::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
So You Want to be a Private Eye?

Pay attention please. You there! Yes, you, Mr. Pike, in the back. Put away the revolver and pay attention. You’ll learn about fighting during our fourth period class “How to Administer a Proper Beat Down.”

Now then. This is the Lou Archer School of Hard Knocks for Private Eyes. I’m Head Master Continental Op. To my left is Professor Travis McGee and to my right is Professor Mike Hammer.

We’d like to welcome our ex-police officers, ex-city reporters and ex-military officers to the first day of school. We ask that you leave your liquor bottles, bad attitudes, failed marriages, propensity to use violence to solve difficult problems, and wise-cracks outside of the classroom.

Yes, Spenser, this means you. And please, can you ask Ms. Susan Silverman to step outside? This orientation is for students only. Thank you.

We have a full day ahead of us so let me outline the classes.

First period we’ll get right to the physical aspects of the job with “How to Take a Punch.” Then we’ll move on to “Serial Killers, Hitmen & Mobsters” followed by “Heart of Gold Economics: How to Earn a Living without Charging Clients.” Then it is off to the aforementioned “Beat Down” class.

Then we’ll break for lunch: steaks (cook rare, of course), fries, cold beers and black coffee. After the smoking break we’ll continue with classes.

Fifth period will be “Insults: Delivery is the Key.” Sixth period will be “Handguns: Blow Away Bad Guys Not Bystanders.” Then we’ll end the first day with “Dark Musings: How your Hometown Shapes Your Attitude.” And yes, Mr. Stoner, Cincinnati counts as a city.

Here is the syllabus for the first semester – five modern private eye novels we think rise to the top of genre:

L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais (2000)

Crais has developed a reputation for hit or miss mystery novels – especially with his main protagonist L.A. private detective Elvis Cole. “L.A. Requiem,” the eighth novel in the Elvis series, is his best effort by far. In fact, “L.A. Requiem” is one of the best private eye novels in the last 10 years. The reason is because Crais expands his usual first person narrative by interweaving a third person perspective that focuses on Elvis’ partner, the mysterious Joe Pike. Elvis can get a little, well, annoyingly sentimental at times. There’s none of that here. “L.A. Requiem” is a tightly plotted thriller that revolves around the murder of Pike’s ex-girlfriend and features great characters and Crais’ best writing to date.

Burning Echo by Lee Child (2002)

Former MP Jack Reacher is one of the toughest characters in private eye fiction. The beauty of the Reacher novels are their ability to straddle genres – some of the books are military thrillers, others action adventure and still others classic private eye mysteries. “Burning Echo” is the latter. It’s one of those novels where the bad guys are really “bad” and the good guy gets to deliver a severe punishment that has the reader fully onboard with Old Testament justice. Such is the power of Lee Child’s prose. “Burning Echo” takes place in the badlands of Texas and presents an off-the-wall plot concerning a damsel in distress. But the plot isn’t as important as the action and the adrenaline. Hop on board this one.

The Devil Knows You’re Dead by Lawrence Block (1999)

Any one of the masterful Matthew Scudder novels could have made this list, but “The Devil Knows You’re Dead” tops the list because of its literary ambitions. Scudder is an ex-cop and ex-alcoholic who works as an unlicensed private eye in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. The story here is about Scudder investigating the murder of a prominent lawyer by a homeless Vietnam veteran – at least on the surface. In fact, the story is about Scudder and his decisions in life. He’s reached a crossroads about those decisions in “The Devil Knows You’re Dead.” But like all the Scudder novels we also get a satisfying, gratifying mystery.

In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead by James Lee Burke (1994)

This is the sixth novel in the long-running Dave Robicheaux series – and the best. James Lee Burke seems to have run out of gas on the character in recent years, but “In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead” has the author in top form (and what a title!). The book is about a psychopathic mobster disrupting a movie set by murdering women and features a spooky ghost story as Robicheaux communes with long-dead confederate general, John Bell Hood. No one paints a setting better than Burke – and readers will be able to feel, smell, and hear the Louisiana bayou. Simply a great mystery.

The Straw Men by Michael Marshall (2002)

This is one of the finest debut mysteries – ever. It’s a paranoid mix of “X-Files,” Stephen King and a good, old fashioned private eye novel. There are two seemingly disparate plots that meet in the middle, but the primary character is ex-CIA analyst Ward Hopkins who is investigating the mysterious death of his parents. “The Straw Men” is the rare novel that keeps the reader absolutely going in circles trying to figure out the intricate plot. Do yourself a favor and get this book.

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