"I'm tired of the tortured detective. Enough already!" [Crime forum comment]
The detective or private eye with a troubled home life, relationship issues and a weakness for substance abuse is such an enduring trope in crime fiction that I think it’s fair enough to ask crime writers whether it isn’t time to have a whipround for his leaving present.
Where the Devil Can't Go
I’ll come clean here and admit that my own crime debut Where the Devil Can’t Go, has as its central character the Polish private eye Janusz Kiszka, a man marked not only by a broken marriage and a wodka-fuelled history, but also by the psychological legacy of trauma he experienced as a young man fighting against Poland’s repressive Communist regime. I’d also argue that his demons are fundamental to the story.
The history of crime fiction is littered with sleuths who are perfectly at ease with themselves, going back as far as Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone, a tradition continued in the 20th century with the Miss Marple school of detective. But while these characters are like chess grandmasters, whose brilliant deductions simply steer us through the plot, in most contemporary crime fiction, the personality, failings, and moral landscape of the detective are intrinsic to the unfolding drama.
For me, this personal dimension adds a layer to stories that might otherwise risk having the emotional pull of a crossword puzzle. Why does it need to be such a tortured private life? Perhaps because in real life, the gentle rhythms of everyday contentment are great, but in fiction they are simply dull. We’d soon tire of Rebus or Tom Thorne if they left the office at 5.30pm to watch Emmerdale with their adoring wife and kids, or if Wallander was the life and soul of the local karaoke bar. And this touches on another character trait central to the really great detectives, from Philip Marlowe to Harry Hole, Matt Scudder to Dave Robicheaux. They are obsessional loners, who invest their energies in solving crimes to the exclusion of all else. And obsessional people don’t tend to have terribly relaxed home lives. To these guys, it’s personal, and if it weren’t, then their mission wouldn’t be nearly so involving for us as readers.
In the real world, police detectives and their private counterparts tend to be professional, highly organised, and analytical. The murder squad cops I know spend much of their time doing paperwork, meeting arbitrary targets imposed from above, and hoping for a good slug of overtime. They try not to get personally involved in cases, because if they did, it would undermine their ability to do the job. It’s telling that there’s a term used by police officers to describe colleagues who are obsessive about work – job-pissed – and it’s not meant as a compliment.
Troubled souls are also more likely to be mavericks, prepared to break the rules, and however much we might disapprove of that in real life, in our fiction we want to see them chasing down the bad guy regardless of whether they filled in the right form first. This desire goes to the heart of crime fiction. I think we read crime for a powerful and simple reason: to see good triumph over evil. And to some degree it usually does. If our detective caught the bad guy, stopped further deaths, and enjoyed a blissful family life, there would be none of the light and shade essential to a good story. In the best crime writing, the troubled detective’s unresolved struggles provide a much-needed refrain in a minor key.
So by all means, let’s stretch the boundaries of the Troubled Detective but let’s not bully him into taking early retirement. There’s life in the old curmudgeon yet.
Where the Devil Can’t Go by Anya Lipska is published by The Friday Project.