Welcome to the second of four articles we’re presenting, in which we’ll tell you about 12 of the best private investigators throughout all of crime fiction. This week’s feature is an all-American showdown taking us from dusty Montana, via gritty Boston, to rusty Detroit. In each location, a great private detective…
James Crumley’s writing has famously been described as a cross between Raymond Chandler and Hunter S Thompson. He’s been described as a Poet Laureate of American hardboiled – visceral and memorable. His character CW Sughrue is a Vietnam veteran court martialed for killing civilians. He ended up in small town Montana, sometimes working in a topless bar, but often taking time out to do PI work. This usually involves a picaresque journey through America’s dark underbelly, in pursuit of some lost cause or other.
CW is a redneck. He is a wise-ass hoodlum who, like us readers, hates it when the bad guys get all the breaks. He is capable of extreme violence, usually fueled by heart-stopping amounts of fast food, an improbable alcohol intake, and whatever mind-altering substances happen to be available. But he has a keen mind and an instinct for right and wrong.
Crumley’s prose comes in first, second and third in the list of reasons why his CW Sughrue stories are so admired. His plotting can be chaotic, but this becomes secondary as we are carried away on a rich wave of lyrical description, savage one-liners and grim poetry. “I knew the men were probably terrible people who whistled at pretty girls, treated their wives like servants, and voted for Nixon every chance they got, but as far as I was concerned, they beat the hell out of a Volvo-load of liberals for hard work and good times,” says the PI.
Crumley wasn’t prolific. The Last Good Kiss (1978) regularly comes near the top in polls of the best crime books ever, achieving cult status, particularly among crime authors. The opening lines are legendary. “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”
The Mexican Tree Duck (1998) sees our hero trying to rescue stolen tropical fish, battling with a biker gang and consuming heroic quantities of illegal substances. In the Right Madness (2005) CWS tries to trace some sensitive case files stolen from a local psychiatrist, and finds himself fighting against the backdrop of his failing marriage, too much drugs, and too much dirty water under the bridge.
James Crumley’s books on Amazon
Unlike Morse, we never did get to learn Spenser’s first name. Robert B Parker’s creation is a Korean War veteran and was once a decent boxer, despite being mismatched against Jersey Joe Walcott. Now, he keeps body and soul together as a PI in downtown Boston. He is smart, streetwise and handy with both fists and guns. He has a deeply scary friend called Hawk. Hawk is a very violent, very funny black man with great sexual charisma who is both feared and respected in the Boston underworld. Spenser’s love interest is a beautiful Jewish doctor of psychology, Susan Silverman. Some of the time, she appears to treat Spenser as her ‘bit of rough’, but she always respects his honesty and perception. And his cooking skills.
Spencer has a smart mouth. He sometimes manages to upset potential clients within five minutes of their first consultation, and is equally sassy with the criminal lowlifes he pursues. But he’s not all mouth. Spenser is rarely bettered in fair combat, and when things get deadly, he usually has serious back-up. He is fit, tough, realistic and compassionate. His relationship with the Boston police department is a mixture of mutual respect and suspicion. When it comes to the city’s gang bosses, he is not averse to scratching their backs if it suits his purpose, but he has a clearly defined line which he will never cross.
In Spenser for Hire, the character appeared on the small screen in America in the late 1980s, portrayed by Robert Ulrich. It lasted three seasons, plus four feature-length specials. You could say Spencer picks up the baton from Marlowe, but there are as many differences as similarities. Spencer’s wisecracks are as funny as Marlowe’s. “I took my .38 out and looked to see that there were bullets in all the proper places. I knew there would be, but it did no harm to be careful. And I’d seen Clint Eastwood do it once in the movies.”
The Spenser books are fairly slim volumes, but there were lots of them. There were 40 written by Robert B Parker, the last published after his death in 2010. In God Save the Child (1974) Spenser is charged with finding a 15-year-old boy, and we first meet Susan Silverman and Captain Healy of the state police. Mortal Stakes (1975) further cements the delectable Susan Silverman as Spenser’s love interest, but in the meantime he is hired by the Boston Red Sox to investigate a web of corruption involving a senior player. In Early Autumn (1980) Spenser must protect a mother from her violent ex-husband who wants custody of his son. Spenser realises that the parents are misusing their son in their personal battle, so he takes him aside, and eventually adopts him.
Spenser novels on Amazon
Loren D Estleman has written 23 standalone novels featuring Detroit PI Amos Walker, and there is one book of short stories. Walker is an irreverent ex-cop. His attitude saw him get expelled from the city police force academy after punching out a particularly obnoxious colleague. He saw service in Vietnam, and the horrors of that still haunt him, but he has learned to live with the mental scars, and the experience puts the day job into perspective.
Walker loves power cars, as you might expect from a citizen of Detroit. He is always angry and frustrated about something, and his near-perpetual irascibility makes him a very driven opponent for the criminals he tracks down and corners. He is a lover of days gone by, has an ambivalent relationship with his ex-wife, and suffers fools with a sharp tongue, if at all. With such a long running series, you have to expect the writer to take liberties with the hero’s age, as to have him grow old in real time would be (almost literally) fatal.
Estleman chose that least fashionable of American crime cities – Detroit – to be the backdrop for Amos Walker’s career. But violent deaths, disappearances and extortion are still crimes no matter what zip code you’re in. Walker’s default state of anger, and distrust of modern life and culture, will resonate with many readers.
In Motor City Blue (1980) the PI is hired by a local mobster to track down his missing daughter. Walker discovers that the missing girl is caught up in the ruthless and unforgiving world of the Detroit porn industry, and he has to pull out all the stops to find her, and save his own skin. Retro (2004) sees Walker embarking on an initially straightforward job, which involves reuniting a dead woman’s ashes with her estranged son. Walker becomes enmeshed in a saga involving several murders, one of which dates back to the 1940s.
Amos Walker on Amazon
Read the rest of the series…