David Gordon on the long, rich history of private eyes – and why contemporary novelists keep on turning to them.
By David Gordon, April 26, 2022
I am a lifelong lover and obsessive consumer of all kinds of genre fiction in many mediums, from the original Star Trek series to yakuza and samurai films, from JG Ballard’s sci-fi nightmares to PG Wodehouse’s sparkling farces.
But if there is one genre form that attains a kind of Platonic perfection, the genre of genres, I believe it has to be the mystery, specifically the detective story.
In The Wild Life, the newest novel in my Bouncer series, Joe Brody, a strip-club bouncer who sidelines as a fixer for New York’s mob bosses, is given a new kind of assignment: detective. Sort of. A number of the city’s most sought after sex workers have disappeared and the bosses fear the worst – a serial killer in their midst. They ask Joe to investigate, forcing him to become a strange new hybrid, professional criminal turned amateur private eye, in a book that attempts to cross the heist novel with a detective story.
This is actually my third try at a detective narrative of sorts and each time I’ve taken a different approach. In The Serialist, a pulp writer is hired to ghost the memoir of a death row killer. In Mystery Girl, a desperate husband, hoping to win back his wife, takes the only job he can get – “assistant” to a possibly deranged amateur detective. Nevertheless, these variations on the form are mere crumbs at the feast, drops in the overflowing well that is detective fiction.
Despite remaining in many ways essentially the same since Dupin and Holmes, I believe that a large part of the mystery’s continued relevance, eternal popularity and seemingly limitless expansion is its ideal malleability as a form, retaining its essential nature while being twisted into new shapes over the decades.