Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Be My Private Eye

Gumshoes, flatfoots, shamans, private eyes, P.I.s. Call them what you will, but there is no detective like the private investigator. These sleuths are not copper-on-the-beat policemen or armchair amateurs with the luxury to solve crimes in their spare time. The private eye is a tough-as-nails consummate professional, and you’ll be more than willing and able to pay for these expert crime-solving services.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, 1992, Vintage Books, originally published 1930 (Mystery)

Sam Spade is a sardonic, detached, keen-eyed private detective with his own unwavering code of honor. So when his partner Miles Archer is killed while tailing a man suspected of running off with a new client’s sister, Spade is immediately on the case—even though he’s been making time with Archer’s wife. But that was just a passing fancy. The new client, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, is the real deal: bright, beautiful, and a complete liar. She doesn’t even have a sister. What Brigid does have is an intriguing story about a valuable falcon statue and lots of low-down dirty gangsters hot on its trail. Embroiled in this plot, Spade keeps his wits and stays one step ahead of the bad guys—even though with all the crossing and double-crossing going on, he doesn’t always know who the bad guys are. Author Dashiell Hammett’s pulp fiction potboiler, with its sparse prose and compelling characters, has become a classic. Influencing even fellow mystery author Raymond Chandler (creator of the second best-known hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe), Sam Spade is the granddaddy of every hard-assed, wise-cracking, no-nonsense private eye on the street. Humphrey Bogart’s top-notch performance as Sam Spade in the 1941 film adaptation, a classic in its own right, has guaranteed that a certain black bird will be causing trouble for decades to come.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, 1992, Vintage Books, originally published 1939 (Mystery)

When private investigator Philip Marlowe is called to the massive mansion of paraplegic millionaire General Sternwood, he doesn’t expect to be plunged into a mess of blackmailers, gangsters, and drug dealers. But he takes it all in stride, because Marlowe is as hard-nosed (not to mention hard-drinking and chain-smoking) as they come. Sternwood’s wild-child daughter Carmen is a vivacious tease of a girl, and she’s being blackmailed. Marlowe is charged with putting a stop to the extortion and getting Carmen out of trouble, but the girl—and her drop-dead-gorgeous, tough-as-nails big sister Vivian—proves to be more than a handful. The sisters have agendas of their own and both know some shady characters. No one is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In fact, most of what comes out of their lips is about as far from the truth as you can get. Pornographers, gamblers, and murders all become part of the Byzantine plot as Marlowe scowls his way across the dark underbelly of 1940s Los Angeles. He may be surrounded by double-crossing bad guys and taunting femme fatales, but Marlowe is never outwitted, outpaced, or outmatched. Cynical and world-weary, Marlowe is an all-American anti-hero and the star of several of author Raymond Chandler’s trademark hardboiled noir thrillers. Lauren Bacall played Vivian to Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe in the 1946 film adaptation, cementing The Big Sleep’s place in the detective lit canon.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman: A Cordelia Gray Mystery by P.D. James, 2001, Scribner Books, originally published 1972 (Mystery)

It took awhile for women to enter the private eye profession without serving as secretaries or seductresses. When they did, the ladies proved to be every bit as tough, efficient, and intuitive as their male predecessors. In 1972, author P.D. James introduced Cordelia Gray, a young woman who inherits a London detective agency. Of course, it’s an awfully run-down detective agency, and Cordelia only gets it when her she finds her mentor Bernie Pryde, a cancer-ridden ex-cop, dead in the office. Bernie committed suicide but left his beloved P.I. firm in the capable hands of his youthful assistant. Cordelia bites the bullet, defies convention, and makes the business her own. Luck is on her side when her first case is a high profile investigation into the supposed suicide of a prominent scientist’s son. The son is Mark Callender, an intelligent Cambridge student who suddenly left school, became a gardener for a wealthy family, lived in a cozy little cottage, and then hung himself. To Cordelia, questioning Mark’s uncooperative friends and investigating the puzzling crime scene, the pieces don’t fit. Digging deep into Callender family secrets, Cordelia uncovers a web of mysterious circumstances that someone doesn’t want brought to light. Now Cordelia herself is a target, but no good private investigator lets something as trivial as danger stand in the way. Cordelia, despite her youth and inexperience, is determined to be a damn good P.I. Author P.D. James (born in 1920 and publishing since 1962) is as experienced a mystery writer as they come. Tight plotting, attention to detail, and compelling characters mean that Cordelia Gray is a detective to be reckoned with—and she appears in one more mystery, 1983’s The Skull Beneath the Skin.

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear, 2003, Soho Press (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)

Written years after Cordelia Gray hit the P.I. scene but set decades earlier, Maisie Dobbs is another young woman with a keen eye who defies stereotype and hangs her shingle as a private detective. The year is 1929 and England is still recovering from the devastating effects of World War I. But Maisie Dobbs, ex-maidservant, student of master-detective Maurice Blanche, former front-line nurse, is turning a new page and opening her own private investigations agency in London. Her allies include her previous employer Lady Rowan (who discovered her maid reading philosophy in the library one night, correctly gauged this unusual servant’s intellect, and sent her straight off to University) and neighborhood handy-man Billy Beale (sharp, street-wise, an investigative-assistant in the making). Maisie herself is an acute observer of human nature, intuitive and sensitive and able to relate to people of all classes and backgrounds, but she’s also nursing her own war wounds. Still, she’s ready to put all that behind her when her first case comes along. It begins as a tedious investigation into the whereabouts of a seemingly unfaithful wife, but before long the trail leads to a secluded convalescent home for soldiers damaged in mind and body—from which very few men ever emerge alive. Now Maisie is face to face with the tragedies of the Great War that she’s tried so hard to forget, and with a complex mystery on her hands to boot. Author Jacqueline Winspear’s portrait of post-World War I England is pitch-perfect and her heroine is remarkably strong and well-drawn. Maisie Dobbs is a fine example of romance, mystery, and historical fiction all rolled into a suspenseful, moving story.

Maisie Dobbs Mysteries by Jacqueline Winspear
1. Maisie Dobbs
2. Birds of a Feather
3. Pardonable Lies
4. Messenger of Truth
5. An Incomplete Revenge
6. Among the Mad
7. The Mapping of Love and Death

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, 2009, Anchor Books, originally published 1998 (Mystery)

There are not many detective agencies in Botswana. There are even fewer ladies’ detective agencies in Botswana. In fact, there are none—until now. Using the funds from the sale of her beloved father’s cattle, middle-aged Mma Precious Ramotswe sets up the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in her small hometown of Gaborone. As the country’s only female private investigator, Mma Ramotswe is not entirely certain that her gamble will pay off. But sure enough, the clients come. Women want to know where their cheating husbands have strayed. Fathers want to know which boys their young daughters are dating. And there are more sinister crimes afoot too, as in the case of a missing little boy. But Mma Ramotswe handles them all in her own fashion. Armed with only a detecting manual, the example of mystery writer Agatha Christie, and her own more-than-competent intuition and understanding of her fellows, Mma Ramostwe tackles every case with humor and wisdom. Told in a series of vignettes that trace Mma Ramotswe’s history as well as her present casework, author Alexander McCall Smith paints a vivid portrait of Africa and the people who love to call it home. Cozy, gentle, and brimming over with true glimpses into the myriad workings of human nature, Mma Ramotswe and her little detective agency are a welcome addition to the otherwise hard-edged world of private eye fiction—and so popular that HBO has developed a No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency television show.

1. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
2. Tears of the Giraffe
3. Morality for Beautiful Girls
4. The Kalahari Typing School for Men
5. The Full Cupboard of Life
6. In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
7. Blue Shoes and Happiness
8. The Good Husband of Zebra Drive
9. The Miracle at Speedy Motors
10. Tea Time for the Traditionally Built
11. The Double Comfort Safari Club

The Case of the Missing Servant: From the Files of Vish Puri, India’s “Most Private Investigator” by Tarquin Hall, 2009, Simon and Schuster (Mystery)

Vish Puri is India’s “Most Private” private investigator. With a team of delightfully nicknamed employees (the driver goes by “Handbrake;” the firm’s female agent is known as “Facecream”), a network of contacts in high (and low) places, and even a few sleek new modern technologies, the plump, middle-aged gentleman is Delhi’s master of respectability, confidentiality, and discretion. But despite being the proud recipient of the Super Sleuth Award from the World Federation of Detectives for solving the Case of the Missing Polo Elephant in 1999, most of Vish Puri’s clients are mamas and papas wanting their prospective sons-and-daughters-in-law investigated. So when a lawyer comes to Puri with a tale of a missing housemaid, false accusations, and bureaucratic corruption, the dapper detective jumps at the chance to get back to some real sleuthing. But Puri faces several complications, including a baffling request from a famous war hero, a doctor’s orders to diet (and a wife eager to comply), and an overly-inquisitive mother (“Mummy-ji”) who refuses to accept that elderly ladies are simply not cut out to be detectives. Despite the challenges, it will never be said that Vish Puri, Indian’s acclaimed “Most Private Investigator,” failed to solve the case. British author Tarquin Hall has made Delhi his second home, and he does credit to modern India’s fabulously chaotic atmosphere. Lively, clever, and with a charming cast of unforgettable characters, The Case of the Missing Servant (and its 2010 sequel, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing) is a new mystery series well worth keeping an eye on.

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz, 2007, Simon and Schuster Books (Fiction/ Mystery)

It’s hard growing up with a pair of private investigators for parents, a mom and pop who wield a hard line of questioning whenever anyone steps out of line—which for Izzy, middle child in the overly-inquisitive Spellman clan, is pretty often Izzy was the family rebel, with years of teenage hjinks and all-night parties under her belt. But now, at age twenty-eight, Izzy is grounded by the nuts-and-bolts of detective work as a P.I. for Spellman Investigations, which operates out of the family home in San Francisco. Her youthful misadventures make her ideally suited to telling lies, keeping secrets, and spying. True, her parents are not above tailing her on dates, but Izzy is making it work—until she meets Daniel Castillo, dentist, ordinary guy, and love of her life. Trying to keep her familial obligations and her romantic life separate is next to impossible, so Izzy quits the family business. Of course, she can’t get away that easily. The Spellmans are not accustomed to keeping out of each other’s affairs. Her parents bargain for one last case (one old, cold, missing-persons case), but things get infinitely more complicated when her fourteen-year-old kid sister Rae goes missing too, forcing the Spellmans to work together if they want to keep their family intact. Narrated in a conversational tone by wry-humored Izzy (equal parts Dirty Harry, Bridget Jones, and Nancy Drew) and sprinkled throughout with her numerous lists of misdeeds, The Spellman Files is a laugh-out-loud lesson in suspense, mystery, romance, and quirky family dysfunction.

1. The Spellman Files
2. Curse of the Spellmans
3. Revenge of the Spellmans
4. The Spellmans Strike Again

Storm Front: The Dresden Files, Book 1 by Jim Butcher, 2000, Roc Books (Fantasy/ Mystery)

Harry Dresden’s detective agency is not your average P.I. firm, and Harry is not your average P.I. Harry Dresden is a wizard. He’s even in the phone book, but there’s not a helluva lot of money in this line of work—his basement apartment’s best asset is its dank sub-basement—so Harry consultants on some of the stranger cases that fall into the lap of the Chicago P.D. When the police request his presence at the scene of a double homicide, Harry jumps at the opportunity to get ahead on next month’s rent. But the murders are bizarre, grisly, and unquestionably the result of dark art. Investigating this crime means danger of more than just the usual seedy-city-underbelly type. Harry will need to dodge sultry vampires, ticked-off faeries, and the quick-to-judge (and even quicker to punish) White Council. To make matters worse, suspicion soon falls on Harry himself—he does, after all, know magic. And nothing makes it harder to clear you name than the actual villain—a mysterious, powerful practitioner of the blackest of black magic—hot on your heels. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, but it’ll take more than that to knock Harry Dresden off a case. Supported by Harry’s detailed back story and evolving relationships with characters human and inhuman alike, author Jim Butcher creates a gritty fantasy world that is firmly rooted in the real locations and history of the city of Chicago. Led by the likes of this wise-cracking, dry-humored, heroic young wizard-detective, Storm Front is irresistible.

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
1. Storm Front
2. Fool Moon
3. Grave Peril
4. Summer Knight
5. Death Masks
6. Blood Rites
7. Dead Beat
8. Proven Guilty
9. White Night
10. Small Favor
11. Turn Coat
12. Changes

The Unknown by Mark Waid, art by Minck Oosterveer, 2010, BOOM! Studios (Mystery/ Fantasy/ Comic/ Graphic Novel)

Catherine Allingham is the smartest person in the world and the world’s most famous private investigator. She’s used her superb intellect to solve infamous crimes like the Black Dahlia murder and the code of the Zodiac Killer. When the police request her help, it’s a mere minute’s work to puzzle out the crime scene and present the solution to the head-scratching cops. But now, diagnosed with a terminal illness and given just six months to live, Cat is about to tackle the greatest unsolved mystery of all: death. After hiring on a whim an unusually observant ex-bouncer named James Doyle to serve as a bodyguard and an extra pair of eyes, Cat sets out to solve an X-Files-esque burglary from a high-tech science laboratory in Europe. The object stolen might very well hold the key to the secrets of the afterlife—secrets Cat needs very much to learn, since she’s begun to hallucinate a chalky-faced specter who dogs her every step. James, open-minded and good-natured, quickly becomes more than a sidekick to impulsive Cat and the two are well on their way to a true partnership by the time the action-packed plot kicks into high gear. Author Mark Waid has Cat and James argue metaphysics in between brawls with bad guys and artist Minck Oosterveer’s darkly elegant comic panels lend an air of moody suspense to the story. Some timeless conventions of the comic book genre are honored (Cat is busty; James is brawny; the villain is a towering, glowering, hulk with minions at his beck and call), but The Unknown is first and foremost an intelligent and sophisticated piece of art. A sequel, The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh, is scheduled for publication in April 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment