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PI Sleuths

Private investigators have long been favorites of mystery authors and readers, and they feature in both gritty and cozy tales. In today’s episode, Brook and Sarah discuss the different types of PIs that readers might encounter and what they like about this sub-genre.


Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators series, (1964-1987) Robert Arthur Jr.
Kinsey Milhone in the Alphabet series, (1982-2017) Sue Grafton
Cormoran Strike series, (2013-present) Robert Galbraith
Maisy Dobbs series, (2003-2022) Jaqueline Winspear
Spenser novels, (1973-2011) Robert B. Parker (series continued written by Ace Atkins)
A to Z Mysteries, (1997-2005) Ron Roy
Calendar Mysteries (2009-2014) Ron Roy
The Missing American (2020) Kwei Quartey
IQ (2016) Joe Ide
W.I.S.E Enquiries Agency series (2015-present) Cathy Ace
The Wakeland series (2016-present) Sam Wiebe
Hammerhead Jed series (2018-present) A.J. Devlin
Agatha Raisin series (1992-present) M.C. Beaton

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook.
BrookGood morning, Sarah. How are you doing?
SarahI’m all right, thank you. How are you?
BrookI’m great. We’re enjoying some springtime weather finally in my neck of the woods. It was a it was a chilly spring so far So we’re really happy about this sunshine we’re getting.
SarahWe’ve had a short spring and it is going to be full on summer this weekend. So, I’m pretty excited about that.
BrookI think that’s where we’re headed, too.
SarahSo, today we are going to talk about PI sleuths, which I think will be really interesting.
BrookYes, I’m looking forward to it and I’ll start us off with our little summary. So in season 1 we did a two-part series on noir and hardboiled detective fiction with Frances of Chronicles of Crime. And she is an absolute expert. And in those shows, we highlighted the grim and gritty urban PIs of the 1940’s and 50’s and their creators such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald. This time we’ll investigate the beginnings of the subgenre a bit more, discuss some things we especially enjoy about private detective stories, and explore others in the space including some more contemporary PIs. Private investigators are self-employed, self-proclaimed loners who hang out their shingle to earn a living helping others solve puzzles, gain justice, or prove innocence. This subgenre is situated firmly between police procedurals on one end—where police officers are the main characters—and cozy mysteries on the other—with amateur sleuths solving cases. To me, PI fiction contains the best of both worlds as readers or viewers. We get a skilled detective hired to investigate a crime like in a police procedural, this automatically gives the character a believable reason for becoming involved in the case. But more similar to a cozy, they primarily work alone and the cases they are originally hired for inevitably become more complicated and they turn personal, which means they which means the sleuth becomes emotionally invested.
BrookThe first real-life detective agency was formed in 1833 by a French soldier, criminal, and privateer named Eugene Francois Vidocq. He also hired ex-cons to work for him. His and other agencies, offered investigative services for hire to individuals who believed the police weren’t doing their job or that they weren’t honest or fair. So, this immediately created an intense rivalry between these new private detective agencies and the police forces. The seeds of two important PI tropes in fiction are embedded in this tiny bit of history. First that of the shady character working as a detective sidekick or “heavy” and second the ongoing friction between the cops assigned to a case and the private investigator also trying to get to the bottom of it. Both of these components are popular tropes in private eye fiction even to this day. In actuality, the work of a private detective in our day and age is mostly administrative.
BrookInsurance agencies hire them to investigate insurance fraud, such as fake injuries or other suspicious claims and attorneys hire them to perform due diligence work, such as serving paperwork and completing background checks or locating potential witnesses. Really, few private detectives actually get hired to investigate murders. But thankfully for us mystery lovers the world of fiction but thankfully for us mystery lovers in the world of fiction, we see it all the time. What’s even better is when a seemingly simple case, like finding a long-lost sister or helping evict a troublesome tenant reveals something completely sinister and takes the PI on a fun twisty adventure. That dark, rather pessimistic vibe of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe may be less popular in today’s fiction, but I think the allure of PI fiction with its succinct dialogue heavy scenes, friction between the cops and the PIs, and the heroic yet flawed sleuth remains. These are definitely the things that keep me coming back to the subgenre over and over. Some of my personal favorite PIs are The Three Investigators: Jupiter Jones, Peter Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews by Robert Arthur Jr, Kinsey Millhone by Sue Grafton, and Cormoran Strike by Robert Galbraith. But I also met some new ones this week while preparing for the show that I really enjoyed and I’m interested in finding out your favorite, Sarah, and if you have any suggestions for me.
SarahWell thank you, Brook I think that was an excellent overview, just bringing us up to speed on the history of PIs and and PIs in fiction. I think we’ve talked about this before I’ve never read any Sue Grafton and I haven’t read any of the Cormoran Strike books. What was the other one that you mentioned?
BrookOh, it was my favorite as a kid, The Three Investigators. So that’s a juvenile series where three kids provide investigative services for their friends.
SarahSo, I haven’t read any of that. But I think at some point I will um dive into into each of those because you’ve you’ve recommended them a couple of times, I think. I have read more of the cozy-type PI fiction and I I think within the subgenre there is that there’s also there is almost a sub-sub-genre where there’s like the noir or the hard boiled the really gritty PIs and then there’s on the other side of the spectrum these cozier ones. And you you know you kind of alluded to this in the introduction. So I really enjoyed the books that I’ve read from the series The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. So that’s set in Botswana and features a female PI you know who sets up her investigative services and and helps members of her community to solve local crimes. It’s a really sweet series.
SarahAnother series along the same vein is Alan Bradley’s series featuring Flavia de Luce where she is she starts out as an eleven-year-old but I’m not sure that I would categorize this as young fiction or fiction for young readers because she definitely is dealing with some adult themes. But it’s post-war Britain and initially she’s not a private investigator but over the course of the series, she does sort of take on take on cases even though she’s quite young. But that’s kind of fun. So those are those are probably the ones that I read um the most of but there are some others that in preparing for our conversation today that I’ve I’ve read as well.
BrookThat’s great. So we I think kind of book-end this because my experience in reading, it has been more at the I would say grittier and then you’re more at the cozy and I’ve I did the opposite. Like this week I read um the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, well I didn’t read the whole series. But I read one of her books and really loved it and it’s exactly let you say it’s like a cozy PI. And someone else I would put into that category ah is Miss Scarlet from Miss Scarlet and the Duke which is a series of course on PBS um, and I found that I really enjoyed combining those two flavors because while I do really enjoy the way a Pi novel is told because it’s it’s kind of told as a report isn’t it. You’re getting a report on this investigation that this person did almost like you’re sort of in the shoes of the person that hired them you’re getting like this this report on how the investigation went. I really enjoy that about the way these stories are told but I don’t necessarily need a really grim and dark story. So when you bring in the lighter feel with the female detective and um, even historical makes it even better. I just thought they were a lot of fun and I really enjoyed it.
SarahYeah, I so I did something similar, Brook. I read a few of the darker kind of noir um side of the spectrum to prepare but more modern books. So I read The Missing American by Kwei Quartey and so this is a PI sleuth is one of several characters in the book. Most of the others that I’ve read have really just been told from the perspective of the of the PI um and are often in first person I think. But um, this one we got the point of view of of several characters. It’s set in Ghana the sleuth is a former police officer and ah she joins a um, private detective agency and so it’s really I think it’s the first in a series and it it kind of is a little bit of her origin story, how does she become a detective. And the story was really interesting. It revolved around online scams um conducted from Ghana um, sort of catfishing. Um I think catfishing is the right word or the right term um to scam you know either Europeans or or North Americans um and you know convince them that they’re that they’re dating someone who doesn’t exist who then all of a sudden needs a lot of money and and the money gets wired over to the to the fraudster. So anyway, it was it was um, it was I liked it. It was it was cozy-ish it wasn’t um, super noir. The other one that I read is IQ by Joe Ide. And it’s set in I think East LA. There’s drugs, guns, violence, lots of language so if um you know I know there are some readers who don’t really care for um, harsh language. There’s definitely a lot in this so this might not be the right book for them. But um, and again this was in ah this was kind of his origin story. Um, and first in series. This is Sherlockian type story where the investigator, he goes by IQ, and he uses kind of Sherlock’s methods in terms of um observation to to come to his conclusions and he’s got a sidekick named Dodson. And they definitely have some tension between them. But we get to learn kind of what their history of how they became um, ah together how they became friends. Our acquaintances is perhaps a better description. Um, but a definitely a darker um a darker story.
BrookThat’s funny because IQ was also on my list I didn’t get to it because I read the Maisie Dobbs and then I also picked up because it it had been a while I read ah Robert B Parker one of the Spencer novels. Ah, but ah, that is definitely one that I want to read too because it’s gotten um, a lot of attention that’s a great series and it does parallel the Sherlock and Watson um, relationship. So I think it sounds really good but I wanted to go back to the first title you mentioned. I love that it’s so contemporary because a lot of times in detective. Ah because I think a lot of times in PI stories that even though somebody’s maybe writing them contemporary. We still get the same types of crimes like I mentioned some of them you know insurance fraud and then you’ve. It leads into finding out that somebody that you thought was a suicide was a murder for instance, um, but I love that those crimes are so contemporary and it’s things that people are experiencing right now and I think it really freshens up. Um, maybe some of the tired tropes that. Ah. Pi fiction could experience when they just kind of stick to those same stories.
SarahYeah, I liked that as well that it was you know something I told from the perspective of the um person committing the crime as well like that was that was kind of interesting. Um, as well as the Victim. So But yeah, that was um, it. It was a good story for sure.
BrookYeah, um, you’re right I think a um, calling card of this subgenre is definitely that first person past tense because like I said it’s like you’re getting a report on how this investigation went but um Sue Grafton did something different with um. So her series is the alphabet series goes from a to actually “Y” Sue Grafton passed away before she wrote z but in her book which is “X” and every book has like A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar. X is just “x” she doesn’t have any explanation in the title. And it’s a great story because ah x means various things and as you’re reading it. You’re like oh I think this is what the title means because somebody like there’s an Xavier for instance and there’s all these different things that you start to think could be the meaning of X so that’s really fun. But back to my original point which is um, that’s the one and only book in her series that she tells from multiple points of view and I really enjoyed it because similarly to what you said you get the um, the bad guy’s perspective. Ah, and most of the time during the story. You’re not sure whose head you’re in you just know that it’s the bad guy but from the sleuth looking in. You don’t know who that is that she’s that ah is actually ah but from the sleuth’s perspective. You don’t know who the perpetrator is.
BrookBut she actually got a lot of flak for that because she had set up the series to be this. Ah first person narrator and when she dropped x and she had multiple points of view her fans really didn’t like it and so she then went back to the original. Um for y and. To me. That’s probably more about the pattern that she had set up than you know you can’t do that in a ah private detective novel but just an interesting side. Note there.
SarahYeah, that is that is interesting. I started, but didn’t finish reading ah a book by Cathy Ace so again, this is the first in her W.I.S.E Women Detective Agency series and it features a team of four investigators. One from Wales, one from Ireland, one from Scotland and one from England and that’s where W.I.S.E. comes from and it’s a pretty cozy, ah, cozy feel and in this they go undercover and because it’s four of them. The story is necessarily told from different perspectives. So I think most of the ones that I read were not first person. And maybe that’s just a shift in the um in the genre I don’t know.
BrookYeah, good point I think that the more traditional ah noir leaning stories. You’re going to get that first person perspective but maybe on the cozier end you get to have a multiple . And I also think that these group stories where you have multiple sleuths I mean we’re still, we’re talking about detective agencies, but I think that that’s a very contemporary trend as well and it makes me even though this isn’t a PI novel but it makes me think about the Richard Osmond situation where you have this ensemble cast of people working together. They’re popular, they’re really fun. It’s a way to incorporate different types of characters and then they can come together as a team. I always really like those types of stories.
SarahSo I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple of Vancouver authors who write in the PI genre and there’s two that I’m thinking of that are really on either end of the spectrum that we’ve been talking about. So the first is Sam Wiebe and his stories feature the darker, grittier side of Vancouver. And I think his sleuth is a former police detective who’s you know now set up his own investigative agency. And they’re they’re great and he’s won awards for for his books. And the other side is A.J. Devlin and his pro wrestler turned PI. And so it’s a much more comedic, much lighter. But both of those are set here in Vancouver and A.J. has won awards as well for for his series. So, I I thought I would just mention both of them as something that readers might want to look at.
BrookThose are great. Sarah yeah, that sounds really fun. You’ve told me about the ah professional wrestler turned detective before and I definitely have that on my list. It sounds really fun.
BrookI mentioned the Three Investigators series. But if you are a parent and you would like to get your young readers into pi fiction I would highly recommend the A to Z Mysteries by Ron Roy and he also has the Calendar Mysteries. Ah so these feature 3 friends who are um, investigating crimes for their friends and of course these are for early chapter readers. So the crimes are things like you know a missing lunchbox or someone’s dog ah is is missing but the characters are Dink Duncan, Josh Pinto, and Ruth Rose Hathaway and it’s a really cute, young, ensemble cast and we read all of them a to z when my daughter was little and I think that kids would really like these.
SarahOh that’s an excellent recommendation and I’m going to have to look for it because I do have a little mystery lover in our household. Would Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys . . . they didn’t officially set up as um investigators did they?
BrookYeah I was wondering the same thing. They definitely helped people but it wasn’t I think the pure detective agency.
SarahBut Veronica Mars she was a detective or you know working with her dad at the beginning of the series and then on her own later.
BrookFor sure for sure and ah I like what you said about the um, the Alan Bradley series where perhaps this person is an amateur sleuth. They’ve solved some cases but because they are really good at it. They become known for it and then open a detective agency I like that concept because I think we can agree that a um, cozy mystery series with an amateur sleuth. You’re really relying on your readers to suspend disbelief about this person continuing to solve crimes. We do it because it’s a lot of fun. I mean and I write them so I understand deeply the the conundrum we get into. .But I like that concept of like ok I’m really good at this I think I’m going to you know, hang out my sign and ah an offer to help others.
SarahI ah I I agree I think I think it makes sense from ah from a narrative perspective and I think um, M.C. Beaton did that with Agatha Raisin so I think she started out not necessarily as a you know, professional investigator, but ultimately um I think does open up her own investigative agency.
BrookI like that. Yes, I’ve read some of the early books in that series and they are a hoot. But um, yeah I love that concept and I think it makes the um it continuing a series long term more believable and um, easier to buy into.
SarahThank you so much I think this has been a really fun conversation talking about P I sleuths and the um kind of broad spectrum that they that they can occupy In. Um. In the books that we enjoy.
BrookAbsolutely and we both have more reading suggestions and that’s always a good thing.
SarahI Know our our lists are never ending.
BrookThank you everyone for joining us today on Clued in Mystery. I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.