Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Why the P.I.?

Speaking personally, Sam Wiebe's most remarkable literary accomplishment was persuading me the Private Investigator genre could be successfully pulled into the 21st Century -- never mind 21st Century Vancouver, British Columbia. I devour crime novels and consume the odd mystery, but tend to choke on the gumshoe-for-hire versions of both.

Hammett launched the gumshoe Galahad and Chandler spun the archetype into the stratosphere of the collective Western consciousness where its orbit continues to fascinate -- but after them it's been a long and wide history of "Look, I can do it too!" efforts remarkable for how badly they pale in contrast to the Masters.
Plus ça change
Humphrey Bogart is largely to blame. He became the voice, if not quite the physical embodiment, of the Private Eye. In the half-century following The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep viewers heading to the movies or just turning on their televisions heard wannabes taking a stab at embodying Bogie's world-weariness and guarded compassion, hopefully without sounding like Rich Little. The people who managed this feat -- Jack Webb and Robert Mitchum, for starters -- were truly exceptional. The rest, well . . .

That's the way the voice reads on the page, also. The words hit my eyes, my brain conjures Los Angeles circa 1941 as occupied by a very young Lauren Bacall, and I find myself reaching for a comic book instead.

Then there's the business -- the actual business -- of being a private investigator. Most real-life PIs devote their energies to uncovering fraudulence, often at the behest of insurance companies. If you know anybody who's fought for rightful claim to personal injury money, this line of work isn't the sort of "calling" most people hold in high regard.

Missing Persons is another, albeit lesser, line of work for these people -- it is a very rare PI who can run a business devoted to the matter.

Wiebe acknowledges this impediment and cuts past it with a particularly adroit move that got me onside very quickly. He places his protagonist Dave Wakeland within a security firm that permits him to take on the occasional lost cause so long as he commits to the larger business strategy. Midway through the novel a client sends him to Winnipeg to bodyguard/babysit the client's client. Wakeland complies, but turns the tables of the agreement so dramatically it becomes immediately clear why: a) his firm gives him such breadth of agency; b) he hates the job; c) he still sticks with the job.

In addition, unlike other practitioners of the genre, Wiebe brings in online search tools and other digital tech that are now the absolute mainstay of everyone on the planet. He's a rare writer in this regard -- another reason why I thoroughly enjoyed his book.

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