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
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:
Although written in 1989, much of Binyon's thesis seems woefully out of date, such as his suggestion that the genre doesn't travel well outside the U.S. (!), or that the private eye story must take place in an urban setting.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...
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."
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:
And here's a good one, too, by our old pal Paul Bergin, who offers this liberal definition:
And here's a thought I had about the difference between amateur sleuths and private eyes:
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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