NEWS

Shamus Awards Nomination!

Weathering the StormWith all the chaos of the last several months, it can be easy to forget that summer is here, and with it comes awards nomination season. We are thrilled to announce that Michael Pool’s short story, “Weathering the Storm,” which introduced the world to our series detective Riley Reeves, is a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Private Investigator Short Story!

The story was published in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes From The Panhandle To The Piney Woods, an anthology of Texas-set detective stories edited by Michael Bracken and published by our friends at Down and Out Books.  The Eyes of Texas has received some love of its own, in the form of an Anthony Award nomination for Best Anthology or Collection. Congrats to all the nominees for both awards!

Cover Reveal: One Way Out (A Rick Malone Novel)

We’re thrilled to reveal the cover for One Way Out, which launches our second P.I. Tales series, featuring Colorado private detective Rick Malone . From the jacket cover:

One Way Out Michael Pool

When a troubled teenage girl goes missing in the small mountain town of Glanton, Colorado, Denver P.I. Rick Malone is called in by an old friend who stands accused of involvement in the disappearance. But Glanton holds more than Rick bargained for, and he soon finds himself snowed into the remote mountain valley with only one way out for him and his client, locating the girl, and working toward that end with partners from a past he’d rather forget. As tensions run high and leads run low, Rick will learn that all small towns have their secrets, and sometimes powerful people will do anything to keep those secrets buried beneath the snow.

One Way Out is set for release in late 2020, with the release date to be announced in the coming weeks. In the meantime, check out our first series novel, Throwing Off Sparks, and get to know Texas private investigator Riley Reeves.

Ten timely quotes from fictional private eyes

quotes from fictional private eyes

We know how you feel. Cooped up, stressed out, and dying for something, anything, to kill the monotony. And, of course, you’re reading for that purpose, right? Definitely. No alcohol involved. Nope. None. Wink wink. 

But on the off-chance you’re not settling in on the couch for hours at a time with a good private eye novel to pass the hours, we’ve got a fresh dose of inspiration to crack open a book. Here are ten timely quotes from fictional private eyes to inspire your quarantine reading.

Ten quotes from fictional private eyes

“One thing I’ve learned in fifty-three hard years of living is that there’s a different kind of death waiting for each and every one of us—each and every day of our lives. There’s drunk drivers behind the wheels of cars, subways, trains, planes, and boats; there’s banana peels, diseases and the cockeyed medicines that supposedly cure them; you got airborne viruses, indestructible microbes in the food you eat, jealous husbands and wives, and just plain bad luck.” – Leonid McGill, from The Long Fall, by Walter Mosley.

“I have waited for ecstasy all of my life for the pure joy of being, and I have never felt it. For each and every moment of my happiness has been tinged with sorrow. Like the swallow of water from the mountain stream that has two tastes—one living, and one dead—my life has been a sorry confluence of wonder and pity. I think this is what bugs Hannah and was part of the reason she left. But being a man stuck in the middle has one advantage: I have yet to be overwhelmed by sorrow.” – Cecil Younger, from The Curious Eat Themselves, by John Straley

“Some of us find our way with a single light to guide us; others lose themselves even when the star field is as sharp as a neon ceiling. Ethics may not be situational, but feelings are. We learn to adjust, and, over time, the stars we use to guide ourselves come to reside within rather than without.” – Elvis Cole, from L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais.

“This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.”― The Continental Op, from Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett.

“I felt like a lonely cat, an aging tom ridden by obscure rage, looking for torn-ear trouble. I clipped that pitch off short and threw it away. Night streets were my territory, and would be till I rolled in the last gutter.”―Lew Archer, from The Drowning Pool, by Ross Macdonald.

“A man once told me that you step out of your door in the morning, and you are already in trouble. The only question is are you on top of that trouble or not?” Easy Rawlins, from Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley

“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” – Phillip Marlowe, from Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler

“There are days when none of us can bear it, but the good comes around again. Happiness is seasonal, like anything else. Wait it out. There are people who love you. People who can help.” – Kinsey Millhone, from D is for Deadbeat, by Sue Grafton

 “I don’t like people. I don’t like any kind of people. When you get them together in a big lump they all get nasty and dirty and full of trouble. So I don’t like people including you. That’s what a misanthropist is.” — Mike Hammer, from The Big Kill, by Mickey Spillane

“I felt ready for that new life, standing there bloody and soaked to my core, having rubbed up so close with pure evil and death in the weeds of my own unraveled existence. A red hue broke through the storm to our west as we motored off in search of something resembling safety, chasing a lost horizon line that could never quite be caught.” Riley Reeves, from “Weathering the Storm,” (collected in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes From the Panhandle to the Piney Woods), by Michael Pool

 

What’s the Difference in Hard-Boiled and Noir? It’s All in the Protagonist.

Hard-Boiled and Noir

(This guest post was written by author and P.I. Tales creator Michael Pool)

There’s an old saying in the writing industry: “Genre is for the marketing department.” And that’s true, to a point. Identifying a book’s genre (and sub-genre) is a key part of identifying a book’s audience. If a publisher, author, or anyone else in the publishing process doesn’t understand who a book will be marketed to, that book is much more likely to fail than another book, even if it is intrinsically a better book (a subjective assessment in its own right).

This does not mean, however, that genre is EXCLUSIVELY for the marketing people. Quite the contrary. Genres and sub-genres each have their own set of tropes, precedents, and context that authors must internalize as much as their audiences do.

But there seems to be a lot of confusion with certain genres, particularly when it comes to sub-genres. Perhaps no two sub-genres in the mystery fiction world are more often conflated than hard-boiled and noir. 

Film Noir: Where the Confusion Began

I trace the confusion about hard-boiled and noir back to the days of film noir, where hard-boiled detective novels were often brought into film alongside their more classically noir counterparts. Granted, at the time film noir was not a genre at all. That classification happened later. This is responsible for much of the confusion. Films adapted from novels like The Big Sleep are as much a part of the “canon” of film noir as are actual noir novels such as Double Indemnity. The difference is that one of these books is hard-boiled, the other is noir, though the films based on each are referred to as film noir.

In fact, I chose these two stories in particular because the novels the films are based on perfectly encapsulate the differences in noir and hard-boiled fiction. To properly explain these differences, it can be helpful to start with a working definition of each sub-genre, which I will provide here.

In a nutshell, the difference is all about the protagonist. Read that again. It’s. All. About. The. Protagonist. I don’t mean superficial traits such as clothing, setting, or background. I mean it is about the protagonist’s approach to their life, their intentions, and how they deal with their own personal shortcomings.

Let’s start with noir.

Noir

To borrow from Christianity, the definition of sin is when an individual knows a behavior is bad and engages in it anyway. In religious terms, such individuals are doomed unless they choose to repent. And more importantly, to change.

Similarly, in noir fiction, the protagonist is a sinner, by choice and by action. The noir protagonist has a weakness, a deep character flaw they seem unable or unwilling to eschew. As the story arc of a noir protagonist plays out, rather than repenting from that flaw, they will continue to double down on it, over and over, until total self-destruction is achieved.

The noir protagonist cannot cast the ring into the fire, no matter how much turmoil the ring brings them. And yes, I just brought Tolkien into the discussion.

Noir protagonists are losers who lose the game by failing to grow and change. Their flaws reveal a selfishness in them, an inability to conform to reasonable norms. This selfishness will eventually consume them entirely.

Dennis Lehane said it like this: “In Greek Tragedies they fall from great heights. In noir, they fall from the curb.”

A noir protagonist, such as James M. Cain’s Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, has a deep character flaw that they tend to view as an advantage. They can be likable, they can be charming, and they can be worth rooting for, the same as any other protagonist. And yet they are obsessed with taking the easy way out, even when the easy way may be harder in the long run. Even when their desire to rise is noble and applaudable, the shortsighted way they choose to go about that rise dooms them from the start.

The important verb in Lehane’s quote above is FALL. Noir protagonists fall. Most of all, they fall victim to their own shortcomings, schemes, and worst-laid plans. They may or may not be anti-heroes, but they are doomed to fall, plain and simple. They fall while climbing out of the gutter using the same strategies that put them into the gutter in the first place. That is what Lehane means by falling from the curb. The noir protagonist won’t get far in their climb toward greater heights because their climbing apparatus is faulty.

Since noir stories have undergone a television revival in recent years, I’ll provide an example from that medium to emphasize my point. I can think of no better example than Vince Gilligan’s Jimmy McGill, popularized through Breaking Bad (a fantastic noir tale in its own right), and lionized in the spinoff Better Call Saul, now airing its fifth season. In fact, it was while watching this show, as well as digesting a recent interview I gave regarding why I started P.I. Tales, that I first had the idea for this article.

Jimmy is likable in every way, and even a bit earnest. He’s capable, intelligent, and charming. And in many ways, Jimmy is even good. His heart is often in the right place, and he cares for those around him.

But there is a deep flaw in Jimmy. He has an almost insatiable thirst for the grift. No matter how much his prospects are looking up, no matter how often he threatens to break out of the spiral and take his place among the hardworking and successful, in the end this character flaw will destroy his progress.

Jimmy continually trips over the curb on his way to standing back up. Whether that means doctoring addresses on important legal paperwork, taking bribes to conceal criminal behavior, or scamming the system on behalf of his clients, Jimmy will always, always fall off the curb back into the gutter. Even when handed a near-certain path to success, Jimmy ultimately eschews the opportunity once his flawed approach has already essentially destroyed it. And just like that, he is out of the corner office and back in the closet of the nail salon, where he started.  

Jimmy is a noir protagonist, and that is the reason we leave him at the end of Breaking Bad drowning once again in the fruits of his flaws. How thrilling to get to see his rise to the edge of that curb over and over in Better Call Saul.

Hard-Boiled

Now that we have noir defined, we can move on to hard-boiled. To return to our literary example, let’s take a look at Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, the protagonist in The Big Sleep. Like a typical noir story, Marlowe’s world is bleak, full of the crooked and wicked, the abusers of power and prestige. Let’s look at what Chandler himself had to say about the hard-boiled detective before we begin to shape our definition.

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

We have enshrined this quote on the P.I. Tales website for a reason. Chandler lays out a near-perfect definition of the hard-boiled detective as a protagonist. Such protagonists may be rough around the edges, as Marlowe certainly is. But they are not “mean”, which was Chandler’s way of pointing out that they are not flawed at heart. The hard-boiled protagonist, similar to a noir protagonist, may have flaws, they may bend or break rules, and they may violate social norms as they go about their business. But the hard-boiled protagonist does these things to set the world right in whatever way they can. They may not climb to great heights, but neither do they fall into gutters.

When faced with greed, with malice, and with injustice, or the opportunity to partake in any of these, the hard-boiled protagonist does not fall for the moral bait. They don’t try to use circumstances to their advantage to usurp easy success. In fact, success is not the point at all, which is why so many hard-boiled detectives find themselves working long after their clients stop paying. This has become a trope in detective fiction for a reason.

Hard-boiled protagonists are anti-heroes and just plain heroes alike. Their methods might not shine under the light of day, but their intention is always to set the world back in order (at least as they see it within their own moral code). They are strong men and women who will stop at nothing to regain this order, and who will be tortured by every failure to do so for time immemorial.

If the hard-boiled protagonist is to become a victim to vice, that vice will be their obsession with their work. Which could be seen as a moral mission, rather than a flaw. They may break rules, take drugs, drink too much, or any other number of similar flaws, but their intentions are relatively pure. At the end of the day, this will save them from the fall.

And that is where the crossover, and thus the confusion, happens. Bleak landscapes and fatalism may be enough to define film noir, but when it comes to defining noir and hard-boiled fiction, these details are trumped by the protagonist’s motivations and resulting outcomes.

To take another case study from modern television (this one again adapted from excellent books), I will use Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series. Hap and Leonard are rough around the edges. They have anti-social tendencies, and they are out of sync with the law much of the time.

But that does not make them noir protagonists. Quite the contrary. Hap and Leonard are unstoppable forces once they get on the path to solving a problem. They feel a great drive to set their world in order, to right the scales. They will shy away from nothing, including death, to help those in their charge. They are textbook anti-heroes and textbook examples of hard-boiled protagonists. When given the choice between personal gain and personal responsibility, Hap and Leonard always choose the latter. This is why they are not noir protagonists.

Hard-Boiled and Noir: Grey Areas Abound

And, of course, there is much more crossover between these two genres than I list here. That will have to wait for another day. As an author who has written books in both sub-genres, I am here to tell you there is a lot to love in each. And, chances are, you will see a bit of each as the P.I. Tales collection grows over time. But, for now, I hope you will consider taking the time to check out my own hard-boiled protagonist, Riley Reeves, when her debut novel, Throwing Off Sparks, hits shelves on May 12, 2020.

First Look: The Riley Reeves Series

Riley Reeves Series

P.I. Tales’ inaugural private detective novel, Throwing Off Sparks, is set for release May 12, 2020. The novel is also the first book in the Riley Reeves Mystery Series featuring our first of many series detectives, Riley Reeves.

We sat down with the series’ author Michael Pool to discuss what makes Riley a compelling character, and why he chose East Texas as the locale for the series. It’s a great interview with excellent insight into what to expect from the Riley Reeves Series. Read on below!

P.I. Tales: Tell us a little about how Riley Reeves came into being, and why you chose a female East Texas P.I. as the basis for your first series character?

Michael: A few years ago, a friend of mine, Michael Bracken, put out a submission call for The Eyes of Texas, which was an anthology of private detective stories set in locales across Texas (published by Down and Out Books). Having grown up in East Texas, I loved the idea and wanted to contribute a story. So I put together the concept for a story called “Weathering the Storm” that revolved around a private eye chasing a serial killer operating in the chaos of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, which was a big ecological happening around that time.

From the moment I started writing it was like Riley jumped fully formed onto the page. It just became clear that she had a lot to say, and that she had a chip on her shoulder when it came to the way men sometimes try to dominate women, particularly in old fashioned East Texas.

Riley is a conglomeration of the many strong women I knew and interacted with growing up in East Texas. As I’m sure other writers have experienced, she was just one of those characters who came clawing out of the void and insisted that her story be told, NOW. I knew within a page of starting the short story, which did end up being selected for inclusion in The Eyes of Texas, that I was going to write an entire series of books featuring her.

P.I. Tales: Tell potential readers a little about East Texas, and what they can expect to experience there through Riley’s series.

Michael: Most people picture a flat, barren landscape when they picture Texas. But it’s a huge, diverse state, culturally and geographically. For example, it is faster to drive from Tyler, Texas to Chicago, Illinois than it is to drive to El Paso, Texas. The cultures in each are as different from Tyler as they are from each other, too. East Texas is in the piney woods region and has everything from huge pine forests to swamps dotting the humid, tropical landscape. It has a history as an insular, divided place that is full of secrets.

East Texas was home to one of the original oil booms (and the second-largest oil field on the continent, outside of Alaska), and that meant, on the one hand, a few people got enormously wealthy, while on the other thousands of people roughnecked out a hard paycheck working in the oil fields and living in places like Kilgore. Most of the families of both ends of that spectrum still inhabit the area. It has always had an odd juxtaposition of working-class and affluence. Not to mention the dialect is quite charming (think Matthew McConaughey, who is from Longview 30 miles down the road from Tyler).

Fans of Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series have heard of Tyler in passing, as Joe’s characters occasionally make their way there from the fictional town of LaBorde while working out their cases. It’s the kind of place where a girlie girl might be able to shoot a rifle better than your country-ass grandpappy, and she’s not likely to let you forget it.

P.I. Tales: What makes Riley unique in terms of being a series detective worth reading?

Michael: There is a paradox at the center of Riley, much like there is to the place she grew up. On the one hand, Riley desperately desires peace and harmony. On the other, she has a problem with risk-taking and looking for the exact kind of trouble that prevents peace from taking root in her life. These two parts of her are in constant conflict for control. But the series is also about what that conflict does to Riley’s personal life, which is rife with its own paradoxes. I wanted to explore that idea in particular because it is something I’ve experienced through my own real-life work as a private detective. It can be an isolating, lonely job, and it can absolutely take over the rest of your life.

When Throwing Off Sparks  first picks up, Riley is recently divorced, down to one living relative, and often neglectful of her best friend and guiding light, Latonya Johnson. She finds that what is good for her loved ones and what is good for her clients are generally at odds, and how she navigates those odds makes for a compelling, emotional, exciting story.

When you add in the chaos of her brother Chip’s addiction to alcohol and his connection to Riley’s ex-husband, and how they contribute to her inner conflict, it ramps her stress up to the point where something has got to give or Riley will be pulled apart. I think that’s her most compelling feature. She will absolutely pull herself apart for the people she loves or is tasked to protect, losing valuable parts of herself each and every time.

P.I. Tales: What were some of the challenges of writing a female protagonist as a male author?

Tough question, but a good one. I mean, I can never really know if I’ve gotten it right or not when writing female characters, so that’s one thing. But I didn’t want that to stop me from trying. I can tell you that there is a deep part of me in Riley, but also deep parts of women I have greatly admired in her, as well. I can’t pretend to fully understand any of them, but I can understand parts of them.

Writers are nothing if not perceivers. I feel like our talents, to the degree that they exist, are in our ability to see intrinsic parts of people that transcend concepts of gender or culture or race. That doesn’t mean getting it perfect, but it does mean trying to understand. I did not seek to get women correct so much as to get Riley correct. That took getting to know her and getting out of the way to let her tell her own story, which is written in the first person.

Riley gets her indomitable spirit from her father, mostly, with a few details from her mother, mainly stubbornness and a sense of tradition. In my own life, I get my indomitable spirit from my mother, a great example of the kind of Texas woman who inspired Riley in the first place. Tough, smart, and unmovable when it comes to the people they care about, Texas women are some of the most powerful people I have encountered in my life.

I see some of these traits in myself (the stubbornness, anyway), and it may be that this is the part of Riley that is the most a part of me. If so, it comes from the women in my life and my mother in particular, and I think in that sense I have gotten it as right as I’m ever going to get it.

Riley can bring me to tears because I care deeply about what happens to her, and my hope is that this comes out through the writing and the reader feels the same way about her as they move through her character arc. Anything I got wrong will hopefully find context in the extreme love and admiration that I feel for Riley (and for Latonya), which is born from the love and admiration I feel for the powerful women who have shaped my life. She’s my favorite character I’ve ever created, and I know readers are going to love her too!

Throwing Off Sparks comes out May 12, 2020, as the inaugural title from P.I. Tales. The eBook is currently up for pre-order with both the paperback and eBook editions released worldwide on May 12th. For a sneak peek at the prologue to Throwing Off Sparks, fill out the form below!