A History of Private Eye Fiction

“Tecs of the Times” by Neil Albert

A look at the development of the private investigator in mystery fiction

“Neil,” the editor said, “I’d like you to do a piece on the private eye.”

“No problem.”

“It should be filled with fresh insights that will help Elmore Leonard, Jeremiah Healy, P.D. James, Michael Seidman, and Robin Winks truly understand the genre.”


“And it should be accessible and interesting to someone who’s never read a mystery.”

“Well, of course.”

“And you need to keep it to a couple of thousand words.”


“Try to focus on the history and development of private detectives.”

“I’ll have a draft within a couple of weeks. Anything else?”

She hesitated. “Well, I’ve never really liked the letter “g”…”

To begin at the beginning with the earliest detectives, the late 19th century brought us Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. To soothe the outraged reader, I acknowledge that Dupin are Holmes are not generally considered private detectives. Exactly why is not clear–they are regularly approached by strangers to solve cases in which they have no personal interest. Sounds like private detection to me. Their detectives are thinking machines; brilliant, methodical, highly observant, but above all, detached. The revolutionary, social, and nationalistic ferments that swept western Europe during the days of Dupin and Holmes left them completely unmoved. Their belief in the power of rationality to solve human problems was the bedrock of their personalities, and their stories celebrate the power of the human intellect with an enthusiasm not seen since the heyday of the Enlightenment. As detectives, they are the counterpart to the scientists and adventurers of the science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. In the present world, beset with so many calamities resulting from careful intellectual calculation, it is hard to read these stories without an ironic smile; yet so strong is the power of the writing that it carries us through the naive presuppositions that underlie the works.

The period of World War I and its immediate aftermath did not add significantly to the literary tradition of the private eye. Doyle and a score of imitators plugged away in London as well as in this country; and a slew of forgettable adventure-detection hybrids involving Zeppelins and German spies made their appearance. Fortunately most of those wartime stories have disappeared; but the conscientious student of literary history (or the reader in search of a chuckle) should consult Bill Pronzini‘s Gun in Cheek for a survey of the worst offenders.

Sherlock Holmes had fine-tuned the problems of a society that both he and the reader accepted–ensuring the compromising letters did not interfere with Continental line of succession, keeping sinister foreigners in their place, and, in general, preserving a social order whose legitimacy was taken for granted. To say that the aftermath of World War I and the later Depression caused a social and literary disillusionment is a cliche. It is nevertheless true.

The characters of Dashiell Hammett in [su_amazon_link title=”” code=””]Red Harvest inhabit a world that has changed radically for the worse. The system is corrupt to the core, and the difference between the various criminal gangs is little more than which gang was successful in electing its own slate of crooked politicians. Hammett was filled with rage at a system he felt was fundamentally unjust, and that rage illuminates some of his strongest work, including [su_amazon_link title=”The Maltese Falcon” code=”0679722645″]. That rage, bent into wry humor, led in large part to the convention of the wisecracking private eye. Certainly there were witty detectives before Sam Spade–E.C. Bentley’s Trent was a raconteur, and Holmes himself was seldom at a loss for a witty reply, but Hammett gives us something different, something more substantial–sincerity. His detectives have a cynicism born of a genuine disillusionment, and it is that cynicism that gives them a sense of modernity and freshness sixty years after he first put their words to paper. And in a paradoxical way, Hammett’s despair and alienation gives his best stories a sense of urgency. Seen through Doyle’s Edwardian glasses, the world is a basically good place that might stand a bit of tinkering; Hammett sees a world as a swamp of brutality and greed, and only the strongest measures give us any hope. In Hammett’s world, there is so little good left, there is none we can afford to lose.

Having mentioned Hammett, it is required at this point in my essay that I mention Raymond Chandler. OK; consider him mentioned. To expand upon a remark once made by Lawrence Block, the problem with both Hammett and Chandler is that their reputations are based upon relatively small bodies of work. Neither produced more than a half dozen book-length works of quality. Chandler was a thoughtful critic, a wonderful stylist, and an alcoholic of heroic proportions. He was also a relentless self-promoter, and his publicity machine has worked with such good effect that even now, at forty year’s remove, his name is sometimes spoken of in the same breath with Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. Does he deserve such praise? He wrote several very fine, original novels that have well stood the test of time–and an unequal number of unreadable ones. Several years ago, when the editors of the Library of America decided to republish Chandler’s novels in uniform bindings as part of its compilation of American literature, the controversy that ensued was not so much about including a genre writer as it was about including 11 of his works. In Chandler’s strongest books, Marlowe is a well-drawn private eye, intelligent, dedicated, and crafty–but does he represent anything fresh or innovative when compared to Sam Spade? Certainly Marlowe is a better developed character–even die-hard Hammett fans must admit that Spade is something of a caricature.

Chandler brought the private eye genre forward by formalizing the conventions that underlay Hammett’s work, and he is certainly more than a clever imitator, but…

Let us move on to Chandler’s spiritual and literal successor–Ross MacDonald. MacDonald’s work is a history of the changing scope of the private eye story in microcosm. He started out with saving the world in 70,000 words–breaking up Nazi spy rings in 1944 (The Dark Tunnel), cleaning up corruption in an entire city, top to bottom, in a few days in 1947 (Blue City); and then, very gradually, he became more interior, more introspective, more personal–and more limited in the scope of the action. By his later books, Archer is content to simply confront the killer, who then kills herself (The Underground Man, 1971); or simply to find, after a book-length search for a missing girl, that she is safely asleep in her bed (Sleeping Beauty, 1973). What does it mean, as a society, when we are more attracted to plots with such modest goals?

MacDonald was a writer’s writer, and there are few of us writing today who do not acknowledge a debt. He continued the formalization of the private eye–the physical and mental toughness, the isolation, the drinking, the wisecracking, and above all, the single-minded dedication to seeing justice done. Perhaps his greatest achievement, one that unfortunately is not sufficiently imitated, was his invention of Lew Archer, a character “so thin, that if he turned sideways, he would disappear.” Archer leads us through 18 novels and a half-dozen short stories, and except for his last book The Blue Hammer, he never emotionally engages with any of the characters he encounters. He remains the aloof, disinterested observer to generations of murder and betrayal, never revealing anything of is own mental life except, occasionally, his conclusions based on the evidence. Archer is a melding of Philip Marlowe and a modern Greek chorus; making things happen, commenting upon the action, but never, never being an emotional part of it.

MacDonald created Archer for several very good reasons; some particular to the subject matter of his themes, but some more general. MacDonald discovered, fairly early in his writing career, that there was something…skewed about the crime genre. In mainstream action, he noted, there was plenty of crime and violence–but it is treated differently than in the detective story–in general fiction the focus is on the criminal, on why a person would be driven to commit an antisocial deed. (Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment and The Scarlet Letter spring readily to mind.) Our moral interest is in why a person would do such a thing. In crime fiction, by contrast, the focus is on the detective, who, “being merely a personification of society, is morally uninteresting.” Those of us who cut down forests and expend oceans of ink giving our detectives baggage of one sort or another might be advised to ponder what a really satisfying mystery would involve. To paraphrase Lawrence Durrell’s famous comment on D. H. Lawrence, “Ross MacDonald–so right, so wrong, so great, may his ghost breathe on us all.”

Having mentioned Ross MacDonald, we should consider John D. MacDonald. He was a wonderful plotter, a tireless worker, and though his books do not always reveal it, a thoughtful social critic. His body of work is huge–larger than that of Ross MacDonald, Hammett, and Chandler combined. But his most popular creation, Travis McGee, dominates our memory of his work, even though McGee appears in only about a third of MacDonald’s novels. And this is a misfortune for MacDonald’s hope of elevation to the pantheon occupied by the very greatest mystery writers. McGee is an interesting, amusing, and clever character; but the past is another country, and he does not travel well. The non McGee books are uneven, as any body of work that varied must be, but some of them are very fine indeed.

MacDonald was an ambitious man–he wanted to be remembered not just as a mystery writer, but as a writer of general literary importance–and his own creation, Travis McGee, works against those hopes. McGee is clever, sexy, dynamic–and ultimately, trivial. It is hard to read the McGee books now without condescension. The healing power of the phallus was once an acceptable literary theme, but it is no longer 1920 and MacDonald, for all his gifts, is no D.H. Lawrence.

Ross MacDonald’s last book was published in 1976; John wrote for a few years more. With their deaths, the line of private detective books generally recognized as classics comes to an end. This is no slight for the wonderful bodies of work currently coming from the pens of Lawrence Block, Jeremiah Healy, Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosely, Les Robert (please note the alphabetized order) and many others. There are many gifted men writing male P.I.s today, but recognition of classic status can only occur with the perspective of time. From the standpoint of toady, we cannot write history about these men–only journalism.

But this is not the end of the story. As the typewriter of John D. MacDonald hesitated and then fell silent forever, a tap, tap, tapping was heard; first in California and then in Illinois. What was this tapping beyond the chamber door? It was the sound of keys on paper, and the writers were Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky. Nothing unusual about women writers in a genre that includes Agatha what’s-her-name. They wrote women detectives; nothing unusual there either. Yet they took the published world by storm, changing (possibly forever) the face of the genre. Women writing women detectives for women readers is now the norm, and the trend shows no signs of abating. What was so special? Their P.I.s were not just women–they were women doing a man’s job, doing it well, and doing it without male sidekicks. Their P.I.s were well-drawn characters, self-reliant, resourceful, forceful–and yet unmistakably feminine.

The process of writing is individual, but the acceptance (or rejection) of the finished work is a social phenomena. It takes nothing away from the achievement of these three remarkable writers to note that their timing was right. Ten years before A is for Alibi, feminism was equated in the popular mind with bra-burning; by 1982, if not yet broadly accepted, it was at least respectable.

So what is the future of the private detective story? What will be the next hot trend? I don’t know. If I did I would write it myself. But I have a few more observations to bore you with before I close.

Will there always be a private detective? Yes, Virginia; as long as people long for a sense of private justice, of empowerment that isn’t dependent on government bureaucracies like police departments and court systems, stories will be written employing the P.I. as a literary device. Unless present reading and demographic trends reverse themselves, the readership will be mostly female. Women may tire of reading women P.I.s but they will probably continue to prefer soft-boiled to hard-boiled through there will probably always be a niche market for the male-oriented stories of action and violence best typified by Andrew Vachss.

One prediction I can make with some assurance (because it is hardly a prediction at all, more of a current observation) is that the nature of detection will change. Already our detectives use cell phones rather than phone booths (the scene of innumerable murders), computerized research rather than hours of digging in old newspaper files, as well as pagers, faxes, and e-mail. These new technologies are a challenge to the writer; besides our traditional hurdle of answering the unanswerable question, “Why not let the police do their job?,” we will need to maintain suspense by devising barriers to how quickly information is obtained, and why a particular gadget whose employment would shortcut the story line is not available. Or perhaps a different type of narrative is called for in an era when information is so accessible. Perhaps we should borrow from Ross MacDonald, whose novels take place in a highly compressed time frame of three or four days. Books may become tighter, more suspenseful, more claustrophobic. The laurels will go not to the dogged investigator who knocks on every door on the block, but the one with the quickest insight into the mass of data the computer makes available.

The increasing degree of of technology in law enforcement will make the job of the writer of the P.I. story harder. Fifty years ago, Lew Archer could steal a march on the police investigation by noticing distinctive tire marks at the crime scene that had been ignored; in the future, as ultraviolet, laser, and computer-enhanced imagery technologies become more commonplace, unless the P.I. of the future has access to police files, his investigation will have to focus on a solution that does not involve competing with police technologies. And I think this is a good thing; one of the most exciting things about the P.I. genre is the sense of a level playing field–one detective, one criminal. Even though “the Lieutenant is taking you off the case” conversation is a cliche, it is no accident the best police procedurals (my apologies to Ed McBain) so often involve a rogue cop.

I wish you all many more years of happy reading.

Buy Private Eye Mystery Books at MysteryBookstore.com

A Detective Fan’s Reading List

In addition the writers and novels mentioned, the following critical works will be of interest to the private eye fan.

[su_amazon_link title=”100 Great Detectives: Famous Mystery Writers Examine Their Favorite Fictional Detectives” code=”0881849200″], Maxim Jakubowski, editor

[su_amazon_link title=”A Reader’s Guide To The Private Eye Novel” code=”0816118027″], Gary Warren Niebuhr

[su_amazon_link title=”Writng The Private Eye Novel: A Handbook By The Private Eye Writers Of America” code=”0898797675″], Robert J. Randisi, Editor


Neil Albert is a trial lawyer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania as well as the author of six mysteries featuring Dave Garrett. The first in this series,[su_amazon_link title=”The January Corpse” code=”0802732062″], was nominated by the Private Eye Writers of America for its Best First Novel Award in 1991. Other books in the series are [su_amazon_link title=”The February Trouble” code=”0802712444″], [su_amazon_link title=”Burning March” code=”0525937188″],[su_amazon_link title=”Cruel April” code=”0525937196″], [su_amazon_link title=”Appointment in May” code=”0802732798″], and [su_amazon_link title=”Tangled June” code=”0802733050″]. He is currently working on a historical mystery set in World War II.


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