Jochem Vandersteen’s Public Take on Private Eyes

January 18th, 2012

Jochem Vandersteen is a Dutch crime writer who often writes in English.  

He’s also the founder of The Hard-Boiled Collective, a group of really good writers who occasionally join forces to promote each other’s work.  I’m proud to be a member.  Jochem is also a student of the private eye genre, and has some interesting things to say about crime fiction’s most durable archetype.


The bottle of bourbon in the desk drawer… The PI who only listens to jazz… The PI dressed in a trenchcoat, wearing a fedora…

My blog, is all about PI fiction. What’s interesting to note is that one of the top keywords that make people visit my site are ‘private eye clichés’. Why people are looking for those I’m not sure. To avoid them? To use them?

It is often stated that the PI story is dead, often the use of clichés is cited as one of the reasons. I’ve spoken out often that these clichés are there in every form of fiction. They make up part of the archetypes that are inherent to genre fiction. Just think about the secret identity of the superhero. The magic sword of the elf. The irritating police chief.

When it’s done badly it’s a cliché, when it’s used as a basis, as a starting point to tell a good story I’d call it an archetype. Without some of the more basic elements inherent to a PI story, even it doesn’t feature an official PI just isn’t a PI story. There are just some elements that make the fans of this kind of story keep going back to it that you just can’t leave out. Imagine a PI who works together with an entire team of detectives, or a PI without any personal problems, a PI who doesn’t try to get to the bottom of a case, no matter what. It just wouldn’t be the kind of story I, as a fan of the genre would want to read. I’m not interested in people who write about Philip Marlowe and just give him another name. I AM interested in someone who manages to take the knight errant standard set by guys like Marlowe and twist it to their own, personal creation. Wasn’t that exactly what made Spenser great?

There are a lot of great writers that took those archetypes mentioned and gave them their own spin, making up some of the best hardboiled series ever.

The clichés that bore us, things like the bottle of booze in the desk drawer, the anachronistic slang, the fedora, we encounter in places like horror stories that borrow from the PI-genre, in pastiches and bad movies. The real, current offerings of PI stories have risen far above that. They have taken the concept of the loner against overwhelming odds, the independent investigator and added their own wonderful ideas.

Michael Connelly made his PI a cop. Harlan Coben a sports agent. Timothy Hallinan a burglar. Max Allan Collins took the PI and put him in a historical context. And then there’s of course Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, the wandering ex-military cop. Sure, they’re loners. Sure they crank out some tough guy talk. But to me those aren’t cliches. They’re what makes the genre great.

And there’s my own Noah Milano. The son of a gangster, he tries to make an honest living as a security specialist after a promise made to his dying mother. He’s not a fan of blues or jazz but of rock music. He’s younger, hipper than most PI’s and constantly battling against his darker tendencies and looking for redemption.

Check out Jochem’s site, mentioned above, for great reviews, author interviews, and reflection on the crime (and especially private-eye) genre.

5 Responses to “Jochem Vandersteen’s Public Take on Private Eyes”

  1. Dana King Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’m a hard core PI fan and agree with everything he has said here. Heading over now to add this site to my reader.

    To me, the primary difference between a PI story and a cop story is that cops close cases; Pis can look for closure.

  2. Mike Schimmer Says:

    We’re just scratching the surface here. The PI genre is a construct for telling stories. There are many branches of the family here. Travis McGee is a PI, although he describes himself as a recovery specialist. Kinsey Millhone is a PI by trade, but manages to evade many of the cliches. The Hillerman Navajo mysteries are more PI than police procedurals. What do they have in common? We enjoy reading them. And Tim, thanks for adding another new writer to my “To Read” list. If everyone were to retire RIGHT NOW, I just might get caught up.

  3. EverettK Says:

    A cliché is only a cliché when handled badly, and it stops being a cliché when handled with flair and originality (is that an oxymoron, a cliché with originality?) Long live living clichés, it’s only the dead clichés that are deadly! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jochem!

  4. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I’m trying very hard not to buy any more books until I reduce my TBR tower. So guess where I was today? My favorite local bar-er-bookstore!

  5. Jochem Vandersteen Says:

    Good to hear from so many PI fans. Like I keep telling everyone,the genre is not dead. For anyone who wants to check out my work head over here: .
    There’s all kinds of formats from short stories to novelettes to a novel to get to know Noah Milano.
    @Dana: I believe you’re working on a pi story>

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