Morse drinks too much and can’t maintain a relationship. Poirot is vain, narcissistic, and Agatha Christie couldn’t stand him. Holmes is quirky, obnoxious, and addicted to morphine. Dalgliesh suffers endless grief and depression. And we don’t even need to get started on the film noir detectives. Many of our detective heroes are deeply flawed individuals who would make bad friends and worse lovers. I use the word heroes advisedly here. While there aren’t as many female detectives out there as men—although their numbers are increasing—most of the women seem pretty well adjusted. Some of them actually have friends.
The men, however, are another matter. They are often isolated, lonely, moody, addicted, abrasive, self-absorbed. Of course, they are also frequently attractive and brilliant, decent and just, but these aren’t the main reasons for their enduring fascination. Why, you may wonder, do we like our fictional detectives to be so miserable?
One reason, I’m sure, is that the stereotype reflects characteristics of large numbers of real detectives and police officers. These individuals see, on a daily basis, horrors that most of us can’t imagine. The nature of the work and consequent stress wreak havoc in the lives of those trying to catch criminals responsible for murder and mayhem. At the same time, police authorities are frequently reviled by the very people they are meant to serve. If this isn’t a recipe for failed relationships and substance abuse, what is?
Another reason is that in order for mystery stories to work, fictional detectives need to be believable. Perfect people are not believable and would probably be dreadfully annoying. I know no one without imperfection; if I did, I would doubtless cross the street to avoid him or her. The heroes of crime fiction have a lot going for them: they are intelligent, generally attractive, and full of admirable qualities. Without flaws, they would run the risk of being, at best, intimidating and, at worst, extremely boring. Each of us is flawed, and the reader’s (or viewer’s) own flawed nature readily identifies with the weaknesses of the protagonist.
As there must always be an exception to prove the rule, it is notable that Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby of Midsomer Murders (especially in his first incarnation as Tom) makes an implausible hero in crime fiction. He is sane, happily married, good-humored, and lacking in evident vices. Yet he is a wonderful and enduring character and is much loved. Go figure.
Some suggest that crime writers are attempting to purge their own demons through writing about misanthropes and killers. Others reasonably argue that all fiction is, in fact, mystery fiction. The reader must want to know what happens next, or will stop reading.
I suspect that characters, be they detectives or other fictional characters, are simply more interesting when they are flawed—the darker the better. All that needs to be done is to consult the nearest Complete Works of Shakespeare. His work exemplifies and celebrates the fatal flaw. Hamlet’s dating profile would likely include the words possibly insane, motivated by revenge, and I might kill your father. While it’s arguable the Macbeths are happily married, they aren’t exactly the most admirable of power couples. And you don’t really want to take the jealous, gullible, and violent Othello home to meet the parents.
Whatever the motivation, we can’t seem to get enough of our tortured heroes. About a year ago, as a freshly minted crime writer, I attended an event hosted by my publisher. Speaking to another guest, glass in hand, I proudly announced that I was writing a mystery series. “Oh,” she said, “I do hope you don’t have one of those dreadful alcoholic detectives in it.” I muttered that, er, well, I supposed I had, and scuttled away to get another drink. In retrospect, though, I shouldn’t have been embarrassed. After all, my imperfect detectives are in very good company.
Janet Brons is the author of the Forsyth and Hay Mystery series—the second of which, Not a Clue, was released October 13. Before taking to crime writing, she worked as a foreign affairs consultant following a seventeen-year career in the Canadian Foreign Service, with postings in Kuala Lumpur, Warsaw, and Moscow.