The Mystery of Mysteries: 11+ Elements in a Private Investigator Mystery

QuestionsI don’t know anyone who would call a private investigator mystery a cozy. Now there might be some, but I am unaware of them. However, Jinx Schwartz has a series with a snarky female PI that is tightly plotted and fun to read. Similarly, in Sue Grafton’s series, the violence is not graphic. I guess the lesson is, there’s variety in the sub-genre of PI mysteries, too. No surprise there.

In my first post in this series, I dealt with the basics of mystery writing. In subsequent posts I’ve given specific elements that appear in the myriad sub-genres. The Private Investigator/Private Eye/PI mystery has its own distinguishing features.

PI mysteries, like all other sub-genres, must have an intriguing puzzle to solve along with the detective. Red herrings are not only allowed but are de rigueur. Readers like a challenge but they must have access to the same clues as the detective. Deus ex machina, an outside intervention with no previous story connection, is not a literary device used anymore.

The PI mystery is not an emotional mystery like cozies. There is a distance due to lack of familiarity with victim and criminal. The language may seem brusque, abrupt, and non-emotional. Just the facts, Ma’am. Often loners, these detectives prefer the unattached life. In addition:

1) The private investigator is often, but not always, an ex-police officer who is for hire by individuals.
2) The private investigator is trying to solve the crime outside the bounds of the legal authorities, often in tandem, but not working together.
3) Private investigator mysteries fall into a category of hard-boiled or soft-boiled mysteries. Hard-boiled mysteries are usually set in cities, portray realistic violence, depict capital crimes, and feature serious-crime characters. Often the violence is on-stage. Soft-boiled mysteries convey a lighter tone even in the middle of serious crimes. The detective may display a sardonic or sarcastic sense of humor.
4) The urgency of the ticking clock to solve the crime(s) is more pressing than in cozies.
5) Often, the reader walks through the crime scene in private investigator mysteries.
6) Typically, there is a mistrust of and conflict with authority (law enforcement and those in charge). Conflict arises from having different bosses and interests.
7) The PI is often viewed as a vigilante righting wrongs for altruistic as much as monetary interests.
8) PI novels are often told in first person, particularly true if hard-boiled, with spare language.
9) The rules of polite society do not apply to PIs. They drink too much, sleep around (they’re mostly male), violate rules they think stupid or not applicable to them, and will do whatever it takes to bring the bad guy to justice.
10) Private investigator mysteries often feature acts of physicality by the PI, sometimes of the “Mission Impossible” variety.
11) While there is often an ethical core, PIs are not the type people you want your child to marry.

If you think you might have it in you to write a private investigator mystery, do some serious reading of authors in the genre. The tone is definitely different.  I hesitate to classify the following authors as hard-boiled or soft-boiled since I have come across conflicting perspectives. For hard-boiled, however, a few classic authors are indisputable: Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, and Mickey Spillane.

Try the following (listed in alpha order) and see where you’d slot them using the criteria above. As a side bar, it would appear that if you want to write a PI mystery, use a pen name starting with M or P!

Lawrence Block

Michael Connelly

Janet Evanovich

Tana French

Sue Grafton

Martha Grimes

Joan Hess

Sharyn McCrumb

Walter Mosley

Sara Paretsky

Robert B. Parker

James Patterson

Jinx Schwartz

No websites because deceased, but good reads:

Chester Himes

Ross Macdonald

John D. MacDonald

Author: Sharon Arthur Moore

Sharon Arthur Moore is an intrepid cook, who has lived in every region of the country except the Pacific Northwest and loved every single one of them.

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