find the article here). In other words, it was personal. And it got me to thinking (yeah, I know--there's a first time for everything).

Books do make a difference. Sometimes a big one. Even a book that isn't particularly good, or even wretchedly bad, can sometimes make a big impact on someone's life.

I asked readers if there was a novel featuring a private eye that really hit home, that has stayed with them over the years, changed the way they saw things, rocked their world or even changed their entire life?

There was no prize, and they weren't required to bare their souls and blubber all over the place, but I did ask them about some of their personal P.I. touchstones.

Here are a few of the responses I received. Even though the P.I. Poll for this topic is theoretically closed, by the way, feel free to add your true confession to the list. Just e-mail me, and scrawl "True Confessions" in the subject line.


From Suzanne in California
When Gravity Fails
by George Alec Effinger

This is one of the most subversive mystery/cyberpunk novels of all times; the ending will blow your mind. There's also a sardonic, hard boiled protagonist.

From Kevin Burton Smith in Montreal
Early Autumn
by Robert B. Parker

Spenser tries to save a teenager who's being used as a pawn in his parents' divorce. What's really at stake, though, is not the kid's physical safety, so much as his very soul. Part of my response to this one is purely personal, but I'm equally impressed with the possibilities Parker suggests in this one. Imagine a muscle-bound Lew Archer taking a hands-on approach, and you've got Spenser in this one. Back before the deluge of his success, Parker attacked the genre's conventions with a ferocity rarely seen since, by him or anyone else. But who else could have imagined a treatise on the decline of American parenting skills, disguised as a hardboiled detective novel, and then made it work? Some people hate this book, and dismiss it as trivial or even the beginning of the decline of the entire P.I. genre, but in my opinion, this time Parker played for mortal stakes, and won it all.

From Darwin in Indiana
Farewell, My Lovely
by Raymond Chandler

I read this novel for the first time while in graduate school in Albuquerque, NM. It was the first mystery/suspense novel novel that I'd read up until that time that hit me at a gut level while impressing me with its style. It was also a welcome distraction from my studies. With this book, I was introduced to the "down these mean streets a man must go" ethos and was hooked for the next 25 years (right up to the present moment) on the P. I. tale.

From Duke Seabrook in Sydney, Nova Scotia
The Dave Brandstetter books
by Joseph Hansen

Let's just say that I was raised in this decent, church-going family that nevertheless had some less-than-Christian ideas about who should be allowed to walk God's green earth. And homosexuals were definitely not on the list. One of my best friend went off to university in Toronto, and sent me a couple of these, since he knew I liked detective stories, and he lived just around the corner from Sleuth of Baker Street. Once I got past the idea that Dave was "one of those," I realized they were really great books, with a real tough edge to them that after all these years still reminds me of Hammett. I started looking forward to the occasional care packages of mystery books my friend would send me, and sure enough, every year, he seemed to include a new Hansen. A few years later, when he came back home for my wedding, and we went out for a few at the local, I joshed him about when he would be tying the knot, and he confessed it wouldn't be any time soon. Seems he'd been living in Toronto with a guy for years, but nobody back home knew. I was shocked at first, but I like to think I got over it, in part, because of those books. I told him he was still my friend, and it was his turn for the next round. He confronted his family that trip, and I don't think they've spoken to him since, but we still keep in touch, and the best thing is, he still sends me books now and then.

From Gerald So in New York
The Godwulf Manuscript
by Robert B. Parker

The most influential P.I. book for me has to be this one by Robert B. Parker. Before discovering Parker I'd heard of the greats (Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald). Whenever their names were mentioned, I'd think, "Yeah, I'll get around to them someday." I came across Spenser after some exposure to "Spenser: For Hire," and liked the show just enough to try the books. From page one, I liked Spenser's style. He could be as tough as Spade and Marlowe, but his contemporary sense of humor made him human. I related not only to Spenser, but also to Parker. He wrote books the way I wanted to write: clean, sharp, and right on the mark.

From Dave White at Rutgers University, NJ
Early Autumn
by Robert Parker and Lew Archer by Ross MacDonald

Gotta agree with Kevin here. When I was a junior in high school, I was really affected by Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, the whole Peter Pan syndrome. I guess it was the age, college was on the horizon and I was sort of fearing for the future. Last year, I started to get into PI novels and picked up a Lew Archer, and the children had to grow up fast. I guess that's the thing with college, you are forced to grow up in a way, adjust. And with the help of Lew, I've ajusted pretty well. Then I read Early Autumn and was taken back by the father figure idea. The children go from being whiny to tough..... It's an incredible novel in the MacDonald format. As for Parker, I still believe he's one of the best writers out there. Spenser didn't go soft, he got dimension.

From Nathan Walpow in Los Angeles, CA
The Long Goodbye
by Raymond Chandler

I'd never been much of a mystery fan until a friend insisted I read Raymond Chandler. I picked up The Big Sleep and loved it, moved on the the complete works. Although I'm crazy about the Marlowe chronicles as a whole (well, maybe not Playback), The Long Goodbye is the book that stuck with me. It's an efficient distillation of all the sadness that people have to put up with; though set in the middle of the century, it says everything there is to say about life in Los Angeles today. I'd been writing for a few years, science fiction mostly, and reading The Long Goodbye was one of the major factors in getting me to try a mystery novel. Which I sold. And even though it's greatly different from Chandler's work - for one thing, it's an amateur sleuth, not P.I. novel - I feel whatever success I achieve in the mystery field will be in large part due to the inspiration I got from him.

(Nathan is the author of The Cactus Club Killings, a Joe Portugal botanical mystery)

From Darwin in Indiana
The Harry Stoner series
by Jonathan Valin

I beg your indulgence for dipping my oar in a second time, but I just can't pass up the opportunity to say something good about this series. Stoner is a "decent guy" trying to do the right thing in a world that sometimes flatout sucks. Valin pulls off this portrayal with such sincerity that I have to put Stoner in the same league as Lew Archer and Marlowe. There hasn't been anything from Valin since '95 (as far as I know). I hope we haven't seen the last of Harry Stoner.

From Cynthia in Detroit
Indemnity Only
by Sara Paretsky

I know the standard rap is that Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone is the mother of all the female private eyes out there, but she always struck me as a little too Nancy Drew for my tastes, if you know what I mean. It wasn't until I read Indemnity Only that I realized a real grown-up woman could be a private eye that I not only enjoyed reading about, but could really believe in. Sure, V.I. Warshawski can be a bit preachy, and she can also be a bitch at times, but she's never been less than real to me. It just brought it all back home for me. If we women want heroes, I think V.I. and her creator can certainly fill the bill: they're both tough, dedicated, and unapologetically intelligent. forget about ghosts and all that, Sara--let's get V.I. back on the streets!

From Paul Bergin from Sarasota, FL
Fer de Lance
by Rex Stout

I wouldn't pick it as anything particularly special now, but the first adventure of Wolfe and Archie was also the very first private eye novel I ever read (at least thirty years ago, probably longer). Up until that time, I read mostly literary and avant garde work (Joyce, Pound, Beckett, Burroughs -- William, not Edgar). I took myself pretty seriously, as you might imagine. I got hooked on the Wolfe books because they were FUN. Predictably, they led to other authors and the dawning realization that crime fiction could be fun and genuine art at the same time. The result is that I can still pontificate with the best of cocktail party authorities, but I'm having a hell of a lot more fun doing it.

From Jim Doherty in Chicago, IL
by Joe Gores

I would have to say that the best PI book I ever read was Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, which was also one of the first I ever read (I was 12 or 13 at the time). However, I'd seen the movie by the time I read the book, and was familiar witht he conventions of the PI story through TV shows like Mannix, Peter Gunn, etc. So I wasn't as blown away as I might have been. It struck me as totally excellent, but I was expecting it to be totally excellent.
Gores's Interface, on the other hand, was a total surprise. It shook the conventions of the PI genre, while still managing to adhere to them. I've seldom read a novel as compulsively readable, with as firm a sense of place, as keen an ear for dialogue, or as well-hidden a surprise ending. Despite knowing the surprise, I've found that Interface stands up quite well to being re-read, something I can't say for a lot of books.

From Mark Troy from College Station, Texas
A Catskill Eagle
by Robert B. Parker

A Catskill Eagle was the first Spenser novel I read. I picked it up at a time when I was thinking about writing mysteries and was looking for a good model. I wanted to write something hardboiled and contemporary, with a strong but intelligent PI. Spenser was it. I wanted to write like that. I keep my copy on my writing desk. The spine is ruined, the pages are dog-eared and brittle from too frequently diving into the book for inspiration and helpful examples.

From Christopher Mills in South Florida
(a Nameless Detective novel) by Bill Pronzini

I'd been a fan of hardboiled fiction since I was fifteen. I'd read Spillane, Chandler, Hammett, Collins and the works of quite a few other notable authors. But in the mid-Eighties I was going through a rough time. My fiancee had left me and married my best friend. My career, such as it was, seemed to be dead in its tracks already, and I was still several years shy of thirty. I was living alone in an apartment in Bath, Maine, too broke to run the electric heat during the winter, spending long hours of loneliness and depression bundled up in sweats and wool blankets, reading private eye novels and trying to find some sort of escape from my current existence.

One cold, winter's eve I started to read Scattershot by Bill Pronzini. I don't think it was the first Nameless Detective novel I read, but I tell you, it had a huge impact on me, and to this day, the new Nameless novels are the books I look forward to most. There have been other great entries in the series -- Shackles and Hardcase come to mind immediately -- but at the end of Scattershot, I was in tears. Scattershot covers just one week of Nameless' life. Over the course of that week, he loses (temporarily, thank God) the woman he loves, gets three cases that go tragically wrong, manages to solve all three, but ultimately, loses his license anyway. The last line in the novel reads "Welcome to hard times..."

That I completely identified with Pronzini's nameless hero should be no surprise, after the sob story I spun a paragraph or two back. I sat there with the book in my lap, listening to sleet hit the windows, and was overwhelmed with sadness and anger. I'd forgotten that what I'd just read was fiction; to me it was all too real. The world was an unfair, unfeeling, malevolent place. Not just for me, but for everybody. Now, I'm not going to say that reading Scattershot changed my life. It certainly didn't make me feel any better about how things were going for me at the time. But, eventually things got better. And what I still remember a decade or more later, is that Pronzini managed to make me forget I was reading fiction. He made me put the book down and say out loud: "That's unfair, dammit!" And it was the first time any PI character became completely real to me.

Inspired? Ready to confess your favorites? Head back to the P.I. Poll.

Oh, and by the way,
the results of the December-January P.I. Poll, which asked readers to vote for
The Thrilling Detective Cheap Thrill Awards
are posted here,
and the answers and winners for
The Thrilling Detective Face the Face Contest
are posted here.

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