Retired librarian Robert Lopresti is the author of When Women Didn’t Count, Greenfellas, and several short-story collections featuring private eye Leopold Longshanks (aka “Shanks”). His work appears in The Best American Mystery Stories 2016 and in the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2016 anthology. He also blogs at SleuthSayers and Little Big Crimes. Here he talks about his story “Shanks Saves the World” from the current May/June 2020 issue of AHMM.
I am a librarian, so when I moved to the city where I now live, it was natural that one of my first expeditions was to the public library. And I got quite a shock.
Oh, it was (and is) a terrific, busy, well-stocked library. But there was something I was not expecting.
The fiction section was one big collection, A-Z by author. There was no separate place for mysteries, science fiction, or other genres. Hammett, Heinlein, and Hemingway were all cheek by jowl, as the saying goes. To search for your favorite genre you would have to hunt for labels on the sides of the books.
All very egalitarian, I guess, but not what I was used to. In bookstores and most libraries, they divide the books into categories to make the browser’s life easier. And in specialized mystery bookstores (may their tribe increase) you usually find lots of subgenres: Cozy, Espionage, Hardboiled, Sherlock Holmes, Thriller, and so on.
Which I find pretty helpful. But—and I’m finally approaching my point—those categories aren’t always rigid.
Take John Le Carre’s novels about master spy, George Smiley. Obviously they belong on the Espionage shelf, correct? But in A Murder of Quality, Smiley solves a killing at a boarding school, without a spy in sight. Clearly he is acting as an Amateur Sleuth there.
And how about Rex Stout’s The Black Mountain? It gets shelved as a Private Eye novel, but his P.I.s are gallivanting through the mountains of Eastern Europe. Doesn’t that make it a Thriller?
Dick Francis’s books usually feature a hero battling a known bad guy, which I would categorize as a Suspense novel. I wonder how many of his fans noticed that Hot Money is a whodunit in which the suspects are all members of an extended wealthy family. Sounds like a Cozy to me!
All this has been on my mind because the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine features “Shanks Saves The World.” This is my tenth appearance in those sacred pages with this particular hero. Leopold Longshanks is a mystery writer who only wants to work on his novels but is reluctantly forced by fate (which is to say, me) to solve crimes. In other words: he is an Amateur Sleuth.
However, in this new story, Shanks is trying to raise funds to restore a Depression-era theatre in his city. To collect a big donation from a wealthy ex-music promoter, he has to track down some musicians the man feels he ripped off.
Which means that while Shanks is not working for a paycheck, he definitely has a financial motive this time.
And now let us go the guidelines for the Shamus Awards, which are presented each year by the Private Eye Writers of America:
Eligible works must feature as a main character a person PAID for investigative work but NOT employed for that work by a unit of government. These include traditionally licensed private investigators; lawyers and reporters who do their own investigations; and others who function as hired private agents. These do NOT include law enforcement officers, other government employees or amateur, uncompensated sleuths.
And so it seems that in this one case, since Shanks is hoping to be compensated, he has slipped over into the (unlicensed) Private Eye category. Not that I have cleared a space on my mantel for a Shamus Award, but I do think it’s interesting.
And only after I started writing this piece did I recognize another connection. In April, the Mysterious Press published The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe, edited by Josh Pachter, a collection of parodies, pastiches, and homages featuring Rex Stout’s great characters.
The last story in the book is by me, a crime story which looks at the inhabitants of Mr. Wolfe’s famous brownstone from the viewpoint of grumpy neighbors.
Which means that in the same month that I published a Private Eye story starring my Amateur Sleuth, I also slipped an Amateur Sleuth story into a book about Private Eyes. And so the great circle of life is maintained, I guess.
Come to think of it, maybe my public library is actually onto something.