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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
Doherty in Chicago, IL
Interface 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.
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.
Mills in South Florida
Scattershot (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