15 January 2022

A Hundred a Day, and Expenses

A funny thing happened to me three years ago: I wrote my first contemporary private-eye story. At that point I'd been writing short stories for 25 years, mostly mystery/crime/suspense, but during that time I'd written and published only two PI stories--both of them about an investigator with an office in San Francisco in the 1880s. In other words, Westerns. I'm not sure why I had avoided 20th- and 21st-century PIs; I love puzzles of every kind, and I'd certainly read and seen a lot of fictional private detectives in novels, stories, movies, and TV--Holmes, Poirot, McGee, Spade, Hammer, Spenser, Robicheaux, Mannix, Magnum, Rockford, Millhone, Scudder, Marlowe, etc. Looking back on it now, I wonder if I was afraid of falling into the trap of using too many old and tired PI cliches. I didn't want to only create dark and moody stories with cheap offices, trenchcoats, cigarettes, AA meetings, whacks on the noggin from behind, helpful buddies on the police force, and grieving-widow clients. That's the only reason I can come up with, for not attempting stories closer to the present day.

What finally forced me further into the subgenre was an invitation from writer/editor/friend Michael Bracken in early 2019, or thereabouts, to write a story for a PI anthology called The Eyes of Texas (one of the best double-meaning titles I'd ever heard). As I recall, the only firm requirement, except for some length guidelines, was that the story's protagonist had to be a private investigator in the Lone Star State. I figured I should be able to handle that. 

The whole process turned out to be fun. I quickly came up with a plot I liked, and made sure my hero--although he did have a pretty crappy office--wasn't a drunk, didn't run around in an overcoat and a bad mood, didn't smoke, wasn't a womanizer, had no ex-partners to fall back on in the PD, and had a client who was neither widowed nor grieving. He wasn't a wimp, though; he did have a moral code, and carried a gun that he used a few times in the plot. The story was called "Triangles," which sort of had a triple meaning, and the anthology was published in September 2019, just in time for the Dallas Bouchercon. 

Since then, I've written and sold PI short stories to several magazines and anthologies. Two contemporary stories in the same "series" were published in Black Cat Mystery Magazine (two years ago) and in Strand Magazine (last month), and two more in that series are finished and yet to be submitted. Also, a standalone story featuring a 1940s PI in New Orleans has been accepted and is upcoming in a themed anthology later this year, another with a '60s Detroit PI is scheduled for a second anthology, and I'm now working on a Prohibition PI story set in the early '30s for an antho with a May deadline. And I've found that all of these have been great fun to put together, in a way that's somehow different from my usual mystery/crime writing.

What's your history with PI stories/novels? Have you written or published any? Are any planned or in the works? If you do write them, are they usually installments in a series? If short stories, are they targeted for magazines or for anthologies? Were you, like me, hesitant at first to try that subgenre? Have you had any luck with them at the top mystery markets?

As a writer with dim but enjoyable memories of private-eye TV shows like Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond and 77 Sunset Strip (I'm humming that theme music now), I can't leave this subject without mentioning favorite PI movies. My top six are, in order: Chinatown (1974), Knives Out (2019), Harper (1966), Night Moves (1975), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Twilight (1998). 

How can you not love PIs? Sure, the daily fees have gone up, over the years, and the expenses too, but their strange adventures remain fun to read, and watch. And write about.

In closing, here's a silly poem of mine that was published in the Spring/Summer 1997 issue of Mystery Time, a magazine some of you might remember. It's called "A Public Look at Private Eyes":

Most fictional private detectives are men

(And are always unmarried, of course); 

They have rugged last names and a grumpy old friend

Who's a homicide cop on the force.

They're hit on the head every chapter or two

But they suffer no lasting effects,

And survive gunshot wounds that would kill me or you

While they spellbind the Opposite Sex.

Though they never earn much, PIs always have cash

To persuade some informant to leak

More strange and enlightening clues in a flash

Than the cops could obtain in a week.

Knowing that, our detective will often proceed

To the villain's mysterious lair,

Where he's captured, along with his romantic lead

(Don't ask me what she's doing there).

But all's well--the old pal in the local PD

Will at last come to help save the day;

For the heroes aren't killed off in fiction, you see--

Like the cops, sequels aren't far away.

And neither am I. See you in two weeks.


  1. Love the poem! Love P.I.s too! I have a story in a slushpile right now where I tried to throw a bunch of the cliches into the story! (I know I missed a few!) We've been watching "Magnum P. I." (the original) the last few months.

    1. Hey Jeff--thanks! I love 'em too. PI stories/novels/movies are almost always entertaining to me, cliched or not. As for Magnum, I think the driving force of that show was that Selleck just didn't take himself too seriously. Also, the fact that he seems to be one of those few actors likable to both men and women.

      Take care!

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Anne! Writing that kind of poem is okay as long as you realize you're not a real poet. If you write that kind of poem and start thinking you ARE a real poet, you're probably in trouble.

      Mystery Time was a neat little magazine--it published some real mystery stories along with a lot of humor as well.

  3. Having more trouble posting comments on this treacherous website.

    “Stay close to the candles. The staircase can be treacherous.”

    What’s your history with PI stories/novels?

    Two PI series, both set in New Orleans. Lucien Caye stories and novels set in the 1940s into the 1950s. LaStanza, homicide cop turned PI set in the 1990s into the 21st Century. Both are married, don’t smoke, rarely drink, Caye only wears the hat his daughter gave him as a gift.

    A new PI character coming out in a novel this year. Set in 1935.

    1. O'Neil, I've had you on my mind with every PI story I've written, especially when I'm trying to stay away from most of the cliches the way you do.

      I still think some of your best Caye stories are to be found in New Orleans Confidential--great setting, great hero, great era.

      Looking forward to the new book! Thanks as always.

  4. Great column, John, and I love the poem, too. Could Mancini put a jazz score behind it a la Peter Gunn?

    I have 5 PI novels set in Detroit and 6 set in Connecticut, and I've written a couple of short stories with each cast. Novellas with the Detroit crew won the Black Orchid twice. I've used them as kind of a bridge in the characters' personal development. I generally prefer stand alone short stories, but I'm actually fiddling with ideas for another short even as we speak. Congratulations on your recent acceptances, too.

    1. Steve, that beat from Peter Gunn by Mancini is as recognizable to older folks as John Williiams's Jaws music. I loved that series, even though I was a kid at the time.

      Yes, I knew you'd done a lot of private-eye fiction, but I'd forgotten that two of your PI stories were the ones that won the Black Orchid. As for standalone stories vs. series, I don't know which I prefer writing, or reading. There are advantages to both.

      I truly believe that PI stories, if done well, are easier to sell to most mystery markets that other kinds of tales. But I could be wrong.

      Thanks for stopping in!

  5. Love the poem, John!

    Eerily similar to your case, I'd only published two PI stories over decades of writing until Michael Bracken invited me to submit to The Eyes of Texas. (My two stories involved an American working as a private investigator in Amsterdam and a case for my late, lamented friend John Lutz's Alo Nudger, which we wrote collaboratively.)

    For Michael's book, I too created a Texas PI, and I had so much fun writing about him that I've since featured him in five more stories and am working on the next one now. Not only that, but I've also written two one-off PI stories, one about a Long Island operative for my own Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel anthology and one set in Erie, Pennsylvania, for Jay Hartman's one-hit wonders book.

    Turns out that writing about PIs is Pretty Interesting!

    1. Josh, so far the story I wrote for The Eyes of Texas has been a standalone--I don't know if I'll use that character again, mostly because of the setting. When/if I do another that could be set in Houston, I'll probably use him.

      My VERY first PI story was one called "Redemption," set in an Old West town of the same name, for a collection of my own stories back in 2013. It was very long, around 16K, and was later reprinted in a Crimeucopia anthology. I then used that same character in another long PI story, "Gun Work," that I wrote when Andy McAleer and the late Paul Marks invited me to contribute a story to their Coast to Coast: PIs from Sea to Shining Sea anthology. That second one was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2018, which surprised me because it was a Western. But--as I'd mentioned--my first present-day (or even recent-day) PI story was the one for the Eyes of Texas.

      You're right--a Pretty Interesting subject!

  6. Hi John! I love PI stories and will look for yours. I've only written and indie-published one so far although I plan on doing others. It was written specially for an anthology but wasn't chosen. "The Case of the Nameless Diablo, Cowboy Crooner," features my new Aurora "Rory" Rogers character. The story is in my "Nameless, Texas" series, but is a bit more serious than the others. She does interact with the regular characters. I do have plans to do more, although honestly, I wonder if a female PI is as desirable to mags as male ones are. Time will tell. BTW, love the poem! :-) (Hope this goes through; my first comment was eaten by this infernal contraption!) LOL.

    1. Bobbi -- How could anybody not like the name Rory Rogers?? And I suspect readers would enjoy reading about a female PI. Keep me posted.

      As for your comments not going through, thanks for persisting! My comments and replies get eaten regularly by this system. The only way I've found to get around it is to close my browser, open it, and try again. And sometimes even that won't work. Infernal is right!

  7. Great post, John. I love PI stories, going all the way back to my childhood and Sherlock Holmes which led me to Hercule Poirot and eventually Mike Hammer and Matthew Scudder (an interesting trip!).
    On the writing side, I have difficulty writing a series. My ideas are usually plot driven and I create a new PI/cop/private citizen to handle it. The only series detective stories I ever wrote never sold.

    1. Hey Bob! Thanks so much.

      I felt the way you did at first, about writing series stories, especially series PI stories. A lot of course depends on the situation the story requires, and even the setting needed--although PIs occasionally travel to other locations on cases, like Spenser and his frequent trips to L.A.

      When the plot does fit, though, I think series can be even more fun to write, and for regular stories (not necessarily PI stories), I think choosing to write a series installment instead of a standalone story might've helped some of my sales to places like AHMM. I guess this, like so many other things about writing fiction, is an inexact science. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

      Keep up the great work!

  8. I wrote nine short stories about Marty Crow, an Atlantic City NJ PI with a gambling problem. The most recent appeared in the issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine whose cover you show. If you use the Shamus Award definition of a private eye story then my Black Orchid Novella Award-winning "The Red Envelope" qualifies. The hero is a beat poet in Greenwich Village in 1958, but he investigates crimes to make extra money. The sequel to that story will be out in the March/April issue of AHMM.

    1. Rob, I remember--and enjoyed--that latest Marty Crow story.

      I have a feeling that one reason your PI shorts have been successful is that (like many of your stories), they offer something DIFFERENT. Michael Bracken and I were talking about this the other day--both of us truly believe that certain editors (Janet Hutchings is one) are known to prefer unique things in a story, something in the characters or the plot that is far different from what one might expect to see in most submissions.

      As for the Black Orchid Award, PI stories have been good to both you AND Steve Liskow. Congrats on that and on your many other accomplishments.

  9. I enjoy PI stories but I've never tried to write one. Maybe some day. But I do love the poem.

    1. Susan, it honestly is fun, and so different (to me) from regular storytelling. And never say never . . .

      Thanks as always for stopping in.

  10. No PIs. Yet. But I do love them, and I love the poem!

    1. Hi Eve. Thank you! As for PI stories, I'm beginning to realize that a lot of crime writers haven't yet tried that subgenre (if you can call it that). All I can tell you is, I wish I'd done it sooner.

  11. I loved your poem, John! Made me laugh and it's all so true! My husband is a huge "Rockford Files" fan so I had to read it to him and he agreed. In almost every Rockford, ol' Jimmy is getting whacked on the head, shot at, then captured by his adversary, (along with his latest love-interest) and sometimes saved by his police chief friend. Sometimes there is a scene or two with his crusty and comic dad, or his sneaky ex-con buddy Angel. You sure do have a lot of P.I. stories coming out! I'm not the best at mystery writing, but did try my hand at a few for Woman's World. My latest is actually about a female Private Eye named Maxine Darling, and I had fun throwing some cliched PI tropes into the story.

  12. John, I love private eye stories! I wrote several unpublished novels in my early career that were basically Spenser/Matt Scudder knockoffs, and lucky for us all those are in the proverbial trunk. But I still love the form and I have two private eye stories due out this year, plus am working on a new series of stories about a female PI. I think it’s such a durable subgenre, and when done well, always great fun to read.


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