Why Do We Like P.I. Stories?
Whether the detective is a man or a woman, I love private eye stories. Like other afficionados, I like mysteries in general. Thrillers too. But my favorite, the absolute ultimate treat, is a good P.I. story.
Why? I think there are three reasons.
The P.I. exposes wrongdoing and delivers justice when ‘the system’ can’t.
Probably no other genre leaves the reader with such reassurance that good triumphs over evil. I don’t mean happy endings or tripping off into the sunset. I mean schemers exposed and thwarted even when the law can’t touch them. I mean murderers pushed or tricked into slip-ups leading to their arrest months, or even years, after they’ve gotten off Scott free.
The private eye can step outside the laws and boundaries which hamper law enforcement personnel. She can do a discreet bit of lock-picking that points her toward squeaky clean evidence elsewhere that will stand up in court. He can whack a lowlife over the head or persuade them to talk with a gun in their ribs where police can’t.
The P.I. has chosen this type of work because of a strong moral core.
P.I.s, by, choice confront ugliness and deceit on a day-in-day-out basis. They aren’t drawn into helping someone by accident or through friendship, but because they’ve set out to help people who can’t find help anywhere else. They are driven by a strong sense of right and wrong — something which most of us think is in shorter supply than it should be.
Yes, they need to pay their bills, and we love that about them too, for it makes them like us. Some may strike us as more amoral than moral. Yet we know they’re people of integrity. It’s what makes them tick.
They confront the kind of evil we know abounds in the world. Not supernatural beings and vast conspiracies, but the evil that comes from greed and resentment and jealousy. The evil of the human heart. Police procedurals deal with such evil too, but they do it, to greater or lesser extent, as a group. Which leads us to …
The P.I. is a loner.
Like the cowboys before them, P.I.s are self-contained and self-reliant. Sure, some of the cop detectives we love best are mavericks who flaunt authority and go off on their own when they shouldn’t. Ian Rankin’s John Rebus and J.A. Konrath’s Jacqueline (Jack) Daniels, to name but two. Yet for all their independent ways, they’re constrained by a command structure, turf disputes and the need to have evidence stand up in court. Oh, and let’s not forget the threat of job loss.
P.I.s answer to no one save their own conscience. They have neither the encumbrances of regulations nor the camaraderie of co-workers. At best they have a faithful secretary, or maybe a partner if they’re a two-person agency. There’s no one to watch their backs. They operate without a safety net.
Look closely at most of them and we might characterize them as misfits. But isn’t there something of the misfit in many of us as well? Something in their existential loneliness speaks to us. We like their individualism. We like their refusal to knuckle under to authority or be scared off by violence. In their solitary determination, we see affirmation that one individual can make a difference.
That’s why I like P.I. stories. Why do you?
M. Ruth Myers is the author of the Maggie Sullivan mysteries and other novels.