Ah, the private investigator – staple reading for crime fiction lovers. Typically they’d have an office with the name of their agency emblazoned across the door. And inside, a desk to rest their feet on, with whiskey and a .45 in the drawer. In the corner – filing cabinets containing their notes on previous cases. Maybe.
We’ve been keeping our own files on the best private detectives in the genre. Starting today and for four weeks, we present to you The PI Case Files. We’ve compiled a file for 12 of the very best fictional PIs out there. To qualify, the detectives had to be licensed. You won’t find any amateurs or busy-body sleuths here. Nor are there any journalists, psychological profilers or forensic anthropologists. Just professional investigators.
To see the file we’ve compiled for each detective, just click on the graphic and you can examine it in high resolution. So, let’s move on and take a closer look at the first three PIs on our list…
Where else to start? It can only be in the elegantly appointed rooms of 221B Baker Street, where everything really began. Yes, Wilkie Collins introduced us to Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone over twenty years before A Study In Scarlet was published in 1887, but Cuff never reappeared. Holmes, of course, gripped the reading public’s imagination like no-one before or since, and was even brought back from the dead, by popular demand. That the stories continued to be published well into the 1920s says it all, and aside from all the radio, television and film adaptations, modern writers continue to pen pastiche Holmes novels.
Holmes has an astonishing eye for physical detail. He will observe a man’s hands or his shirt-cuffs and conclude correctly what his profession is. He will see the stubble on a man’s chin, and know which direction his bathroom window faces. He is physically courageous, despite what we assume to be the build of a lightweight, and he he is capable of acting with extreme violence when required. He does not seem to need the company of other people, but can be tactful and considerate when the situation requires.
We love Holmes for his dry humour, his moral courage, and his powers of perception. We forgive him his apparent misanthropy and his aloofness, and we understand why he resorts to a Class A drug on occasions, although we could not possibly condone such a vice in this day and age. We are enthralled when he picks up his Stradivarius and plays himself into another world. In a world where smokers are vilified, we sniff the pages as he fills his pipe with black shag, and lights up.
Everyone will have their own favourite Holmes story, but I will name two short stories, and one full length book. First, The Adventure Of The Speckled Band has all the ingredients of a great melodrama. Mysterious gypsies, a scheming doctor, and a nasty reptile. Next, The Adventure Of The Red-Headed League, with a plausible but audacious plot to rob a bank. Finally, the howl of a savage spectral dog far out across a bleak moor has chilled the hearts of generations of readers. The Hound Of The Baskervilles is simply a masterpiece which will continue to thrill readers unto the last syllable of recorded time.
Sherlock Holmes on Amazon
Prior to the 1980s, female private investigators were typically eccentric spinsters, cute flappers, inquisitive librarians or nosey, middle-class, middle-aged ladies. Who was the first woman to ‘kick ass’ in the genre? Fans of Kinsey Mulhone might disagree, but when Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski burst onto the scene in 1982, courtesy of Sara Paretsky, we were introduced to the first fire-breathing female PI who was unafraid to mix it with Chicago’s low-lives. VI is sexy but a genuine feminist. She can do violence, but is also an accomplished singer and pianist. She has a failed marriage behind her, with no children, yet she can be sentimental and romantic, and bears few grudges against her former lovers.
VI Warshawski was something of a ground breaker, thanks to Sara Paretsky’s first-hand experience of Chicago at its best and worst. There is something of Paretsky herself in Warshawski, but not everything, and the writer has cannily extended the character of her heroine to make Warshawski one of the PI greats. Despite her self-reliance and confidence, VI is no man-hater, and although she can be physically and mentally vulnerable, her oppenents underestimate her at their peril.
It’s always best to start at the beginning. Indemnity Only in 1982 saw the debutante PI searching for Anita McGraw only to uncover a much more twisted plot of serial murders, thugs, and insurance fraud. Fire Sale (2005) focuses on the physicality of VI, as she volunteers to coach a girls’ basketball team, whose members are the roughest of the rough. Violent death, worker exploitation and business corruption make this VI’s toughest case yet. Hardball (2009) is set around another sport that is beloved of America, and which only America understands – baseball.
Find VI Warshawski on Amazon
Prior to World War II, Micky Spillane, the Brooklyn born son of Irish-Scottish parents was a writer of comic book stories. After becoming a fighter pilot and instructor in the USAF, he returned to post-war Newburgh, New York, and in 19 days wrote his first serious novel I, The Jury. It featured the tough PI Mike Hammer, loosely based on an earlier comic book creation, Mike Danger. After a modest start, it became a bestseller. The lurid and provocative cover illustration helped boost sales to over six million.
Mike Hammer is definitely of his time. Brutalised by his war service battling the Japanese in the Pacific jungles, he returns to peacetime America angry, damaged and implacably opposed to most of the world of the late 1940s. Communism? He loathes it. His fellow men and women? He views most of them with a contempt little short of disgust. Opponents of the USA? He will fight to his dying breath to annihilate them. It goes without saying that he loathes and detests criminals who prey on vulnerable fellow citizens, and will use anything from his fists to rounds from a .38 to bring them down.
Hammer was a PI for the modern post-war America. With television vying against books for people’s time, Hammer just had to be more violent, more forthright and much, much angrier than his predecessors Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.
Again, we recommend you start at the beginning. The 1947 I, The Jury, introduces the bitter and resourceful Mike Hammer, who receives a blindingly clear revelation that judges and juries do not add up to justice. So, he casts aside the system and takes justice into his own hands. Kiss Me Deadly (1952) was successfully filmed, and made strong references to the insecurities and implied threats of the Cold War era.
Meet Mike Hammer on Amazon
Read the rest of the series…