I love private detective stories.
I think it is the simple morality of them which appeals to me. There is usually a lone PI working toward the truth despite all the best efforts of everyone around him or her to hide it.
I love the classic gumshoe stories especially– Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, and of course, Sherlock Holmes. But I also have a love for more modern day iterations built from the same mould, such as Joe Leaphorn from Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries and Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files.
These detectives are uncompromising in their pursuit of the truth despite being presented with threats, lies and attempts to coerce or bribe them off their cases. This ideal is one reporters are supposed to live up to as well, and so there is a connection between investigative work on the streets by a lone PI doing an inconvenient job in a lousy place working for a demanding client, and some aspects of investigative journalism.
However, as in the real world, the truth in these novels is more complex than it appears on the surface. The uncompromising drive for the truth, (even sometimes against a paying client’s wishes), is a hallmark of the classic detective novel, but so is the fact that often knowing the truth at the end of it all is not redeeming for the detective. Instead it leaves them more jaded, broken, and cynical than ever.
It is sentiment many in law enforcement can relate to when they have to deal with the darkest side of the human experience and the suffering and misery we continually inflict on each other. My uncle was a police officer for 35 years, and his son, my cousin, followed in his footsteps. I also have a few childhood friends who are now currently police officers. When they walk with you down the street, they are focused on the dark alleys and the margins – their eyes darting around to catch all the details of human wreckage that the oblivious, everyday public usually misses.
In classic detective novels, the protagonist’s ongoing exposure to the ugly side of humanity often leads to over-indulgence in alcohol, cigarettes, and women, and the inability to really believe in any goodness in humanity anymore. Their work has stained their soul.
I am not sure it is really like that among real private eyes, but in the novels I read, the detective represents a force which wades into the murk of the human condition and drags the truth mercilessly, uncompromisingly into the light. But he does not necessarily represent justice – good men and women die, or are victimized, in detective novels, and scoundrels often skulk away to prey on their fellow humans and future victims another day.
The truth does not always set us free.