When I write about Willis Gidney, the private eye in STEAL THE SHOW, I have to acknowledge a debt to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. These two guys blazed a trail, it’s impossible to talk about detective fiction without a top o’ the hat to them.
And yet, they wrote about detectives who were perfect, in their own ways. Sam Spade was not only a man’s man, but a PI’s PI. No mistakes, and no room for sentimentality. Spade (and the Continental Op) were completely ruthless, driven, pragmatic. I think Hammett was tapping into something that runs deep in Americans – professionalism, of doing your job better than those around you.
Phillip Marlowe may not have had the diamond-edged perfection of Spade, but was also a keen observer who put his emotions second to doing his job.
Robert B Parker’s PI, Spencer, also seems like the perfect private eye. His ability to anticipate danger, and get the upper hand, makes it look all too easy. We read these books and think, wow, I wish I could be like that.
But what if – what if you wrote about a detective who makes mistakes, who is blinded by her or his own passions, upbringing, fears, desires? Would people want to read about such a person?
When DRINK THE TEA came out last year, I was pretty nervous. (Okay, I was very nervous. My wife had to coax me out from under the bed with a Dos Equis and a handful of valium.) I was unsure if anyone would want to read about Gidney, an investigator who had been traumatized in his childhood, who had large years of his life erased from his memory. My detective is quick to anger, quick to forgive, and makes error in judgment.
You see why I was nervous, right?
Yet people seemed to like Willis Gidney, in my first book DRINK THE TEA. So I wondered if I could go further? Would people want to read more about Gidney? I could make him a super PI, I suppose. He could be brave, fearless, and never make a mistake. But then he wouldn’t be like me, and maybe not like you, either.
In the first book, Gidney finds an abandoned baby. When I wrote the first draft, I didn’t know why this happened. It just happened. But as I continued to write, I started to see why I had done that: it was a source of conflict. Everyone with an ounce of sense was telling Gidney to turn the baby over to the authorities.
Not Gidney. He’s gone through DC’s system of foster care and juvenile justice, and just barely survived. So he can’t really bring himself to just turn in this baby. What would be the next step for him? For Gidney, there are no half measures, which is something I like about him. So book two has him in an impossible position – working a dangerous case while trying to adopt a child.
And in the process of doing this, Gidney nearly gets himself killed. Why? Because he’s blinded by his good intentions, which leads to mountains of mistakes.
I’m an optimist, so Gidney survives. He may even learn something. But he ain’t perfect. That’s another thing I like about him. Even though he makes mistakes, to me he’s a hero. And anyone who tries to do right as much as Gidney deserves a medal.
In Aristotle’s POETICS, he talks about four different types of protagonists. They are
- The perfect man
- A good man with some small imperfections
- The completely evil man
- A bad man who has some good qualities
Aristotle concludes that, if you’re writing a story with a fortunate ending (as opposed to a tragedy), then protagonist #2 is the best kind to write about, because he’s most like us. None of us is perfect, but we see ourselves as essentially good. Sure, we may have some flaws, but that helps us to identify with protagonist #2.
(By the way, #4 raises interesting questions about the antagonist, don’t you think? #3 seems like a mustache-twirling bad guy, but #4 looks interesting. Even Cody Jarrett loved his mom in WHITE HEAT.)
How about you? What kind of hero do you indentify with? I’d love to know your answers.
In the meantime, I’ll be under the bed with the beer and valium.
Thomas Kaufman is an Emmy-winning director/cameraman who also writes mysteries. His first book, DRINK THE TEA, won the PWA/St Martin’s Press Competition for Best First Novel. His second book, STEAL THE SHOW, comes out this July. His blog tour continues with Lesa’s Book Critiques, 7Criminal Minds, and The Page 69 Test.