Near the end of 2014 an article in the New York Times magazine carried the ominous title “The Death of the Private Eye”. With a smirk it described how and why the P.I. novel is dead. Obsolete. Kaput.
Between you and me, I think the author had been in the sauce.
For starters, he didn’t seem to grasp what the genre’s about. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact he talked about movies and Thomas Pynchon a great deal more than he did giants of the genre such as Chandler and Hammett. At least they got mentioned, unlike more contemporary writers such as Paretsky, Parker, Mickey Spillane, Sue Grafton and others.
The author’s reasoning appears to boil down to this:
1. The Internet and databases have eliminated the need for a P.I. to do anything except sit at his or her computer.
2. Hacker heroes have replaced the now outmoded private eyes.
As to his first argument, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc are just two examples of thoroughly contemporary P.I.’s who show the genre is very much alive and kicking, thank you. They utilize exotic databases, yet they still mix it up in the street. They duck bullets, wheedle information and follow leads they get from sometimes devious and flawed human beings.
Why, if we swallow the author’s first argument, have hacker heroes taken the place of the private eye? Because they are antiheroes with contempt for corrupt institutions, he argues. Because they are venal “yet possessed by a moral authority”. That, he contends, is more important than familiar trappings such as the P.I.’s office, or watering hole, or swagger.
This struck me as simplistic. It also struck me as not truly understanding why readers love private eyes.
I’ll not deny that techie heroes such as Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander make for a wonderful, page-turning adventure. But I don’t think we should dig a grave for private eye novels just yet.
What do you think?