The PI And The Pandemic

Gadi Dagon, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Recently, on Sleuthsayers, I wrote about the PI and how the archetype might work in the present day. Gone is the guy in the trenchcoat and fedora skulking in the back alleys. Writers would get laughed out of the slush pile for attempting Raymond Chandler’s poetic similes. The psycho sidekick is a one-way ticket to get canceled. And even Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton’s alphabet detective, is a bit of an anachronism, considering the eighties are now four decades in the rearview mirror.

But I also said this type of crime story is well-suited for the modern, 10-episode format. One need only look at the late Peter Temple’s Jack Irish, which I’m watching on Acorn. Granted, Jack has three movies, but the seasons are about 6 episodes each. (Also, I’m used to Guy Pearce playing Americans, so hearing him with his natural Aussie accent was a bit jarring. That’s on me. Pearce is awesome as Jack!) I touched on how a modern Spenser (No, not the Mark Wahlberg movie. That’s more about Boston than Spenser.) or a period-set Marlowe could work on Netflix, Prime, or HBO. HBO actually did do Marlowe in the eighties with Powers Booth playing the man who himself is not mean.

I think it could work. I even mentioned having a new Kepler novel in the can, though in need of expansion. (40K will test even Down & Out’s patience.) The PI in real life has changed, someone who uses Google and Lexis-Nexis as much as shoe leather to get the job done. But I’ve met them. One came to my door looking for someone who lived in my house before I bought it. There’s a story in that, but neither the detective nor the people who sold me the house are going to share.

What I didn’t talk about was the pandemic. Detectives – private, corporate, and police – all have to hit the bricks. They have to knock on doors and ask uncomfortable questions and dig through people’s trash. Go to relevant locations and take pictures. And between early 2020 and the beginning of this year, they had to do all that with a mask and copious amounts of hand sanitizer. You’d think waiting tables and working retail took a hard hit when personal contact was restricted. Imagine when you have to talk to people. Icky, germ-laiden people. (And I’m not a germophobe. In fact, I have little patience for them.)

The police, being police, have protocols for everything. But the hotel detective has to go into people’s rooms and follow the same protocols as the housekeeping staff. But what if you’re an insurance investigator? Or you run your own shop either for a law firm or for hire? All of a sudden, you’re flying without a net.

In my present day fiction, I’ve glossed over the pandemic. Like 9/11, it’s too easy to get in one’s face about it. Even science fiction was not immune. A recent novel I just sent in had references to corona virus as part of a biological weapons project. At the time I wrote it, the term referred to not just Covid, but the flu and the common cold, which are also corona viruses. By the time the beta readers got a hold of it, I had to change it to “respiratory virus.” Covid fatigue. So imagine what that means in the here and now.

In the Holland Bay follow up, Branson goes to a hospital to visit a tenant she’s evicting. She mutters something to herself about a post-pandemic world. We’re already exiting the pandemic with immunity now about where we were with the Spanish flu in 1921. There are lingering changes. (For instance, I work largely from home, and I have no desire to go back to the old way of doing things.)

So, if the PI is to be revived, post-pandemic, in an age of short TV seasons, thrillers, and TikTok, what does that look like?

By the time we figure that out, technology, the climate, and social changes are going to upend whatever we come up with.

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