09 February 2008

Why the P.I.?

Indeed. What is the appeal? Why is the private detective such an enduring fictional figure? David Geherin tackled this subject in a lively and thoughtful book called The American Private Eye: the image in fiction. In in this out-of-print 1985 edition from the now-defunct Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. (on loan from pal Marcus--thanks, pal!) , Professor Geherin flexes his scholarly muscles without being pedantic. The history of this unique American creation is covered from Carroll John Daly in the pulps of the early 1920's to the 1970's of Robert B. Parker and beyond. Along the way we see the evolution of this iconic figure, carved out by the hugely influential Hammett and Chandler, then put in the hands of modern masters like Lawrence Block. Geherin concentrates on the characters, the P.I.'s themselves, and notes their astonishing variety, even likening the archetype to Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. A reach? Perhaps. But Geherin lays out five arguments. The first is the P.I.'s basic nature: courageous, resourceful, decisive. A man of action, not words, but honest and incorruptible, and willing to fight for truth and justice. Solitary but not misanthropic, the P.I. is the new, urban frontiersman, combining the manly appeal of Natty Bumpo and Daniel Boone with the homey charisma of Huck Finn. The second, I've already mentioned, the diversity of types--all sizes, shapes, temperments, styles and backgrounds. Something for everyone. Third, the vernacular or colloquial appeal of the genre's language. P.I.'s reflect the slang of their times and have a unique argot--much like criminals. Writers have a field day with the lingo and dialogue, and the readers eat it up. Fourth, because the private eye is typically an outsider he (or she) can comment on society and critique its mores. P.I.'s who ruminate on their fellows and the ways of the world are not only a great voice for their creators but an outlet for their fans own musings on the big questions of life, love, death, morality, justice, and you-name-it. Finally, the P.I. is a dynamic creation, able to look, "Janus-like" (Geherin's words), at a simpler, more noble or romantic past, while firmly rooted in the back alleys and mean streets of modernity. May he live forever!

1 comment:

nancyo said...

Really interesting commentary, especially for a dedicated mystery reader --thanks. I have found it intriguing that, almost without fail, the best-writen P.I.s are highly intelligent and erudite, often with arcane areas of special interest and knowledge -- and they have contacts that are the same, as well as the rough guys in and outside the law who are so useful. (And our guy may be one of them.) Babble babble.
Anyway, when I think about P.I.s I have known and loved -- I always have a little heart lurch for Travis McGee -- and Meyer, too.