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The Elusive “I” in PI

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Despite having worked as a private investigator for fifteen years, I had no interest whatsoever in writing a PI novel until recently. (My most recent novel, The Mercy of the Night [2], published earlier this month, has a quasi-PI, legal jack-of-all-trades protagonist – more on him shortly.)

The reasons for my reluctance to plumb my own professional experience were simple enough.

First, none of the PI novels I’d read, even the best – including Chandler’s, Hammett’s, and Ross MacDonald’s – bore much resemblance to the work I’d done as an investigator, though MacDonald’s came closest.

From what I could tell, readers expected their PI protagonists to be something akin to the plains gunmen in an urban setting, and that was as far from my own experience as imaginable.

For the most part – the part that would best lend itself to a crime novel – I was a cog in the justice system, a “people’s pig” who tracked down witnesses and sifted through evidence on behalf of criminal defendants to keep the prosecution honest.

Despite the job being by far the most interesting I’ve ever had outside writing, the vast majority of what I did wasn’t the stuff of action-packed thrillers. The work resembled more that of a reporter than a gunman – finding people, talking to them, writing it up – and I was only in physical danger once. (Ironically, the guy who tried to kill me was a doctor, but let’s put that aside for the moment.)

Second, it became pretty clear in my reading through the genre (and listening to agents, editors, and readers) that when it came to crime no one much cared to hear from the defense table.

It did seem that readers would at least tolerate hearing from the criminal himself, however, and that also seemed to provide me more juice as a writer. I found myself far more excited telling the criminal’s tale than belaboring the investigative steps taken on his behalf once he was caught.

The result was The Devil’s Redhead [3], with a hero based on several pot smuggler defendants I’d helped represent over the years, and that was as close to my own PI experience as I got for the first four novels.

Sail Away by Jo Eriksson [4]
Sail Away by Jo Eriksson

After that, I chose as my protagonists a cop (Done for a Dime [5]), a bodyguard (Blood of Paradise [6]), and a Salvadoran-American teenager smuggling his deported uncle back into the US (Do They Know I’m Running? [7]).

I was pretty happy with those books, and they were well-received critically. (One was a New York Times Notable book and was called “one of the three or four best American crime novels I’ve ever read” by Patrick Anderson of the Washington Post, another was nominated for the Edgar Award, etc.).

But then in conversations with Charlie Huston [8], Don Winslow [9], and Michael Koryta [10], I began to reconsider my aversion to writing a novel based on my former calling.

When I told Charlie my job had been interesting but not the stuff of cliffhangers, he asked me to describe the most challenging thing I’d done. I told him about having to be the guy who goes to the door of the family of a murder victim with the hope of finding someone in the house who doesn’t see much point in having the killer – my client – executed. Charlie replied simply, “I think that’s interesting. You should write about that.”

Photo by John Irving [11]
Photo by John Irving

Don and Michael, both former PIs themselves, thought I was turning my back on a goldmine of material. When I told them the rough idea I had for the next book (which would ultimately become The Mercy of the Night [2]), both expressed genuine enthusiasm for the idea.

[pullquote]I wrote a book called The Art of Character [12] that, in a chapter titled “Protagonist Problems: Stiffs, Ciphers and Sleepwalkers,” addressed the very problem I encountered: basing your protagonist on someone too much like yourself. [/pullquote]

Also, by this time I’d read more in the genre and realized I’d given short-shrift to the suspense inherent in a good investigation – finding the truth is a tricky business, regardless whose side you’re on – and I trusted my own instincts as a writer a bit more. I felt, at least, up to the task of trying.

The challenge proved far more daunting than I’d expected, for reasons I hadn’t foreseen.

And I should have. I wrote a book called The Art of Character [12] that, in a chapter titled “Protagonist Problems: Stiffs, Ciphers and Sleepwalkers,” addressed the very problem I encountered: basing your protagonist on someone too much like yourself. Perhaps I believed that having written so sagely on the topic I was somehow immune to the affliction.

Oh, the folly.

I learned the problem with Write What You Know is that you can easily assume something is on the page that isn’t. And the reason for that is because you just implicitly understand its presence without double-checking to make sure the reader is equally aware.

[pullquote]I believed that having written so sagely on the topic I was somehow immune to the affliction…. Oh, the folly.[/pullquote]

Two of my early readers just couldn’t connect with my PI protagonist, which was somewhat humbling since he bore such a strong resemblance to Guess Who. (Might I also lack that compelling je ne sais quoi, I wondered. “Don’t ask,” my wiser half replied.)

And so I learned firsthand the wisdom of Eudora Welty’s revision of Write What You Know. She advised: Write What You Don’t Know About What You Know.

This was how I realized I needed to make my hero different from myself, someone I recognized but didn’t fully understand, so I would have to discover him.

That act of discovery would ultimately translate on the page into a series of reveals that would intrigue the reader, making her wonder: Who is this man? Why does he get up in the morning? What keeps him awake at night? Who and what does he value and love, what does he fear and shun – and, most importantly why? How far would he go to protect the people and things he cherishes?

By basing the character too closely on myself, I’d neglected all that, taken it for granted. It was a fatal flaw. The character lay there inert on the page.

[pullquote]I learned firsthand the wisdom of Eudora Welty’s revision of Write What You Know. She advised: Write What You Don’t Know About What You Know.[/pullquote]

And so I conjured Phelan Tierney – the oddity of the name alone made me wonder about him. (“The man with two last names,” as one of the other characters observes.)

I made him a lawyer, not a PI, which also required me to raise my game. I’ve known a number of lawyers who’ve traded their bar card for a PI license, and most of them have done so for the simple reason they preferred interacting with people to shuffling paper.

But my own experience with lawyers (including my marriage to one) also made me aware of the distinct habits of mind they acquire. The best combine a bare-knuckle pragmatism with a capacity for logical jiu-jitsu that an algebraist would envy. That too engaged me in a way my bland cipher of a PI hadn’t, and it helped me avoid some of the classic tough-guy clichés that afflict too much PI fiction.

Given these differences I felt okay also giving my hero a few traits I did know a bit more intimately.

I made him an intellectual magpie, curious about everything, from Caravaggio to a Salvadoran flower called loroco – “knowledge that’s a thousand miles wide and two inches deep,” as my former boss put it, describing what an investigator needs to be able to talk to anyone.

I made him a wrestler, who gained a scholarship to Stanford through the sport. (I was never that good, but I wrestled in high school and still follow the sport at the collegiate level.)

I made him a recovering Irish Catholic, for I understand all to well the moral vision that informs that particular corner of the faith.

Photo by Renaud Camus [13]
Photo by Renaud Camus

[pullquote]I ultimately discovered my own personal take on the “man who can walk the mean streets but who is not himself mean”[/pullquote]

Most importantly, I made him a widower. I didn’t do this for the usual reason, to add the gravitas of grief. That, to my mind, is just a cliché.

Rather, from my own experience and that of a close friend who also lost a cherished wife to cancer, I saw how we’d come out of the experience unaware of how it had both made us better men and yet also imprisoned us. I won’t go in to the particulars – you’ll need to read the book – but we both realized we’d developed an inclination for helping women in unlucky straits, unaware we were still stuck in that hospital room, hoping for a better ending.

This was one element of my own biography that, with the help of readers who let me know what was working, what wasn’t, I ultimately managed to render meaningfully on the page. And it became a crucial element of the plot, which concerns Phelan’s obsession with trying to look out for a girl who wants no part of him. One thing those in trouble can sniff out in a heartbeat is the hidden agenda of someone who says he only wants to help.

And that was the unique angle I believe I ultimately discovered, my own personal take on the “man who can walk the mean streets but who is not himself mean,” as Raymond Chandler put it. He’s a hero who represents what I don’t know about what I know – a man who’s carved out a distinct niche for himself in the justice system, likening his role to that of healer rather than hunter or hired gun. He feels a special devotion to those who hope to turn their lives around – or who discover that, for whatever reason, they’ve become invisible, or voiceless.

I discovered Phelan Tierney, who – luckily, for all concerned – isn’t me.

If you’d like to read an excerpt [14], one was selected as Narrative Magazine’s Story of the Week for April 5-11. A second excerpt [15] was featured by that merry cabal of Iowa Workshop grads known as We Wanted to Be Writers.

Have you ever based a protagonist on yourself? How did that turn out – did you have the same problem I did?

Have you ever had a protagonist that simply didn’t come alive for you the way the more secondary characters did? Why was that? How did you solve the problem?

About David Corbett [16]

David Corbett [17] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [12], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.