Private Investigators Subgenre Meeting

Fifteen of us made it to the first Southeastern Reader’s Advisory Roundtable meeting on a rainy morning today to talk about the mystery subgenre of Private Investigators, and the benchmark title, The Godwulf Manuscript by the late Robert B. Parker.

The discussion of The Godwulf Manuscript focused on the character of Spenser as a wisecracking outsider/ex-police officer in an urban setting and the influence of Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled PI novels on the tone, style, and pacing of Robert B. Parker’s first work of crime fiction. We touched on the author’s background as an English professor at Northeastern University and how this played into the character of Spenser and the frame of the novel. Published in 1973, the novel is set in the Boston of that time, and we talked a bit about changing trends in the mystery genre since then, and in what ways Spenser fit and didn’t fit the archetype of the hardboiled private eye.

We tried to tackle the discussion from a reader’s advisory viewpoint, referring to the mystery genre handout that Leane of the Northeast Readers’ Advisory Roundtable shared with us, including these points about the Private Investigators subgenre:

  • Investigations are carried out step-by-step and are usually narrated in the first person by the protagonist.
  • Investigators operate under a personal moral code that may not follow the rule of law.
  • The White Knight syndrome: Investigators often feel compelled to help someone, sometimes against her/his will, because they are standing up for an underdog.
  • Investigators, often a solitary detective or a loner with a legal or law enforcement background, may have an antagonistic relationship with the police or local justice system.
  • Investigators work for a fee, but it is not unusual for an altruistic or idealistic element to motivate her/him either.
  • Protagonists may be women or men, and their adventures are usually part of an ongoing series.
  • Even loners have frequent sidekicks or assistants that add to the depth of the character and storyline.
  • Settings are usually urban. The tone is often darker, and many novels highlight serious social issues.
  • The amount and degree of violence varies, but these stories tend to have a harder edge and deal with the more violent situations, sometimes in explicit detail. Language can be vulgar and more streetwise.

The Godwulf Manuscript sets the stage for future books starring Spenser, and — as Joyce Saricks points out in her book, The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd ed.) — it isn’t representative of the rest of the books in the series (especially as Susan and Hawk haven’t yet made their appearance) but it is a good example of the private investigator subgenre.

We then went around the room and talked about the second titles we read in the Private Investigators subgenre. Participants are asked to submit their second titles here. If you have recently read something that you would like to share, please feel free, even if you couldn’t attend the first meeting.

New members to the SE-RART are always welcome!

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