Saturday, August 09, 2008

What's a P.I. Novel?

On DetecToday we're discussing what makes a novel a P.I. novel and whether today's trend toward multi-viewpoint books with P.I.s in them falls within the P.I. genre, expands the P.I. genre, or falls outside the P.I. genre.

I can see connections from Hammett and Chandler's work to that of anyone writing P.I. novels today. I include the works of Lee Child and J.D. Rhoades, etc. when I say P.I. novels because the archetype is the same.

With my definition of genre as "works with the same archetypes", I don't see the P.I. genre as growing. There are changing trends within the genre—hence all the troubleshooter/salvage consultant/repo men—and these trends are necessary to keep it relevant. But the archetype and core stories are the same, so I say the genre is the same.

I think more is definitely expected of P.I. novels than the protag being a P.I. Novels with doctor protags are not by definition medical thrillers, for example.

A single viewpoint has worked well to mark P.I. novels because people expect to read about one character's actions. They expect to follow an investigation. Thrillers often water down the investigation aspect due to space concerns/covering multiple viewpoints. Too many viewpoints in a P.I. book and I start wondering when the P.I. will pick up on what's really going on. With one viewpoint, the P.I.'s perspective may not be what's really going on, but it's the only information I get. I have to believe what the P.I. believes until more information comes along, a good pacing device.

I don't automatically consider multi-viewpoint novels outside the P.I. genre, but with multiple viewpoints it's more difficult to give the P.I.'s investigation the focus it would have in a single-viewpoint novel, focus that normally marks the genre. If a novel does not sufficiently focus on an investigation by an independent, experienced protag—be it single- or multiple-viewpoint—it is not a P.I. novel.


Dave White said...

Still some interesting points here, Gerald. But at the same time isn't it the challenge of a writer to give a reader something they don't expect within the genre? I think a writer should try to surprise and do something different than expectations in a genre, at times.

And what if the PI doesn't catch on? He's still the main character and he's still investigating, though he may be doing it poorly? Does that mean it automatically falls outside the genre?

Gerald So said...

Expectations don't define a genre. They're tacked onto a genre, like trends. The genre is simply the type of story (e.g. an experienced protag's independent investigation). Writers have a lot of room to surprise and stay within the genre.

Whether the P.I. catches on has no bearing on a novel's place in the genre. As long as the novel focuses sufficiently on his investigation, he can do as poorly as he's prone to do, and it's still a P.I. novel.

One surprise built into single-viewpoint novels is we don't know if a P.I.'s decision is the right move or the wrong one. If we have an objective view of events, as in some multi-viewpoint books, the P.I. may end up looking sloppier than the author intends.