What the hell is a Private Eye, anyway?

This site is for private eyes, and other tough guys and gals who make trouble their business -- not their hobby. It's not about cops, amateur sleuths, spies, plucky librarians, nosey old spinsters or talking cats...

But I've given myself enough leeway to include some journalists, lawyers, professional criminals, bodyguards, insurance investigators and the like. And I've stretched that already loosey goosey definition even further for my Word on the Street listings, where I try to include new (or new-ish) items I hope will be of interest to followers of this site.

So what is a private eye, then? There are any number of definitions. The Private Eye Writers of America, who make it their business to honor excellent work in the genre with their Shamus Awards, define a "private eye" as any mystery protagonist who is a professional investigator, but not a police officer or government agent. Those guys probably know what they're talking about, so we'll use that as a basis for now...but a few brave souls (T. J. Binyon, Robert J. Randisi, Gary Warren Niebuhr, Raymond Chandler and Paul Bergin) have tried to be a bit more specific...

Our pal, Allen J. Hubin, contributed a chronological list of series characters, divided by category (amateur, spy, police, private detective, etc.), in 1976's The Mystery Story, defines a private investigator as one who

... seeks clients, accepts pay for his services, and is not a member of an official law enforcement agency; thus both Sherlock Holmes and Mike Hammer are included...as are investigators working for private firms -- such as insurance companies -- and lawyer-sleuths.

T.J. Binyon, in his excellent Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction, suggested that the Private Eye was radically different from the Private Detective. Under the title "The Schism of the 1920s", he goes on to explain:

"Early in the 1920's a new type of fictional detective came into being in the United States. Whereas the conventional private detective always has literary precedents, going back to Sherlock Holmes, and through him, to Dupin, even if the connection is attenuated at times, the new type, variously called private investigator, private eye, or... hard-boiled dick, is the product of American reality. Sometimes he belongs to a detective agency... sometimes he is a lone individual, a modern knight, defending the hapless and oppressed. But in both cases the gangsters, the violence and the "gun-play reflect... American life during and after Prohibition.

"Though similiar superficially, the private detective and the private eye are radically opposed to one another... (he then goes on to illustrate his point with the following table)

The Private Detective The Private Eye
Rural or urban setting Urban setting 
Closed society, with limited number of suspects, who are introduced at the beginning of the narrative Open society, with indefinite number of suspects, who are introduced throughout the narrative
Detective is usually hired to solve a crime Detective is usually hired to investigate a situation
Detective often has an assistant with whom he has a Holmes/Watson relationship Detective may have colleagues or a devoted secretary
Detective basically static: remains in one place to interview suspects Detective basically mobile: moves from place to place to interview characters
Detective and police co-operate Detective and police usually antagonists
Police usually honest Police often corrupt
Little violent action, and confined to the conclusion, if it occurs Much violent action throughout narrative
Organized crime rare Organized crime common
No sex: love interest only between minor characters Sex: love interest between detective and client or detective and secretary
Intake of alcohol normal Intake of alcohol excessive
Third-person or first-person narration by Watson-type figure
Usually first-person narration by detective

"Attempts have been made to transplant the private eye...But the graft has never taken: the private eye remains essentially American."

Although written in 1989, much of Binyon's thesis seems woefully out of date, such as his suggestion that the genre doesn't travel well outside the U.S. (!), or that the private eye story must take place in an urban setting. By 1989, there were tons of books out there to prove him wrong. Yet much of the rest of his bold attempt seems dead on the mark.

Three years earlier, PWA founder Robert J. Randisi wrote a guest editorial in the May 1986 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, in which he took a whack at it also, adding a bit more historical perspective along the way...

"The ... private eye story has been called the only true native American literary form. In the opinion of some of its practitioners--most notably Loren D. Estleman and Robert B. Parker--the P.I. story is linked with the western story, the one that has the loner riding into town to take on the bad guys single-handedly. If that is indeed the case, then Shane is just as much a private eye novel as Red Harvest.

What does make a private eye novel, then? Is it the fact that the main character has a private detective's license? Or does it have more to do with a prevailing mood or atmosphere that permeates the story?

...I think that any given writer, at any given time, knows if he is writing a private eye novel--or short story--or not...

Right here in front of God and Mom and everyone, I'd like to say that I've come to regard the private eye story as a question of atmosphere. Larry Block's Matt Scudder is unlicensed, but those books and stories are private eye; Max Allan Collin's Mallory is a hard-boiled author, but those books are private eye; John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee is not a licensed private eye, but those books are private eye books.

All of these characters operate under the same general moral code, which is of course a large part--if not the largest part--of the P.I. ambience. The code says, "The guilty must be punished, and I'm.gonna .punish them!" Now, each man has his own way of upholding the code, but when you think about it, there's not much difference between the way Mike Hammer does it and the way Travis McGee does it and the way Matt Scudder, Nameless, and Sharon McCone do it.

They do it alone!

Webster says that "atmosphere is a dominant effect." Well, the dominant effect in the P.I. novel is the P.I. himself. Along with the "code", the P.I. ambience is supplied by the man--or woman. Most successful P.I. novels are--to a large extent--character studies of the P.I. and his world. What makes Scudder or Jake Asch or Amos Walker tick is just as important--if not more important--to the story as the plot.

So, what makes a P.I. story or, better yet, a P.I. "world"? It is solitary, often lonely, very often dangerous--physically and emotionally; it is the film noir...of the literary world because the reader is drawn into it, takes every step and every physical knock or emotional jolt that the P.I. takes.

Under these conditions, Harold Q. Masur's Scott Jordan is a P.I., Ed McBain's Matthew Hope is a P.I., Craig Rice's John J. Malone is a P.I.--all lawyers by trade--and so too are Pete Hamill's Sam Briscoe, David Alexander's Bart Hardin, and Marc Olden's Harker, all newspapermen.

This is, of course, merely one man's opinion and will probably have no great effect on the outcome of this question--because there is no possible outcome possible. The great debate...will rage on, but as long as the "ragees" and "ragers" keep writing private eye stuff, more power to them.

Indeed. I might add that as long as they keep writing, we'll keep reading.

Personally, I think both T.J. and Bob are pretty close. My personal take is that the private eye story is an American attempt to update the earlier cowboy mythos, placing them in a contemporary American urban setting. But it's not that simple. The cowboy mythos is merely a frontier update of a much earlier tradition. Grab a piece of chalk, and trace a line from Three Gun Mack to Nick Carter to Sherlock Holmes to Wyatt Earp to Hawkeye in James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking tales, and then continue to Robin Hood and Ivanhoe and Lancelot and King Arthur et al. Circle the last name of the author of La Morte d'Arthur, Thomas Mallory, and draw a new line to the name of one of Chandler's early eyes. Draw another line from Hawkeye and Chingcachook (think of 'em as an early version of Spenser and Hawk) studying some footprints in The Last of the Mohicans to that scene where Holmes explains the significance of footprints to Watson. Circle the fact that Chandler was educated in England, and that Ross Mcdonald (Kenneth Millar) was half-Canadian, and simple definitions based on national pride start to seem not so simple. So, what are we left with?

Well, Gary Warren Niebuhr, author of A Reader's Guide To Private Eye Novels, and a sometime-contributor to this site, came up with this more thought-out, analytical formula for determining what a private eye is, or is not. "This is the edited version from my slide show on the history of the P. I.,", says Gary, "but it will suffice to show that it is wide open to interpretation."

Theorem #1: The detective must have a license to practice as a private eye

  • Corollary #1: The detective is in every other circumstance a private eye, but has not bothered to get a license
  • Corollary #2: The detective is prevented from applying for a license
  • Corollary #3: The detective used to be a licensed private eye, or has some type of special relationship with a working private eye
  • Corollary #4: The detective works in a state or country where P. I.'s do not need to be licensed

Theorem #2: The detective collects a fee

  • Corollary #1: The type of fee is not important
  • Corollary #2: The detective may be exempt from collecting a fee only if he/she is a licensed private eye.

Theorem #3: The detective must carry on in the traditions of the subgenre of the P. I.

  • Corollary #1: The detective must have some type of investigative experience
  • Corollary #2: The detective must maintain a method of communication that allows clients to find his/her services.

According to the Gospel....

No attempt to unravel the private eye can ignore Raymond Chandler's essay "The Simple Art of Murder" which originally appeared in the November 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly andsubsequently served as the non-fiction centrepiece of a collection of stories by Chandler.

It's arguably the most-quoted non-fiction piece on detective fiction ever written, so why should this site be any different? Chandler's focus is on the eye himself, not so much where his literary forbears are, but who he is. Here's just an excerpt:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor -- by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man's money dishonestly and no man's insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks -- that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The story is this man's adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in."

Hear, hear...

And here's a good one, too, by our old pal Paul Bergin, who offers this liberal definition:

I just LOVE these issues which promise spirited debate with little or no hope of consensus. To me, the fictional PI represents less an occupation than a stance -- an attitude, if you will. Who is closer to the idea we have of a PI? The licensed but sedentary Nero Wolfe? Or characters (all unlicensed) like Travis McGee, John Deal, Gabriel Du Pre and (the early) Matt Scudder?

Crazy-making, ain't it? For myself, I look upon any character who is engaged in an investigation for a private party . . . or for private reasons . . .as a PI. The job's basically the same, anyway, and labels are just a convenience.

And here's a thought I had about the difference between amateur sleuths and private eyes:

A private eye makes trouble his business, not a hobby.

Of course, this topic will go on and on, wandering the oceans of nitpicking, without much chance of hitting any iceberg of conclusion, but, like Paul says, that's what makes it kinda fun. Feel free to send me your comments.

Oh, and one more thing...

If it looks like I'm occasionally breaking my own rules, well, maybe I am. Please read It's my prerogative...

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