The New York Times Magazine has a story this weekend about the death of the private investigator at the hands of the internet and modern technology. It’s an interesting read, but on balance wrong. My comment there got a little lengthy, so I’m putting it here instead.
First, I do pretty well writing near-future PI stories. The secret is, the fictional private eye has never been all that realistic: he or she’s always been a crystallization of the times, doing things the hard and painful way when more effective ways exist. The key to the success of the PI in the public imagination is the nature of those more effective ways, and public doubt in them. They are always process-based and institution-based: “go to the cops”, usually, but “go to Google” works just as well. Nero Wolfe himself frequently told prospective clients that the police were a more viable (and less expensive) alternative — but always managed to get clients anyway.
Why do people go to the PI who does things the hard way? Because the more effective way relies on institutions that are (or are perceived to be) corrupt or incompetent or otherwise unable to help: they don’t always do what they say they’ll do, either because they can’t or they won’t. The PI represents integrity and honesty for those people who don’t trust the institutions.
Early PIs were always an alternative to the authorities of the time, generally the police (and sometimes, later, the FBI or CIA or what have you). The police are an institution, just as Google is today. That’s not a surprising thing to say anymore. But it’s worth remembering that the police are also a technology (police detectives are barely two hundred years old) and went through exactly the same “Gee whiz!” technology adoption curve as Internet search or GPS. Pick up a copy of Michael Sims’s excellent collection of Victorian-era detective fiction, The Dead Witness. Readers and authors of the time treated this new-fangled person of the police detective the same way as any new technology: first it was a novelty just to read about them, then they started to get their customary forms as people became comfortable… and then it became more interesting to wonder if they were quite as good a thing as they were cracked up to be. They became progressively less god-like: less omniscient, less omnipotent, and eventually (especially on the American side) decidedly less omni-benevolent.
And that’s where the PI came in, reacting in stages to each failing. Heck, you can even see the specific reactions, starting with the emergence of the “bumbling” police detective in comparison to the scientific private investigator, and getting into noir PIs dealing with police corruption.
We are now with respect to Google and our other tech helpers, where Victorian era readers were with respect to police detectives: these are shiny new institutions with sterling reputations for efficiency that we’re just now beginning to distrust a little. We’re kinda doing it in the reverse order: doubting intentions before we doubt efficacy. But either way, this seems to me the ideal time for a new Sam Spade to set up shop.