Ten Essential Private Eye Skills + An Interview with Stephen Graham Jones

By: Stephen Graham Jones

From Philip Marlowe to Magnum PI, private eyes pretty much know what’s going to be part of this case they know they shouldn’t have just taken: their client’s lying to them, they’re going to be set-up and framed at every step, they’re going to get no help from the police, somewhere along the way they’re going to be left for dead, maybe even in a grave they had to dig themselves, and, to cap it all off, they’re going to be cheated out of not just a payday—their code won’t allow them to cash in—but they’re not even going to get their fee.

Private eyes, what makes them special, it’s that they take case after case in spite of all that. Sometimes as an elaborate form of punishment they think they deserve, for a life they no longer lead, and sometimes because they’ve got a Batman backstory, a great injustice at the core of their moral fiber that they’ll never be able to set right. But maybe they’ll get lucky this time, right?

No, they always get lucky. Because you make your own luck, from wits, with nerve and spit and sacrifice and not a little bit of blood. You’re going to have to use all your underworld contacts, Rockford, and you’re going to have think one step ahead, Columbo. And you’re going to have some friends who are bruisers, like Joe Pike, like Nate Romanowski. And it doesn’t hurt if there’s a Moneypenny in the mix somewhere as well. And don’t worry: all the bad guys, they’re aiming for that flesh-wound part of your arm. Wrap a bandanna around it, you’re good.

In order to even get that deep into a case, though, far enough that it’s personal not just for you but for the big boss as well, well, you need to have a little life experience, and a very particular skill-set:

1) First, you need to able to drop a loaded pistol without it firing. Part of that too is that you can’t flinch when it maybe should have fired. It’s just aiming for the ceiling, likely, but there’s a good chance your body’s between the floor and the ceiling. Granted, you can shake the cartridges from the cylinder if it’s a revolver, or thumb the clip out if it’s an auto, but be aware that every second you’re fiddling with that pistol, that’s another second for some hair-trigger in the room to misinterpret your gun safety, and end the case right there.

2) Second, you probably need to have spent the night in the drunk tank a time or two. Not to meet contacts or to know the police station from the wrong side of the bars, though that helps, but because what being there charts is your low-point. Everything you do after that, then, it’s a climb up to your true potential. It also breeds a healthy skepticism about the system. Particularly, the system you’re not exactly welcome to participate in, except in handcuffs. This will inform your attitude, your character, your every decision. Fox Mulder, say: he didn’t trust anyone. It’s how he lived as long as he did.

3) Third, if you’ve at some time or another pawned your most dear possession, then that’ll give you something definite and physical to miss, and to want back. Which is far preferable to indulging yourself in flashbacks of the hazy past, and how white-picket-fence it was. That battered old guitar, though, or that 1974 Monte Carlo, or that brass figurine, it’ll make you lovable, as you evidently can’t see that it’s not the guitar you want, but the girlfriend you use to play it for. More, each case out, each time back out on the streets, you’ll get so close to getting that guitar back this time. And, while it might look like you’re leaving it at the pawn shop out of honor, or to preserve your memories, or because you don’t deserve it yet, we can read the truth, here: it’s that you’re growing into a different person. Each case has its arc, but so do you, and it’s you we’re coming back for time and again, bub.

4) You need to be not just passable at pretending to be someone else, but an ace at it. And it’s not about the uniform, the clipboard, the jargon. It’s about the confidence. The same intuition that allows you to inhabit the head of whoever you’re after, this case? It also allows you to, for a few minutes, step into the shoes of a gas meter reader, a fumbling legal aide, a truck driver—whoever you need to be to get in the door. You’re just doing your job, you wish you weren’t here either, but the sooner you can have some alone time back in the file room, the sooner you’ll be gone, right? Right. Every single time.

5) One thing you won’t like but are going to need over and over, usually at the end of chapters, it’s a thick skull. Because you’re going to get sapped relentlessly. And not just with saps, either. Pistol-butts are usually handy, but there’s knees, there’s car doors, there’s brick walls; you’ll find the world of this case if just full of things you can get knocked out with. So, learn to deal with the short-term memory loss that results from repeat concussions. Best bet? Mask it with alcohol and a glib, easy way with words. People will think you’re clever, or at worst a couple sheets to the wind. They’ll never stop to suspect head trauma.

6) Prepare to wake up tied to a chair at some point. Best bet, here? Go the no facial hair route. Otherwise that tape they rip off your mouth, it’s going to be unpleasant. I mean, sure, you need to cultivate a barfly kind of five o’clock shadow at all times, just to showcase what you do and don’t have time for, but don’t let that shadow become a pushbroom or a foodcatcher. And, your face is a blank slate for disguises, right? Make putting a mustache on a mask. As for the ropes at your wrists and ankles: don’t worry. The few times they’ve been properly tied, you can still always fall over onto a broken bottle, work a jagged piece of glass against that hemp. No chair can hold you. It’s in the rules, and that handbook’s distributed to both sides, don’t worry.

7) Learn to lie to the cops. By omission and misdirection, but it’s for their own good: if they knew what you know now, then they’d go in guns blazing, and that wouldn’t only put good people in jeopardy, it might get abducted innocents caught in the crossfire. And of course, before all that, this is already personal to you, isn’t it? And, anyway, if the cops somehow don’t already think you’re the guilty party here, then at the very least they’re going to laugh off this theory you’re presenting to them. Because you don’t have the facts. You never have the facts. You work on intuition and deduction, not evidence. Evidence is for flatfoots. It’s what you need for the courtroom. Trust your gut, instead, and play it close to the vest at all times.

8) This one’s not pleasant, but take heart, as it’s the best indicator that you’re on the right trail: at some point in the case, two or more thugs are going to jump you, give you what-for. As warning. As lesson. As punishment. Don’t feel bad, either: since there’s two or more of them, and they’re usually ex-wrestler types, the schoolyard bullies of the criminal underground (but not from the math team), you’re not losing any honor by the treatment they’re doling out, here. There’s nothing you can do. The real trick, it’s trying not to smile under the punches. Each blow means you’re almost there, this case is almost over. Just hold on a little longer, and try to land a couple of punches back, just as sincere thank you.

9) Ninth, know how to walk out of a bar with a snubnose in your lower back. It’s harder than you think. Your legs, which have known how to work since you were in diapers, they’re now these strange things you no longer have direct control of. And, it doesn’t matter that whoever’s holding that snubnose has no real intention of shooting you, either. This is just the only way they know to deliver you to the next clue. It’s a kindness they’re giving you, really. Otherwise you might have had to pick the lock on the big boss’s office yourself, and, while locks should be your specialty, they’re always tricker than you remember. So, walk along, hands up, face calm. This is all perfectly normal.

10) Last, practice your signature quips. Not like Travis Bickle, saying the same thing over and over into your mirror, but like Winston Churchill, carefully plotting out all the taunts and ripostes and casual judgements and timeless lines that won’t just work in every possible outcome, but that’ll slay. It’ll pay off, seriously; if you do it right, it might even become your signature. The real trick with the quip, though, it’s not to burn it too early in the case. Sure, you might have practiced enough that you think you have one for every situation, can keep dealing them out for hours, but that last one’s not going to land with that Lenny Briscoe jadedness unless it’s a surprise, unless the all the terrain in front of it’s been quip-free, pretty much. Then your quip, it becomes not just a punchline to this joke you’ve been tricked into again, but it shows how you’re already ready again, for the next case. Bring it on, world.

Stephen Graham Jones

An Interview with Stephen Graham Jones by Robb Olson

The immensely productive, genre-hopping novelist Stephen Graham Jones, spoke with Robb Olson, of the Booked Podcast about his new novel THE LEAST OF MY SCARS, published by Broken River Books in December of 2013.

Robb Olson: Your protagonist in The Least Of My Scars faces a very antagonistic appliance. Can you show me, on the doll, where the wet/dry vac touched you?

Stephen Graham Jones: I think I was about four or so. My grandparents at the time ran a laundromat in Big Springs, Texas, and on the weekends I’d hang out with them, and they’d let me and my brother ride in the industrial dryers. It was my first time in the belly of the beast. Also, I remember once, in somebody’s shop, spinning the top off their wet-dry vac to look for something we’d accidentally sucked up. So, I spun the top off, had my face right there, and those innards, that was some truly gag-inducing stuff wafting up, enveloping me, embracing me, asking me to come inside, that’s we’re all happy here, just pass out, lean forward. Some things you can’t forget, no matter how hard you try.

RO: In other articles you’ve talked about inspirations for Scars, and your process of revisions. I’m interested to hear what the most interesting research you had to do for Scars was?

SGJ: It really was research for All the Beautiful Sinners. When the publisher hit me up for something with a serial killer, they told me to read all I could on serial killers first. So, dutiful that I was, I went to the public library, checked out as much my card would let me, starting reading and reading all this disturbing terrible stuff. The worst of it was probably where William was born: I cracked open Harold Schecter’s big Encyclopedia of Serial Killers or whatever that one is, and all these fine, cut black hairs spilled out onto my stomach and lap, and my hands. Every single page of that book, it had these little half-inch silky black hairs in it. I read the rest of that book on a level surface, careful not to breathe too hard, and then I turned it back in just as it was.

RO: A serial killer whose victims come to him is a brilliant concept. What inspired the thought?

SGJ: Those ant lions. You ever play with them as a kid? They used to be my favorite. I loved to find their pits and just feed more and more bugs to them. And I’d try to dig them up but they’d always get away somehow.

RO: The reality of events on the book is often uncertain, especially regarding who survives. Do you know what really happened, or is this a story that truly is a mystery?

SGJ: For me, William lives, but it’s a living death, of course, unless he can cue back into that blissful ignorance, that heaven he was living in before. And I think he can. Singer’s goons die, but he lives. Evil always lives. Mary’s not in so great of shape, really. Who else do I need to account for? 

RO: How important was it for Scars to be truly unsettling?

SGJ: I wanted to see how far I could go, I guess. Or, I wanted to see what was really in my head, like. What I can always feel kind of moving around way at the back, that I have to dress up in different ways, most days. So, it wasn’t about unsettling the reader so much as it was about me thinking I could get it all out on the page and trap it there, and not have it in my head anymore. I should know by now, though. That never works.

RO: Is there any insider info on Scars that you can share?

SGJ: That I haven’t already talked about. I did just today figure out the song I got Dashboard Mary’s name from. Bob Pastorella though it might be the song of the same name by Podunk—and that’s a very cool song, and I could have even heard it at some point—but it’s Jethro Tull’s “Crosseyed Mary,” as it turns out. When I hear that song, it cues her up for me. However, why I changed the name, it was some movie I’d just seen, with one of those hula girls or Mary bobble-bodies suction-cupped onto the dash of a car. Can’t remember which movie, though, alas. Let’s see, insider info . . . for me, this was secretly set in Buffalo, or whatever that Canadian city is that’s right up there by it. 

RO: The shadow hands behind the wallpaper – do you know what’s on the other side?

SGJ: My guess is the arms that belong to those hands, and the body, and the face, and the mouth, and that mouth is wide, and it’ll eat us all if we don’t tend the wallpaper.

RO: You’re well known for the volume of your output, but with all authors publishing is a waiting game. How do you feel about stories going unpublished?

SGJ: I’m not fond of it? At least in regard to my own stories. But, if I scroll through my various randomly-named directories, I know I’ll find about a collection worth of stories that I wrote one afternoon and forgot about. So, I’m not fond of stories going unpublished, no, but I think I’m mostly talking about stories that get rejected, stories that my whole heart’s in. Not stories that I can’t remember to call anything remotely associated with that story’s title, and then hide in a directory I’ll never look in again. And, it’s not that I don’t care for those stories. It’s just that I have bad and stupid ideas at inopportune moments. And those moments often come exactly when it’s time to hit save. But it’s a lot of trouble finding files. So much easier just to write something new.

RO: You recently wrote (regarding writing stories) that “usual endings” and taking the soft way out isn’t enough, and that you have to push it. When you push, is it for the sake of the story, the reader, yourself, or something else?

SGJ: The story, first and always. You’ve got to be honest to the story. I’m really resistant to endings which aren’t clear, which suggest instead of state, which ‘trust’ the reader as disguise for timidness, for not believing in where this thing wound up. Ninety-eight percent of any story is just craft, it’s just sentences and paragraphs, it’s balancing dramatic line and narrative, it’s being your own closest and most critical reader, it’s entertaining without indulging, it’s teasing the reader into engagement and then betraying them in the worst way possible, because that’s what they want. But that’s all muscles. That’s stuff anybody can learn, can develop, can maintain. If they’re committed. But that last two percent of any story or novel, that’s where the craftsmen and the artists separate themselves. The artists close their eyes and jump, and trust there’ll be a ledge waiting out in that inky darkness. And a lot of the time, doing that, you fall, and keep falling. The trick is, next time you get to that ledge, jump again, just as certain that you’re going to find the other side. You’ve got to be able to see it. I never realized it until recently, but Kierkegaard was talking about exactly this a lot of the time when he was talking about what he called faith. And what I guess I would call faith as well. But it’s not something you can force, not something that responds to muscle. Just desire. And, I mean, I wish I could say that after nearly two hundred stories published and nearly twenty books, that I’ve got to where I can judge that space better. But that’s a thing you never learn, I don’t think. If you ever do learn, then it’s not longer a blind leap. And if it’s not a blind leap, it’s hardly a satisfying ending for the reader. Remember in Pinero, when he’s talking about how writers are pearl divers? It’s maybe the best thing I’ve ever heard about writing. And I think his dives are my leaps. And he’s right: it uses you up. But we’re all going to get used up some way. Might as well be in service of something bigger than yourself.

Robb Olson is an avid reader and cohost of the Booked. podcast. He also writes a monthly horror television column for This Is Horror, and was a publisher for the award winning anthology The Booked. Anthology