It is generally acknowledged by most writers in the PI genre that the three authors --- the Big Three, if you will --- who most influenced the genre and subsequently those who came afterwards, are Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. There can be no denying the importance and impact this trio and their respective bodies of work have had --- and probably will always have --- on our genre.
With all due respect and recognition for the aforementioned, however, my own personal Big Three is a little different ...
For me, it all started with Mickey Spillane. I discovered him (and basically the whole hardboiled/tough guy/detective genre) when I purchased a copy of THE GIRL HUNTERS. That was 1962. I still have that exact same book on my bookshelf and it was autographed by Mr. Spillane himself in 1997 on the set of the film "Mommy 2: Mommy's Day". The film was directed by Max Allan Collins, another fine writer and probably the world's biggest Spillane fan. Spillane had one of the starring roles in the film, I had a bit part as the "Burly Guard" who wheeled Mommy on her way to the lethal injection chamber. It was a great experience made even more so by getting to meet Spillane and finding him to be nothing short of a totally gracious gentleman.
Getting back to Spillane the writer, however, THE GIRL HUNTERS ignited what had up until then been a sort of low, smoldering ember in my gut to become a writer and brought it to full flame. I found and devoured all the rest of the Mike Hammer books I could get my hands on and then started seeking out other titles by other authors in the same vein ... Halliday, Prather, Avallone, Kane, Marlowe (both Chet and Dan J.), Deming, Carter Brown, and on and on. I enjoyed most of them to various degrees but none quite reached the same level of excitement and raw energy I found in Mickey's stuff.
Early on I discovered that I preferred book series over stand-alones and that led me next to John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee. My first McGee was BRIGHT ORANGE FOR THE SHROUD. This came at the whole tough guy thing from a somewhat different angle than Mickey and Mike ... more depth, more introspection, stronger secondary characters. When I first started reading ORANGE I actually found it a little slow and almost put it aside ... thankfully, I stuck it out and as plot momentum started to build and and the climax was reached I knew I was hooked on MacDonald/McGee.
In very short order I then came across Donald Hamilton/Matt Helm in THE RAVAGERS. Okay, I know Helm is not a PI (except for a pathetic and happily short-lived TV series that came along later) but one of the jacket blurbs promised me a tale about the toughest protagonist "to ever crush a Russian spy's kidney with a crow bar" and that was enough for me to give it a try. Plus, this was a point where the whole James Bond spy craze was really picking up steam and inasmuch I enjoyed the movies (as detailed in a previous post) I had at least a peripheral interest in spy fiction if it promised something similar. As it turned out, the writing style and storytelling approach were more closely akin to my tough guy PIs than to the Bond movies (I never quite got hooked on the Bond novels). Still, that was hardly a disappointed. Helm fell somewhere in between Hammer and McGee --- tough, relentless, even cold-blooded at times, but also reflective and enriched by memorable secondary characters (both villains and allies). Helm also had a wry sense of humor that I liked a lot.
So when I sat down and began writing my own stuff --- stuff that eventually evolved into the Joe Hannibal series --- the styles of these three writers became the primary mix of ingredients for my own storytelling stew. Seasoned, of course, by dashes from my own experiences, biases, skills, and also dabs of spice from all the other reading I had done.
Which is not to say that I intentionally set out to copy any of them, but every writer knows that his or her output has influences, although filtered, that to at least some degree shows through. Someone once said that even if a writer who actually has skill and talent purposely tries to mimic another, their own voice will win out.
I tend to believe that.
I hope, to some small degree, I've done justice to my "teachers".