Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Commentary — More Private Eyes On Screen, Please

One Of The Few New P.I. Movies
The conventional wisdom — and I buy into it — is that the American fascination with the private eye is merely the extension of its love affair with the cowboy. I say “merely.”  I don’t mean “merely” to lessen its value, but to say that the qualities we ascribed to our western heroes were, as we became a more urban society, appropriated by the private investigator:  Independence to the extent of being a loner and having an independent code of conduct not necessarily shared by society at large, certainly not by the authorities. In crime fiction, police are theoretically bound by the law and supported by network of various institutional professionals. The P.I. isn’t. The American P.I. is a loner.

How About A Whistler Film?
Nothing new here.  But I was reminded of this and a few other thoughts while watching A Walk Among the Tombstones the other evening.  I thoroughly enjoyed the film.  I was familiar the main character, Matthew Scudder from reading many of the 17 books in the series by Lawrence Block. Liam Neeson played the P.I. in the only Scudder film faithful to the original story. 

What leapt out at me was how many really good American P.I series novels are out there and how very few films (or TV movies) have used them and even fewer who created a corresponding set of movies based on those books.  I say “American” not out of an excess of patriotism, but having in mind the number of great crime films made from English, Scandinavian and other foreign films made from popular books — usually police procedurals – compared to the vast source material available from 20th and 21st Century American P.I. writers.

I understand that the new Bosch streaming video based on Michael Connelly’s popular and award-winning books is doing well. I’ll catch up soon.  But Bosch isn’t a private eye despite the fact that his self-imposed exile fits the profile.  And of course there are all the Hammett, Chandler, Westlake, (Robert B.) Parker, Spillane and the two MacDonalds movies from the past.  Working in reverse, there are also many books written based on successful movies and TV shows.  And there are some fine original, even groundbreaking crime fiction dramas made for TV now, right here in the U.S.  “The Wire” is a masterpiece. Others have followed.

The Tanner Series On TV?
But again, I’m talking a film, or a BBC-quality television production or a streaming video P.I. series based on a book series.  Seeing Matt Scudder on screen reminded me of the great P.I.s in books I devoured in the late eighties and early nineties and how much fun it would be to see them and no doubt the many I missed realized on the screen. I would love to see Neeson reprise Scudder fifteen or sixteen more times as he takes on other cases.  But there are others too.  

A couple of the fictional private eyes who sustained me as I began writing my own books and wanted to see what others were doing were Stephen Greenleaf’s John Marshall Tanner, and Robert Campbell’s “La La Land” mysteries featuring Whistler.

These are merely drops in the ocean.  The list from which great American fictional P.I.s might be taken is nearly endless.  And the number of books within any given series could range from three to more than 100.  I can’t list them all here.  There are two sites to visit to get an idea of the potential.  One is the Private Eye Writers of America PWA web site.  Check out the Shamus awardees over the years to get a sense of the best of the genre. The other site is The Thrilling Detective, a comprehensive consolidation of news and information about fictional private eyes.

If you are willing to go on record with your own views, let me know in the comment section about your favorite P.I series and the actor or actress you’d like to see in the role.

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