PIs Make Great Characters
Cops are cool, and memorable fictional characters, but P.I.s seem to come in more variable and quirkier flavors. From ex-military types to everyday folks with a knack for sniffing out wrongdoing to little old ladies with cats. The latter tend to be the smartest and toughest. This wide variety is what makes reading P.I. stories fun. Private investigators, both licensed and amateur, tend to be more eccentric, possess different skills (some useful, others less so), and seem to break the rules with impunity. How much fun is that?
The fictional P.I. world is populated with iconic characters such as Holmes, Spade, Marlowe, Milhone, Hammer, Archer, Robicheaux, and the list goes on. Meeting such folks is why reading P.I. novels is so rewarding. And so much fun to write.
James Crumley’s CW Sughrue:
From The Last Good Kiss:
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog names Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
Trahearne had been on this wandering binge for nearly three weeks, and the big man, dressed in rumpled khakis, looked like and old soldier after a long campaign, sipping slow beers to wash the taste of death from his mouth. The dog slumped on the stool beside him like a tired little buddy, only raising his head occasionally for a taste of beer from a dirty ashtray set on the bar.
Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe:
From The Long Goodbye:
When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care. I finished the drink and went to bed.
Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins:
From Devil With A Blue Dress:
I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar. It’s not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk socks. His skin was smooth and pale with just a few freckles. One lick of strawberry-blond hair escaped the band of his hat. He stopped in the doorway, filling it with his large frame, and surveyed the room with pale eyes, not a color I’d ever seen in a man’s eyes. When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, but that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948.
I had spent five years with white men, and women, from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself. I ate with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was.
Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade:
From The Maltese Falcon:
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, V. His yellow-gray eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—-from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
Robert B Parker’s Spenser:
From God Save The Child:
If you leaned back in the chair and cranked your neck hard over you could see the sky from my office window, delft blue and cloudless so bright it looked solid. It was September after Labor Day, and somewhere the corn was probably as high as an elephant’s eye, and the kind of weather when a wino could sleep warm in a doorway.
“Mr. Spenser, are you listening to us?”
I straightened my head up and looked at Roger and Margery Bartlett.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said. “You were just saying about how you never dealt with a private detective before, but this was an extreme case and there seemed no other avenue. Everybody who comes in here tends to say about the same thing to me.”
Each of my four thriller series (Dub Walker, Samantha Cody, Jake Longly, Cain/Harper) features a private investigator, of sorts. None are what you would call a normal, licensed P.I. but each serves that function one way or the other.
Dub Walker from Stress Fracture:
“You ain’t going to like it,” Sheriff Luther Randall said.
My gut knotted. “Let’s do it.”
Life morphed into slow motion as I followed Luther down the hallway toward Mike’s bedroom. My legs felt heavy, and my shoe soles grabbed the carpet as if trying to hold me back. As if they knew what lay ahead.
My name is Dub Walker. I’d worked more than a hundred homicides in my career. As a MP for the US Marines, as a lab tech with the Alabama Department of Forensic Science here in Huntsville, as a trainee and consultant in Quantico with the FBI’s Behavioral Assessment Unit, and as a crime scene and evidence analyst on cases all over the country. I’m considered somewhat of an expert in this stuff. I’ve written a dozen books on these subjects, and if you do that people automatically think you know a bunch about it. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. Could go either way. It was that perception-reality deal.
I’d seen angry spouses slice, dice, and shoot each other; drug deals gone sideways; murders for hire; gang massacres; Mafia hits; and a few killings that didn’t fit into any pigeonhole. I’d seen victims of shootings, poisonings, beatings, fires, explosive devices, and one-way flights off tall buildings. I’d seen firsthand the work of serial killers who tortured, mutilated, cannibalized, and even preserved victims.
None of this prepared me for this one.
Jake Longly from Rigged:
Life runs in odd circles. Creates circumstances you never see coming, could never predict. Makes for strange bedfellows.
As my grandfather was quick to say, “Life can park your butt in some unpleasant locales.” Loved that guy. More so than my father Ray, who could be a pain in the ass. Not that I didn’t love him, just that he was be a bit intense for my tastes. I think he and I tolerated each other as much as anything else. I often wished he was more like his father but that train hit the rails decades ago.
Back to parking your butt in unpleasant places.
Right now, mine had found itself on an uncomfortably hard, wooden chair behind the defense table in the Gulf Shores Municipal Courthouse. I wasn’t sure what caused the most unease—the seat, the fact that I was the defendant in the proceedings at hand, the stack of charges levied against me, or the sullenness of Judge Ruth Corvas. The woman was all decked out in her black robe, shoulders hunched forward, sharp eyes following my attorney as he walked back and forth before her, offering his closing argument. She looked like a hawk, eyeing prey. Maybe a turkey vulture sizing up carrion. Made me reconsider having waved my rights to a jury trial.
I was good with people. Always had been. That’s one reason Captain Rocky’s, my bar/restaurant, was so successful. I was the “face” of the operation. A jury might like me; judge Corvas less so. She looked like she had eaten a bad taco. Or too many barbecued beans.
Bobby Cain from Skin In The Game:
That Bobby Cain made it into the military was a minor miracle. For one thing, he had a criminal record—juvenile, sealed, and later expunged—but still a record. Surely the military had access to that part of his life. He had limited formal education. Some homeschooling as his gypsy family scurried from town to town, thanks to Aunt Dixie, and his adoptive parents, the Cains, had pushed him to a high school diploma. But his education had always felt haphazard, incomplete.
Degree in hand, he enlisted in the US Army. Amazingly, they accepted him. Even though his final two years of school were at a military academy, he had no real “military connections” to smooth the path. Everything indicated that his Army career would be uneventful.
Things changed a few months in. Thanks to the not-so-formal education he had received from his gypsy family.
Several of the “parents” in the troupe had offered lessons that aren’t available in a real school. Things like how to run a con, or lift a wallet, or a watch, or empty a purse in a heartbeat. Day, night, alone, in a crowd, each required a different approach and skill set.
For Cain, these lessons most often came from Uncle Al, Aunt Dixie, and Uncle Maurice, known as Uncle Mo.
Fighting lessons were particularly intense. “No fight is fair,” was Uncle Mo’s mantra. “The guy who fights fair, loses.” He taught Cain to box, wrestle, and what he called “grappling.” The art of taking someone of any size down with a single punch, or the literal snap of a finger, or out cold with a choke hold. Most of Cain’s “brother” opponents back then had been years older, and much larger and stronger. But, he learned quickly. The key, according to Uncle Manny, was hand strength. Strong hands win fights.
Uncle Al taught him that in a fight, everything was a weapon. Fists, feet, elbows, knees, your head. A stick, a stone, a chair, a lamp, and, of course, a knife. He showed Bobby where to hide knives in his clothes and shoes, even how to construct those that could be secreted in belts, hats, pocket linings, seams.
Aunt Dixie gave him a master class in the art of throwing.
I think the great variability in P.I. characters makes for engaging stories and, as a writer, excellent fodder for character creation and storytelling. It’s why I read P.I. novels and why I write them. As do many of my fellow authors.