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.

About mruthmyers

Welcome to the spot for aficionados of the 1940s, strong women protagonists and private eye novels. Shamus Award winning mystery writer M. Ruth Myers, author of the Maggie Sullivan mysteries and other novels, is your host. Share stories of your female relatives on the WW2 homefront. Find new books. Most of all have fun!

Posted on June 23, 2013, in Opinion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hmmm, I think it depends on who the PI is.
    If it’s someone like Kinsey Milhone, I just love reading about her quirky personality. If it’s Maggie Sullivan, add the wonderful realism of life in the 1930s to her quirky personality. And if it’s an amateur (I’ve also discovered Christine DeMail-Rice’s “fashion” murders), it’s learning about an industry I’m not familiar with. Sometimes the sleuth is a bookstore owner; other times he sells antiques (Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy) or she’s an herbalist (Susan Wittig Albert’s characters) — so in addition to the puzzle of the mystery the readers just learn a whole lot of new stuff in a very entertaining way.
    And the gritty PIs of Mickey Spillane/Nero Wolfe/Spencer, etc. are just plain fun – they are tough guys with hearts of gold. When we share their experiences we know everything will turn out just fine. In some cases, we learn how to cook, too!
    In any case I have to keep a notebook so I can keep track of all of the PI stories I’ve read! HAHA


    • Why do I like P.I. stories? Life delivers experiences in a chaos of shopping bags. However, a good P.I. story wraps everything up in a blood-red package, ties a golden bow on top, and delivers the package by special delivery. What a gift!


    • Fun input on your range of reasons. The amateurs aren’t actually P.I.s, though. They’re detectives, a term that includes P.I.s, amateurs and law enforcement personnel of various types. P.I.s are the professionals — ones who do it full time and have a license — and you mention lots of those.

      I am in awe of your notebook system. You are organized!


  2. JoAnn, you certainly give an eye-catching image with your blood-red package. Lovely comment.


  3. I had to start the notebook when I realized I was buying and reading the same books over and over. HAHA It’s just a cheap little thing with the authors’ names at the top of each page in somewhat alphabetical order (the letters more than the actual names). Then as I read a book I note enough of the title so one day I’ll know not to get that one again.
    The Kindle makes it all easy, though, since Amazon keeps your list online.


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