Who wants to buy a PI novel?

They’re talking about it at Rara-Avis. It’s spreading to other lists, message boards and email discussions. Though it seems to take place on an annual basis, for whatever reason, the age-old question of whether private eye fiction is dead seems to have taken on an extra urgency.

But what’s missing is some hard data, even of the anecdotal variety. Sure, people can name all sorts of established writers who sell well, but if you’re trying to shop a novel of your own in any genre, the best means of comparison is to look at what debuts are out right now, or have been released in the last year.

And for PI fiction, well, there just isn’t very much. After the jump, I compile a list of upcoming and recent debuts (read: 2004 and later) and make some sort of vaguely generalized comments. And if there are books missing (especially those due out in late 2006 and 2007), by all means, tell me and I’ll add them to the list. But enough conjecture, optimism and speculation. This is about data, pure and simple.

Sean Chercover, BAD CITY, BAD BLOOD (William Morrow, 2007)
Lisa Lutz, THE SPELLMAN FILES (Simon & Schuster, 2007 – young PI working for her dysfunctional family’s firm)
Tim Maleeny, STEALING THE DRAGON (Midnight Ink, 2007)
Tom Cavanagh, title TBA (Thomas Dunne/SMP, 2007)
Ray Banks, SATURDAY’S CHILD (UK deal with Polygon, 2006, Manchester PI Cal Innes, with another to follow)
Nick Stone, MR. CLARINET (William Morrow, 2006 — already out in the UK with Penguin/Michael Joseph)
Miriam Auerbach, DIRTY HARRIET(Harlequin/Next, 2006)

Thomas F. Monteleone and Rick Hautala, EDDIE POE, PI (Borderlands Press, 2006)
Mario Acevedo, THE NYMPHOS OF ROCKY FLATS (Rayo/HarperCollins, 2006 — vampire PI in Denver)
Declan Hughes, THE WRONG KIND OF BLOOD (William Morrow, 2006 — Irish PI)
Charlie Huston, ALREADY DEAD (Del Rey, 2006 with vampire PI Joe Pitt –also 2 earlier novels in 2004 and 2005)
Steve Hockensmith, HOLMES ON THE RANGE (SMP, 2006 — not strictly PI but they sure act like them)
Harry Hunsicker, STILL RIVER (SMP, 2005 — followed by THE NEXT TIME YOU DIE and 2 more)
Jeff Shelby, KILLER SWELL (Dutton, 2005, with more to follow)
Duane Swierczynski, SECRET DEAD MEN (Point Blank Press, 2005, now moved over to SMP for standalones)
Michael Kronenwetter, FIRST KILL (SMP, 2005)
James R. Winter, NORTHCOAST SHAKEDOWN (Quiet Storm, 2005, with 2 to follow)
Dan Vining, THE QUICK (Berkley, 2004, followed by THE NEXT — paranormal PI)
Richard Aleas, LITTLE GIRL LOST (Five Star/Hard Case Crime, 2004)
Will Thomas, SOME DANGER INVOLVED (Touchstone, 2004 — followed by TO KINGDOM COME and 2 more)
Michael Koryta, TONIGHT I SAID GOODBYE (SMP, 2004, followed by SORROW’S ANTHEM and 2 more)
Michael Siverling, THE STERLING INHERITANCE (SMP, 2004, to be followed by THE SORCERER’S CIRCLE)

Now, which of these books got the most money? Lutz’s is probably tops at the moment with the “significant” deal, but that’s because there are film rights and it’s a fairly high concept idea. Koryta just got a good deal for his next 2 books, as did Hughes and Hockensmith for their initial forays. Nick Stone was pre-empted, but Penguin has been pushing this book like crazy since it was published in Britain earlier this year.

So why did those books get more money and the other ones not? Perception of mass appeal, the fact that these books are probably more thriller than mystery, take your pick. Sure, dress them differently and they could be standard PI novels, or take out the twist — like Charlie Huston’s vamp-PI and other paranormal PIs that are following in his wake — but then you lose the hook.

Which is the bottom line. No hook, no money, and most people –especially women — who are making their debuts as crime writers seem to want to find their hooks elsewhere, not within the PI subgenre.

Still, I’d say the PI novel isn’t dead, just resting — and there are up-and-comers interested in writing stories and even novels featuring that patented PI. But the subgenre is a hell of a lot deader than procedurals or “ordinary/extraordinary” thrillers or paranormal tales or chick lit mysteries or cozies.