'CORE' Best Lists
- Top 25 Best Mystery Books
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- Best Mystery Books of 2016
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'AUDIENCE' Best Lists
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The Private Detective Genre
What is a Private Detective?
In its most basic form, a private detective is someone who is paid to investigate a crime of some sort. While normally people think of licensed private eyes, this subgenre can include those who do investigations off the books for favors, journalists who work the crime beat, and in some cases lawyers who are paid by their clients.
More informally the private eye genre has come to reflect a particular style of writing where the detective story is told in first person with a witty but sarcastic hired detective. The detective is a man suffering from deep regrets and flaws that make the work and interpersonal relationships difficult.
Private Detective Characteristics
- Level of Characterization
Characterization is a huge part of the private eye novel. The PI has a cadre of family and friends who help define the character. The flaws of the character help to develop the character and the motivations of this protagonist. .
- Level of Plot
Varies. There are intricately developed plots, like many of the books by Bill Pronzini, to plots that aren't even solved by the end of the book. Chandler once confessed that he didn't even know who had killed a character in one of his books.
- Level of Mystery
The PI has a crime to solve, which means that some level of mystery is involved in the book. In some cases, the perpetrator is clear, but evidence must be found. In other cases, the person who committed the crimes is unknown and must be discovered.
- Level of Suspense
Suspense is a key element of the PI novel. Everyone in the PI's world is suspect and the suspense can build in some cases from whether or not to trust someone. In one familiar trope of PI writing, the PI gets sexually involved with a character who turns out to be the murderer.
- Level of Thriller
PI novels can have some level of thriller in them. In most cases, the PI is involved in a minor way at the beginning but the case he/she is working on begins to tie into a larger more world-impactive case.
- Level of Strangeness
Since PIs are flawed, they can be strange. Some are motivated by greed and will do anything for money. Others will be fleeing their past and drinking or engaging in other antisocial behaviors to escape it.
- Level of Violence
Violence is a large part of the PI's world. The murder is typically bloody and messy. The PI is likely to be shot at and will almost always be beaten badly by someone who doesn't like the questions being asked. PI also does his/her share of beating up as well.
- Level of Action
A PI novel has a lot of action. People die, others are shot, bad guys get punched. While the PI may spend some time thinking, the main part of the story is intensely action-based.
- Degree of Thriller, Suspense, Crime, or Mystery in this the Private Detective Subgenre
The PI novel is at heart a mystery novel. There's a crime to be solved, and the PI is tasked with solving it. There can be suspense in trying to find the evidence needed to arrest the murderer. Or there may be a timeline that must be met to save a character, such as with a kidnapping and ransom demands.
It can at times be a crime novel, which is to say that some of the better PI novels can use the language to make a larger point about a topic. Chandler was known for his use of language and his way around a metaphor, especially when it dealt with his beloved Los Angeles. There can be thriller elements if the PI's case ties into a bigger conspiracy or crime that has worldwide implications.
Related MYSTERY Subgenres
Hard Boiled, Detective, Whodunit, bumbling detective.
Private Detective isn't for you IF...
If you don't like sarcastic protagonists, stay away. If you don't like too much action, if you like your crimes off the page or you're squeamish around blood, trying another subgenre.
- 1 The Maltese Falcon
By Dashiell Hammett. Definitely one of the best PI novels ever.
- 2 The Big Sleep
By Raymond Chandler. Chandler had a character with a moral code and a way with the language. He set the bar high for future PIs.
- 3 The Galton Case
By Ross Macdonald. Macdonald, also known as one of the best of PI writers, featured forgotten crimes and dysfunctional families.
- 4 Bleeders
By Bill Pronzini. Pronzini writes the "nameless" detective series with a PI whose name we don't learn for many books. These books have some of the best plots around.
- 5 Winter and Night
By SJ Rozan. Rozan has PIs Bill Smith and Lydia Chin, who alternate perspective in the books.
- 6 A is for Alibi
By Sue Grafton. The first of the Kinsey Millhone series, which is still going strong on X.
- 7 The Sugar House
By Laura Lippman. Tess Monaghan is one of the well-developed PIs in mystery. Her plots always deal with complex issues in society.
- 8 When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes
By Lawrence Block. Matt Scudder is a man who does favors for people. He's an ex-cop who became a drunk after shooting a young girl on a routine call.
- 9 The Bigger They Come
By AA Fair. Donald Lam is a disbarred attorney who uses the law to help his clients find justice and help his boss, Bertha Cool, make some cash.
- 10 Death Claims
By Joseph Hansen. One of the very first gay PIs, Hansen opened the way for other minority PIs throughout the 1970s and 1980s.