The many guises of the Private Eye

Private eye. For me, these two simple words instantly conjure up the image of Humphrey Bogart as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, a fedora-wearing, wisecracking sleuth with a feral instinct for survival and a moral compass that, despite occasionally wobbling on its axis, ultimately points the way towards truth and justice. 

But private eyes come in many guises. 

From ‘gumshoes’ such as Marlowe, Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Slade, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and others in the hardboiled American noir tradition – where the law enforcement landscape in which our PI operates is invariably as corrupt as the criminals – to the ‘highbrow’ private detective, the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, and a slew of cerebral, superior-minded, quirk-invested clones of these hallowed archetypes. We further have a host of amateur sleuths, ranging from Christie’s Miss Marple to Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana-based Precious Ramotswe, ‘traditionally-built’ proprietor of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, lover of bush-tea and African aphorisms. 

Last, but not least, we have that select band of PIs who once wore a uniform. 

I am talking, of course, about the cop-turned-private detective.

The protagonist of my first series, Inspector Chopra, is such a PI. For thirty years, he wore the khaki of the Mumbai Police Service, a man of great integrity in an environment marked by corruption, incompetence, and abuse of power. For thirty years, he served the ideal of justice in a country where, if you have money or influence, you can often evade the consequences of your actions. And then, one day, in his late forties, he is forced into early retirement by a bout of angina, cut adrift from the activity that gives his life meaning and purpose. 

In the first book in the series, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, Chopra finds himself pursuing the death of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks in an India redefining itself as globalisation transforms the social, cultural and economic landscape. Realising that his seniors don’t wish to investigate the boy’s death, Chopra sets off to uncover the truth, ably demonstrating the quintessential characteristics of the PI – a relentless quest for justice, the ability to persevere against the odds, and a desire to see things through. 

Today the business of private investigation has become, like so much of life, highly commercialised. 

Modern private detective agencies have polished websites and access to the latest tech wizardry including data-mining techniques that can reveal, in a few short hours, much of the information it might have taken the likes of Holmes and Marlowe days of legwork to uncover. Some modern PIs, such as Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, already employ these godlike powers. 

In the future, artificial intelligence will make this process even faster, not only uncovering information at the speed of light, but intuitively arriving at deductions based on that information. Such AI is already being employed by law-enforcement agencies – for instance, to connect members of organised criminal gangs via network analysis – it is only a short leap before the first AI PI (now there’s an alliterative mouthful!) makes its debut in crime fiction. For me, however, there is something charming in the idea of a PI who still needs to get out there and ‘work the streets’. 

In my fifth book, Bad Day at the Vulture Club, Chopra is challenged to investigate the unsolved death of a wealthy Parsee. The Parsees of India are famed for their contribution to the country but also because they do not bury or cremate their dead; they leave them out to be eaten by vultures in Mumbai’s notorious Towers of Silence. Chopra takes the case – not because he needs the money, but because for him, justice must be equal for all, rich or poor. 

In this we find the very essence of the PI – and perhaps the secret behind their enduring appeal. In a landscape of often conflicted principles, PIs are the ultimate egalitarians.

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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

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