“You mean I’m not perfect?” Celebrate those idiosyncrasies in your favorite sleuths…
The “Defective Detective” trope in fiction and media is often viewed negatively. Some readers believe it does a disservice to normalizing mental illness, and many feel it might add to the stigma surrounding sufferers. Below are five detectives whose mental illness acts not as a weakness but a strength of their deductive competencies.
Nero Wolfe (created by author Rex Stout)
Nero Wolfe has many eccentricities: his demands for beer and meals at perfunctory times, his reliance on Fritz and Theodore to keep his perfectly ordered world in order, and his tending of rare orchids, to name a few. To add, he seemingly suffers from agoraphobia—most comfortable in the confines of his famous brownstone. While this agoraphobia is not outright (we see him leave the brownstone on numerous occasions—to rescue Archie in The League of Frightened Men, for one, and more drastically when he returns to his homeland of Montenegro to investigate the death of his old friend Marko Vukčić in The Black Mountain), he avoids the world at large, preferring to let his legman Archie Goodwin tackle the great city of Manhattan for him. What Wolfe’s insular lifestyle allows is a focused and concentrated look at human nature. Without the crowd and noise of the busy streets (he has Archie to fill him in on the social norms of the day), he is given keen insight to people without their surroundings. Stout presents a detective limited by geography but unlimited in his capacity to provide an almost omniscient ability to construct a solution from hearsay. Sufferers of agoraphobia may be viewed as inhabiting a small world, but Wolfe proves he is sharpest when the limitations of his space allow for the breadth of an intellect as large as his girth and a predilection for understanding the human condition.
Ian Rutledge (created by author Charles Todd)
One of the reasons I enjoy the mystery genre is that its serial nature allows me to get to know the characters, for all of their flaws and foibles, over several books. I slip into their world and meet them at their best and their worst. In Ian Rutledge’s case, at his bleakest. Returning to Scotland Yard after the Great War, everything (from his fiancée’s death to a power-hungry superior) falls apart around him and yet he perseveres. There are few fictional portrayals of the aftermath of war and the study of PTSD as complex and beautifully rendered as Todd’s series. From Rutledge’s guilt regarding a deceased Scottish soldier (whose voice still lingers in Rutledge’s head) to cases that parallel the detective’s own demons (another shell-shock sufferer, a catatonic suspect, a double suicide) in books including Wings of Fire and A Test of Wills, Todd does well at painting a portrait of mental endurance. Rutledge’s greatest understanding of human nature is borne of his empathy, and though he is haunted by the war’s shadows, slices of light become more prevalent as Rutledge looks toward his future.
Lord Peter Wimsey (created by author Dorothy L. Sayers)
There are a few moments within the Lord Peter Wimsey series that take us to the less romantic aspects of his illustrious time in intelligence in the Great War. But despite his cordial nature, we know that a dark thread spins through his life as a gentleman detective: his reticence to give orders (thank heavens for the long-suffering Bunter), his convalescence from “shell shock” (PTSD), and his mother’s recounting (in Busman’s Honeymoon) of his inability sleeping. Sayers shows how Lord Peter’s experiences in the war inform his empathy, intelligence, and prowess as a detective while never making him a subject of pity or derision. By presenting these all-too-common symptoms as a ramification of his war time service and simultaneously establishing Wimsey as a jovial and romantic nature (especially in his pursuit of Harriet Vane) and very capable of solving the most complex plot, she normalizes this form of mental illness and shows how Wimsey, though a sufferer, still lives a full and meaningful life.
Sherlock Holmes (created by author Arthur Conan Doyle)
We would probably need a much longer article and several professionals for the diagnosis of Holmes. The canon shows a range of addiction and compulsions. While the modern BBC adaptation finds Holmes telling Anderson he is a “high-functioning sociopath,” so Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 pastiche, The Seven-Percent Solution, also finds Holmes in the realm of psychiatry to overcome his cocaine addiction, this time with the help of Sigmund Freud. Readers and scholars know that a complicated detective such as Sherlock will be a subject to mine forever, and despite his obstacles and hurdles, we are fascinated by how he keeps the great instrument of his mind working. Certainly, he steals into a lethargic mind palace complete with a strange narcotic concoction and stirring Watson’s ir, but behind those glazed eyes, we know that his dormant figure is allowing for the opening of his mind. The stimulation that finds him determined to “rebel at stagnation” may not be found in socially acceptable or mentally healthy remedy, but it is certainly a stark look at the attraction of addiction for sufferers. My interpretation is that this great fault allows for his ability to connect with humans who suffer in different ways, despite his usual automaton demeanor. These characters include Watson, whose war experiences have left him with shell shock, for one, and a woman contemplating suicide in The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger, as another.
When I read the great characters created by authors who chose to explore mental illness amidst their highly clever detectives, I don’t see anything “defective.” Instead, I look at how their weaknesses heighten their humanity and allow them to view human nature in a sharp and focused light. Complex characters are what keep us returning to series and inspire us to pre-order the next installment as soon as it is announced. Certainly, high intellect and twisty plots are a lure, but the keen exploration of human nature is, I believe, the prime lasting influence of great detective fiction.
Rachel McMillan is a history enthusiast, lifelong bibliophile, and author of the Herringford and Watts series and the new Van Buren and DeLuca series. When not reading (or writing), Rachel can be found at the theater, traveling near and far, and watching far too many British miniseries. Rachel lives in Toronto where she works in educational publishing and is always planning her next trip to Boston. www.rachelmcmillan.net.