27 September 2019

A little about Private Eyes

We all know there is no one-way to write, no one type of private eye, no rules – except to write clearly.

In the latest Reflections in a Private Eye newsletter of the Private Eye Writers of America, PWA President J. L. Abramo presents some wisdom from Raymond Chandler's The Simple Art of Murder.

A few snippets struck me. The world of the PI – "It is not a very fragrant world." True. Like police officers, private eyes often see humanity at its worst and "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished or afraid." Chandler explains, the private eye "must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man."

Interesting. A lot to think about there.

Of dialogue, Chandler tells us, "He talks as a man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness."

I like that explanation.

To Chandler – "The story is this man's adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure."

Man or woman, I say. Not many female private eyes when Chandler was writing.

Chandler also says, "I do not care about his private life."

Here is where I differ from the master. I have two private eye series characters and their private lives are too important to be ignored.  In one, a lone wolf private eye who was a womanizer in the early short stories and first two novels in the series, changes overnight when an eight-year old girl with a small suitcase is left in front of his office. She is his daughter from a short liason he had before he went to war (WWII, of course). This lightning bolt transforms him. He has a little girl and this hard man is a single father now with a most precious mission. Raising his daughter.

In the subsequent books, his life with his little girl takes up many pages in the books as both characters lead me through the book. I follow behind recording what they do as the PI works his cases.

Private Eye, Barracks Street, New Orleans

In my other PI series, the private eye is married to a wealthy woman and their personal life, along with their two rescued greyhounds, take an ever increasing role in the books. One of my previous agents suggested I kill off the wife to make the detective's life harder and sadder. I fired the agent instead. Most of the emails I get about this series talk about the wife's interactions with the PI.

Do I care how I've deviated from the formula? Not one bit. Ray Bradbury quotes Spanish poet and Nobel laureate Juan Ramon Jimenez at the beginning of Fahrenheit 451 and I agree – "If they give you ruled paper write the other way."

There is a lot more to the private eye than we have seen from any of us. I say go for it.

That's all for now.



  1. O'Neil, totally agree. I also agree with most of what Chandler says. But I think you're right. I like to see well-rounded characters so that means seeing at least some of the private life of the private eye.

  2. Now at least that tribute to Casablanca had a bit of class and quality to it, well done.

  3. I liked your column- there is a delicate balance between private and professional life in mystery stories, I think. Too much and the story turns into melodrama, too little and we might as well read the police blotter.

  4. Great column, as usual. PI stories are always fun to write--and I love yours. Keep it up!

  5. Well, Raymond Chandler may have said "I do not care about his private life", and yet we know a lot about Philip Marlowe (check out the bio on Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Marlowe).
    It is, as Janice says, a delicate balance.

  6. I love the premise with the daughter and thanks for reminding us of the Fahrenheit quote.

    I agree with you and so do other novelists such as John Lutz and Dick Francis. Lutz's novels fill the world with his PI's ongoing personal life. Even Hammett seems to agree in a way, although not enough to give away the Op's given name.

  7. Very interesting piece, O'Neil. I guess it's true that Chandler never lets us get too close to Marlowe. Macdonald was even more stingy with the personal details of his PI Lew Archer. Obviously these are genre defining series and it works for them. Leigh gives some great examples of PI series that go the other way. I'd throw Sherlock Holmes in the mix. Through Watson, Doyle shows us a lot about Holmes, and we still want more.


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