Lost ~ The British PI

This month’s Wednesday Book Group choice was Kate Atkinson’s novel, Case Histories, the first of her Quartet about Jackson Brodie.  About half of us had already read the book and so our discussion focused perhaps more than usually so on the relationship of the book to the wider genre against which it is normally measured.  I had a library copy which was clearly marked as crime fiction, but it seems to me that this reflects what happened to the book subsequent to its first publication rather than the way in which fans of Atkinson read it when it originally hit the book shops.  I know that as an avid reader of crime fiction my initial reaction wasn’t to see the novel as an example of that genre.  Yes, there are crimes involved and some of them are solved by a character whose job it is to try and find the truth in such cases, but that seemed secondary to the exploration of how and why Brodie behaves as he does and the ultimate revelation of the horrors of his childhood.  After all, we wouldn’t normally classify Hamlet as crime fiction just because half the characters end up dead.

There are many ways in which Case Histories differs from the general expectations of crime fiction, not the least being that in several instances the murderer does not get their comeuppance. Hand in glove with this goes the repeatedly raised question of whether the real murderer is always the one who actually wields the weapon.  However, what we found ourselves discussing as the evening went on was how unusual Brodie is in British crime fiction in that he is a Private Investigator rather than a member of the police.

There are, of course, numerous examples of central investigating characters in British novels who are not police, but normally they are either the enthusiastic but brilliant amateur or someone from a different branch of the official investigative services.  M R Hall has an excellent series that features a coroner and there are several authors, including Elly Griffiths and N J Cooper whose main protagonist is brought in because they possess some specific aspect of forensic expertise.  In each case, however, there is a more or less adequate police force working alongside these individuals in order to eventually bring the wrong doer to justice.  None of us could think of a major British series in which the main investigator was a PI with a licence to poke his or her nose into the business of righting wrongs officially.

The case is entirely different with American Crime Fiction.  Last year we read The Maltese Falcon starring Sam Spade as Hammett’s hard-boiled detective and we’re all familiar via dramatisation at least, with Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.  But more recently, there have been several instance of successful modern day PIs, including Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V I Warshawski.  The latest Warshawski novel, Breakdown, is sitting on my shelf at this very moment.  Why is there this continental shift?

We speculated that it might have come about because there is a fundamental difference in the scope of the powers a PI has in the two countries.  Or perhaps it has something to do with a crime system that appears to be less centralised in the US than it is in the UK.  We have large police forces; we are not used to the concept of small, local law enforcement agencies.  Maybe that prejudices us against those who ‘go it alone’.  Then, of course, there is the association of the PI in the UK with the investigation of what I might call the ‘sordid’.  Our PI’s are much more likely to be called in to garner evidence against the erring spouse than they are to be involved with major crime of any sort.  You might base a single novel around such an investigation, but it isn’t going to furnish an author with enough varied material for a major series.

Whatever the reason, we couldn’t think of any outstanding fictional British PIs.  Are there any?  Who have we missed?  And why do you think there is such a difference between the literature of the two countries?  We had a very interesting evening discussing the possibilities, perhaps you can take that discussion further.

6 thoughts on “Lost ~ The British PI

  1. Interesting question. I can’t think of any current British PIs offhand, but the Golden Age was full of them. Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Poirot, Campion, and Holmes of course before that. There are the Mary Russell books, set mostly in England, but they’re also set in the past and are by an American, so I guess they don’t count. U.S. crime fiction seems to have a mix; I can think of lots of U.S. police procedurals and private detective novels.

    From what I remember, the Brodie books were marketed over here as crime fiction right from the start, but I don’t think Atkinson had much of a U.S. audience before those books came out, so there’s wasn’t an established fan base. I’ll be interested to see how her next book does over here since it won’t be a Brodie novel.

    1. Sorry not to get back to you sooner, Teresa, I’ve had system problems. I wouldn’t class the Golden Age protagonists as PI becasue they were for the most part amateurs. I do think your point about Atkinson’s previous following is interesting. The group was definitely split into those who had read here before Brodie and those who hadn’t, especially in the light of what they expected in that next book.

  2. Well, I don’t think I’d count Miss Marple as a PI – she’s just an interested observer, and she always helps the police with their inquiries rather than going it alone. Lord Peter Wimsey is a tough call – again very close links with the police. Then Poirot and Campion don’t get paid, do they? I can’t recall – if they don’t get paid then surely they are amateurs, not Philip Marlowes. But Sherlock Holmes was a PI in my definition! What’s interesting is that America and Britain had PIs as important investigators at the start of the big wave of crime fiction but the Americans kept them up and we dropped them in favour of the police. I think you’re right, Anne, that PIs are associated with small, sordid jobs. I once knew a PI (through a local drama group, of all places) and I’ll never forget it because our pantomime coincided with a case where he had to follow a milk van. He said trying to follow something that slow on deserted roads at 4 in the morning was surprisingly difficult. He also said after our performances that he’d rather be chased by a man with a gun than appear on stage again. Heh.

    1. I have to say that The Bears are seriously taken with the idea of following a milk van, although not at 4 in the morning. I don’t think they knew such a time existed.
      I think Sherlock Holmes is interesting. I certainly think he is the nearest thing we have but was he paid? That is a genuine question because I am ashamed to say that I’ve read almost nothing by Conan Doyle. I do have a complete volume but where is it?

  3. Maybe not a major British series but there is Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs – I think there are several books now, I haven’t read them all. Eddie Shoestring (Trevot Eve) came to my mind too – again not major, although there was a popular TV series years ago (showing my age here!), based on Paul Abelman’s books.

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