Friday, 30 October 2009

Bouchercon Panel Report #5 - The 21st Century PI

The 21st Century Private Eye

Panellists: Austin Camacho (moderator), Jack Fredrickson, Greg Herren, Adrian Magson, Michael Wiley.

This was another panel that sent me scurrying to the bookroom, having discovered an author I'd never heard of before - this time Michael Wiley. It also reminded me that I need to read one of Adrian Magson's books as he was excellent on the panel and very funny.

Austin Camacho set the scene by talking about living in a technological age, how the PI can give the writer more flexibility than either a police procedural or an amateur (ie you can do more than either of those for different reasons). He asked the panellists whether the settings they use continue the noir, fatalistic, gritty settings of old.

Jack Fredrickson said that he tries to use every device he can - including setting - to disguise the fact that he doesn't know anything about plot! He said that he does use a gritty setting (just outside Chicago). Adrian Magson uses London as a setting, although he does like to move his characters around and vary things. He likes to keep a contemporary feel to his books.

Austin Camacho then asked the panel whether their PIs adhere to the traditional, heavy drinking, heavy smoking detective.

Greg Herren said that when he first started his series his protag was a smoker. He had him quit in the second book, but he still gets stoned. He's not much of a drinker. Herren quoted Julie Smith as saying "New Orleans will break your heart and wreck your liver." Michael Wiley said that the new heavy drinking/chainsmoking detective is now a non-drinker/non-smoker.

Austin Camacho asked the panel about technology and science. He said that PI stories tend to focus on questions and characters and not so much on forensics. He asked the panel how they coped with technology and whether the technological age made it harder to write PI novels.

Greg Herren said that he had lived through Katrina when technology shut down for a while. He also said that he was not the best at technology since it took him five years to work out that he had 'hotkeys' on his computer (note to self - check computer for hotkeys). In his first book his protagonist had a computer but no cell phone. He also has a computer tech - that way, the character has no need to learn anything and neither does Herren, so he can take the lazy way out.

Adrian Magson said that his character Riley Gavin uses a Blackberry but that the most use she puts a laptop to is when she throws it at someone's head. He said that you can get into the trap of your characters relying on technology too much. He also pointed out that in the UK your every move can be followed on a security camera in some cities. Michael Wiley also has his character throwing technology at someone - this time a cell phone. Camacho himself said that his protagonist is a luddite and he finds it no fun to write the technological stuff.

The panel were then asked about the kinds of cases their protagonists get involved in. Who is the client of the 21st century PI and how has this changed?

Jack Fredrickson felt that the clients are the same because people are the same now as they have always been. Michael Wiley agreed, saying that the things which interest him are sex and murder and people have been doing both those things forever.

The topic then turned violent (although not literally, they were all very polite), Camacho saying that in the 40s and 50s PI novels the violence was generally a simple rough and tumble. He asked the panellists whether they felt that today's readers are more sophisticated about how people fight each other.

Adrian Magson said that he used to teach Tae Kwon Do but he doesn't put much of that into his books. He tries to keep things realistic and felt that too much martial arts detracted from the plot. He noted that in the UK there are very few guns and that they tend to be in the hands of the bad guys. His protag uses an asp and Adrian went down to his local police station to ask how to use one. Needless to say, he got some odd looks. Camacho also said that he tries to keep things realistic. His character is a trained kick-boxer, but real fights in real life tend to be very short.

Turning from violence to attitude, Camacho asked whether the idea of the smartass PI has remained the same. Jack Fredrickson said that to be a good PI you have to have an attitude - you need one to function in that kind of world. He added that if you can do it humourously it sharpens the distinction between the dark side and the lighter side and he likes that contrast.

Greg Herren said that his protagonist was a smartass. He tried to make his first book dark and noir and thought that he had succeeded but at the first reading he did people were laughing. He said that he doesn't mean to do it and if he could find a way to stop it he probably would (note to self - buy a Greg Herren book).

Austin Camacho then asked the panel who they felt was doing it right in terms of the PI novel. Michael Wiley said that there were a lot of people doing it right and that the PI genre is far from dead. He likes writers who are aware of what is politically correct but aren't going to go there (note to self - buy a Michael Wiley along with the Herren). Greg Herren cited Laura Lippman, Sara Paretsky, Val McDermid and Sean Chercover. Of Sean he said "He makes me want to quit...bitch." Camacho cited Marcus Sakey and George Pelecanos but also said, interestingly, that he doesn't feel that the new Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald has been published yet.

When asked about great 20th century writers the panel were worried could get forgotten Adrian Magson said Leslie Charteris and Greg Herren said John D MacDonald.

Another excellent panel.


  1. I'm going to save this post and use it for reference, perhaps on a shopping trip next week. And thanks for keeping Bouchercon alive so long after the event.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  2. Hi, Donna, and I'm so glad you enjoyed our panel. I really enjoyed working with these talented writers, and exploring a question I've had to face often while writing my own Hannibal Jones mysteries. Thanks much for posting your thoughts.

  3. Peter - you're welcome - I wish I'd been to more panels so I coulod keep it alive even longer!

    Austin - it was a great panel - very varied and wide ranging. You were obviously well prepared and the questions were really well thought out. Thanks!

  4. Austin, Thanks for sharing. I really enjoyed this. You asked some great questions. I think the old PI's are more interesting and easier to write. My mystery is really complicated because I have to research so much in the forensic fields to give it a present day feel.