Monday, April 18, 2016

Wrtiing the Private Eye

The Private Eye Novel has been a favorite of American reading audiences since back in the thirties. Its early popularity grew out of such characters as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon has become an American fiction classic. There is no shortage of definitions for the detectives who populate these stories. Probably the most definitive is the one used by the Private Eye Writers of America in picking winners for its annual Shamus Awards.

They define a “private eye” as any mystery protagonist who is a professional investigator, but not a police officer or government agent.

I had no idea of creating a PI when I started writing about Greg McKenzie, a retired Air Force OSI agent, the protagonist of my first four mystery novels (plus a later fifth). In fact, I wasn’t even thinking series. The first book involved a hostage taking, and I wanted a character with investigative experience who would have all the tools he needed to compete with the bad guys and rescue his wife. While working on that story, I consulted with the Special Agent in Charge of the Office of Special Investigations at Arnold Air Force Base.

It wasn’t until the end of the second book that I realized Greg and his wife were perfectly suited to get into the private investigation business. The last three books have dealt with cases they took on with unexpected results. A few reviewers referred to the books as cozies, though I didn’t see them that way.

If you’ve never been in law enforcement, how do you learn the basics of writing about private investigators? It helps if you’ve been a newspaper reporter. They use some of the same techniques as detectives. Also you read a lot about PIs, both in fiction and fact. I have two books about private investigation written by two working pros I know personally.

I was surprised when I got a review of the third Greg McKenzie book that started out, “If you’re interested in seeing how a real private detective works try Chester Campbell’s Deadly Illusions.”

That was only topped by a review of the fourth book that began, "The Marathon Murders is a skillfully woven tale that shows detective fiction wannabes how it’s supposed to be done.”

Although I enjoyed penning the exploits of Greg and Jill McKenzie, I wanted to try my hand at a more gritty private eye story. So I conjured up Sidney Lanier (Sid) Chance, a Green Beret in Vietnam, a National Parks ranger for 19 years, and a small town police chief for another 10. He left the NPS after being shot and quit his police job over false accusations of bribery.

Sid is the protagonist in The Surest Poison and The Good, The Bad and The Murderous, the two books in the series. Apparently I succeeded in telling a more hard-boiled tale since one reviewer said I was channeling my love for the written word “into the kind of fiction writing that those with a penchant for Lawrence Block can enjoy.” If you don’t know Larry Block, he writes really hard-boiled stuff and is one of Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Masters.

So what’s the secret to writing believable private eyes? In my view it’s keeping your detective’s eyes and ears tuned to pick up any lead, whether it be a phone call, a scrap of paper found at a crime scene, a casual observation by a witness, and following it wherever the trail takes him. And you’d better obstruct the trail with plenty of boulders and booby traps.

The early PIs were strictly loners, but as the twentieth century wound down, it became popular to give private investigators sidekicks. Jasmine (Jaz) LeMieux fills the spot for Sid Chance, though she’s not like any sidekick I’ve encountered before. She’s rich, being majority owner and board chairman of a chain of truck stops, but followed a pretty weird path in getting there. After quitting college over a disagreement with her basketball coach, she served in the Air Force Security Police, was a professional boxer, and worked as a Metro Nashville policewoman.

Barbara Norville, in her book Writing the Modern Mystery, says “the primary attribute of the private eye is his unique sense of justice, and this is the theme of all private eye novels.” I agree, and it’s the raison d’etre for my PIs. As we learn about Sid Chance, “the possibility of taking a twisted situation and making things right was the lure that kept him in the business.”

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