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Private Investigator


Edited by Alistair Rolls and Rachel Franks


Crime Uncovered Series

Bristol: Intellect, 2016

Paperback 187 p. ISBN  978-1783205233. £19.50


Reviewed by Charles Brownson

Arizona State University



As with the others in this series (1) this volume gives us essays predominately on the European  P.I. (exceptions are the iconic Sam Spade and Lew Archer), and deliberately so. As editors Rolls and Franks explain in their introduction [14-15], their goal is to give a more expansive account which will allow them to avoid both the hagiographic and the lit-crit modes used heretofore.(2) As the sub-genre of the P.I. is and has been overwhelmingly American, it is hardly surprising that the studies included here should be of figures less familiar to American readers. The result is a quite interesting analysis of new possibilities.

The figure of the P.I. derives from the pulp fiction of the 1920s and 30s and is commonly said to have reached its first apogee in Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. This positions the Private Investigator between the earlier amateur detective and the later police professional, but this is a hard distinction to make. As the editors say [12], along with the true amateur working for free (a ‘sleuth’) and an official professional (a ‘detective’) are many difficult exceptions. Holmes, for example, is well-remunerated and independent, yet to our minds hardly a P.I. Neither is Dickens’s Inspector Bucket, variously a paid professional and a man working on his own. The rough distinction we want is the hard-boiled, itself a somewhat fuzzy category characterized by violent or coercive methods, whether used by self-employed (that is, private) gumshoes  or by rogue cops working on their own. What the P.I. is not is an amateur, meaning an unpaid aficionado or craftsman using exclusively rational means — Miss Marple or Peter Wimsey.

In our time the amateur has disappeared — the police will not tolerate vigilante justice, and the resources needed for a modern crime story can only be commanded by a government institution. These same limits work against the P.I. and have forced a drift toward the thriller, in which the investigator is motivated more by self-protection than any desire to solve a crime.(3) A consequent interest of this book would be, and is, some examples of the continued life of the P.I. and, facilitated by its choice of case studies, something of the reasons for it. The opportunity for overt social criticism is one, in American writing now largely forced into the background or ceded to other sub-genres. But as Pezzotti says [107], in Italian there are few instances, greatly overshadowed by the policemen Ingravallo (Gadda), Bellodi (Sciascia), and Montelbano (Camilleri), and the same is true in other countries. Is the P.I. endangered? Some further thought on this matter would have been welcome, but this is rightly not a book of sociology or cultural history and it has quite enough to do as it is.

A matter quite clear is that the second home of the P.I. is France. Louise Morvan and Nestor Burma are given full exposure, and wherever the discussion touches on the idea of noir and the French postwar interest in it the French role is acknowledged. It is necessary to remember that the detective genre was a creation of the French as much as the English, and that the social uses of it, especially noir with its emphasis on universal corruption and isolated models of existential freedom would operate much more strongly in France, isolated and occupied as it was during the war.

One oddity is the first essay (by Rachel Franks) on Poirot’s chronicler and quondam sidekick Captain Hastings. Hastings would appear to be the most unlike a P.I. as could be imagined. He works free and is at first bound to Poirot, hardly independent. He is a fastidious man of delicate sensibilities and an alert respect for what is not done by an English gentleman. His inclusion among the Private Investigators is due to his status [15] as an ‘offsider’—a man who lives in the shadow. That the shadow is cast by Poirot and that he is not an investigator (he functions in most of the stories as an intermediary between Poirot and the other characters, and between Poirot and the reader,(4) is of no moment. Franks’s claim is that Hastings summarizes the whole future of the P.I. as his character, goaded by Poirot’s cruelty toward him (notably contrasted by Poirot’s attitude toward Miss Lemon) becomes more self-determined and finally  dark in the final novel Curtain (1975). This claim would seem to be a stretch, but a thought-provoking one quite outside the constraints of the conventional hard-boiled P.I., constraints which all of the essayists here seek to escape.

The book concludes, following the format of the series, with two essays of a more general nature. Stephen Knight, who the editors identify as a guiding influence on their work [10], writes on the 19th-century origins of the P.I. Knight provides a thorough survey of the proto-P.I. which proposes a typology of the P.I. beginning with the Bow Street Runners, who were both public and private in nature—that is, having a quasi-institutional and regulatory function combined with their status as for hire. The turning point, in Knight’s analysis, comes around 1850, when the nascent figure of the P.I. is consolidated as a self-employed professional. The amateur has by now largely disappeared. (The example of the amateur cited is Bulwer’s Pelham, but also includes the late, hybrid case of Collins’s The Moonstone, in which the hired P.I. fails to explain the crime and the mystery is actually solved by an amateur.) It is very noticeable how many of the instances cited by Knight are of working operatives, not literary characters, or, like Vidocq, memoirists. Knight’s examples include many who, while showing some characteristics of the fully developed P.I., do not actually work by detection. This is very helpful, reminding us of how a literary creation emerges from real-life situations and becomes an imaginary being.

The second historical essay, by Janice Allan, discusses specifically the “sensation” novel typified by Wilkie Collins and Mary Braddon. It is of particular interest for the P.I. that sensation fiction was a female phenomenon.(5) The detective is not necessarily female but the reader’s sympathy is shifted to the female victim or, in the case of Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, the criminal, and the nominal detective appears as a meddling threat. The title of Allan’s article, “To See is to Suspect : Investigating the Private in Sensation Fiction” reveals her intention, which is to interpret literally the words private eye—the observer who reveals that which is hidden.  Sensation fiction is “saturated with references to vision” [174] but more particularly “a form of vigilant watching demanded by a fictional universe where appearances are assumed to be deceptive and sight cannot be dissociated from suspicion” [174-175]. Implicit in her analysis is how sensation fiction shifts attention from the (female) subjects of home and middle-class domesticity, contrasts vision with the (male) somatic action, introduces new topics such as divorce and the disobedient servant, and reveals the technological aspects of seeing. The reader is encouraged to shift his view of women to the active and engaged. This is, in my opinion, a significant repositioning of sensation fiction in the context of the P.I. and aptly concludes a book which is intended to rethink the private investigator and enlarge it beyond the conventional view of the hard-boiled American.


(1) There are two previous: Anti-Hero (2015) and Detective (2016).

(2) Hagiography is the mode Rolls and Franks call connoisseurship. ‘Lit-crit’ is my term for the overly scholarly and esoteric. The editors cite as their guide between these poles primarily Stephen Knight (Secrets of Crime Fiction Classics, 2015) as well as a very useful list of other similar sources.

(3) For example Roman Polanski’s 2010 film The Ghostwriter, or for an earlier instance, Six Days of the Condor (James Grady, 1974).

(4) In another usage Hastings is the chronicler and the means by which the detective can remain the ‘closed mouth’, revealing his inference chain only at the end of the story.

(5) Collins was of course a man, but he strongly advocated the rights of women and placed them at the center of his book The Woman In White.



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