~by David W.
So far in our mystery challenge, we’ve invited you to cozy up with some amateur sleuths, explore the world, and travel back in time to enjoy great puzzlers from the Queen of Mystery and the World’s Greatest Detective. Now it’s time to get some professional help, as we turn up our collars, put on our gumshoes and enter the world of the private eye. Trouble is their business.
Back in the 1920’s as mystery buffs clamored to match wits withingenious Lords and spinsters to solve increasingly elaborate whodunnits, a brash new breed of American pulp writers dragged murder out of the drawing room and back into the mean streets. Nowhere is this new hardboiled approach to crime clearer than in Dashiell Hammett’s landmark 1929 novel Red Harvest, in which a two-fisted detective (whose name we never learn) metes out cruel justice on a gritty town so corrupt the locals call it Poisonville – “an ugly city… set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining.” Inspired by Hammett’s own stint breaking strikes for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, this was a whole new breed of anti-heroic detective.
Soon Raymond Chandler would distill this wisecracking tough guy into his immortal Private Eye Phillip Marlowe, a tarnished troubadour whose sardonic lyricism is one of the most imitated literary styles of all time. Chandler’s turns of phrase (“She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket”) are justly famous, but Marlowe was more than just clever quips: each work he appears in is a masterpiece of attitude and observation. The Lady in the Lake (1944) is a great starting place.
Hammett’s and Chandler’s literary descendants are legion, as witnessed by this vast directory from Thrilling Detective. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Ross MacDonald’s brilliant Lew Archer books added a layer of psychological depth to his characters seldom seen in earlier crime fiction, influencing writers to this day: try his breakthrough novel, The Galton Case. In 1977 Marcia Muller broke new ground with the premiere of her female private eye Sharon McCone (whose thirtieth title – The Night Searchers – came out this year), followed in 1982 by Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone (A is for Alibi) and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski (Indemnity Only), starting a strong tradition of independent lady P.I.’s.
With 1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley introduced a popular African-American Private Eye whose personal struggles were mirrored by the shifting socioeconomic backdrop of late 20th century Los Angeles. Other consistently terrific contemporary private eyes include Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder (A Walk Among the Tombstones), John Connolly’s Charlie Parker (Every Dead Thing), Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor (The Guards), Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan, (Charm City), or Reed Farrell Coleman’s Moe Praeger (Soul Patch), to name a very few. Private eye novels are so popular, they even have their very own prize: The Shamus Awards.