The hard-boiled private detective props her feet up on a disheveled desk, smokes a cigar beneath the light of a dim floor lamp and the shade of a wide-brimmed fedora. Her eyes are dark; her face is lined; her office smells of Scotch, coffee, and tobacco.
She is the handsome, seen-it-all face of cynicism. She tells it like it is and lives for her bad habits, but it’s her smarts, her dry wit and casual courage that we find so appealing. She’s a lovable anti-hero who manages to be darkly realistic and shamelessly romantic at the exact same time. That’s the glory of this type of character.
The private eye enables us to tell gritty, real stories within an unrealistic setting. Take The Maltese Falcon—on one hand, you have the dark backdrop of San Fransisco in the late 1920s, but on the other hand, you have an Indiana Jones like hunt for a valuable artifact, with a cast of slightly absurd characters including the femme fatale and the comically inept rich man. There’s a certain distortion of reality in these types of mysteries, where you know the mystery will be solved, and the same character tropes appear in every story the same way certain tropes appear in fairy tales.
I touched on this in the Stella Gibson and Disney discussion, but cop shows and mysteries are often simply adult fairy tales.
But the character of the Private Eye has the power to merge this distorted, romanticized reality of mobsters and detectives with real human emotions and human stories. We have the creative license as writers to play with the absurdity inherent in a detective story. We can bend reality and then use that bend to make the people and emotions behind the story all the more real. The private eye offers us a mixed bag of cynicism and idealism, and we ought to make use of this perfect storm more often, and with a mind to explore our detectives’ lives more thoroughly.
Next time we think about a detective story, we should think beyond simply the gritty fairy tale and touch on the complexity of the trope we’ve been dealt.