My nominee for that slot would be a fellow named Matthew Scudder, the creation of a writer who shall remain, Uh, nameless. I’ll tell you, if I were going to hire a private eye, Scudder’s the last one I’d pick. He’s either drunk or going to AA meetings, which leaves him with precious little time for work. His girlfriend’s a hooker, and his best buddy is a career criminal and multiple murderer. And he does weird things: In one book he clears his client of a murder the man really did commit, then frames him for one he didn’t have anything to do with. Who in his right mind would have anything to do with a guy like that?
Vastly overrated, in my opinion.
It seems to me that all fictional private eyes are either over- or underrated. If we can remember their names, they’re overrated. If we can’t, well, they’re underrated, but how can we say who they are? As soon as we think of them, they cease to fulfill our requirement.
There are, as it happens, two private eyes I can think of very clearly, but I can’t remember their names because I never knew them in the first place. One is the creation of Dashiell Hammett, but he’s not really underrated, because everybody knows him, as the Continental Op. People write doctoral theses about him, for heaven’s sake, and it’s axiomatic that the subject of a doctoral dissertation is never underrated.
But there’s another guy whose name I don’t know, and neither does anybody else. He’s the fellow Bill Pronzini has been writing about for something like a quarter of a century. The man has been the hero of a couple of dozen spare and well-wrought novels, and he’s grown and aged and gone through changes, even as you and I.
Critics refer to him as Nameless. But he’s got a name. He just doesn’t let us know what it is. “I gave my name,” he’ll tell us, coy as can be. If he gave us his name, we’d bandy it about all over the place, and before you knew it, he’d be overrated.