Some thoughts about fictional detectives

Detective stories aren’t really about solving mysteries.

Very few detective stories are Encyclopedia Brown-style “solvable murder puzzles” where the reader can find every clue necessary to discover The Truth. Even most of Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes stories are not solvable puzzles; Sherlock has insights and background knowledge the reader does not. Most mystery stories play with hunches and suspicions, but almost never with full, fair data. This is because most mystery stories are not as much about the mystery as they are about the mystery-solver.

Mystery novels featuring a private eye or a detective are almost always primarily character studies. We are likely to spend a lot of time watching smart people struggle with difficult problems. We are going to spend a lot of time ‘in’ their brains, following their patterns of thought and learning about how they think. Their personalities become the entire organizing logic through which we see a world. Though the mystery may change every novel or every week, the window we see the world through– the detective– does not.

It is therefore necessary that the detective’s brain be a fun place for the audience to hang out. The detective must look at the world in a fresh, fascinating way. If the story has long-term character development, he or she must have secrets, or drama, or something fraught and tense that they can think about all the time– some problem that lives wholly or largely in the brain. An interesting nut for the detective to crack. Our shared fantasy of fictional detectivehood is generally a fantasy of an incredibly smart, troubled person whose brain is so mysterious and cool that we must spend many books or many episodes of television unriddling it.

And despite the fact that they have no ongoing character development whatsoever, the Sherlock Holmes stories are, of course, the ultimate example of this. Most modern-day adaptations of the story add significant character development to Holmes in order to make his brain even more interesting. It is fitting that the “fandom” for the Sherlock TV show fixates so heavily upon Benedict Cumberbatch and his character as an object of (often sexual) fantasy: Sherlock Holmes stories were always about ordinary people fixating on and obsessing over and worrying about the much-more-interesting life and brain of the famed detective, and fans replicate those patterns in the real world. They adopt Watson’s worshipful awe as their own. Sherlock Holmes stories have always been about ordinary people describing and marveling over the fascinating brain of a much more interesting and important person, and this very much par for the course for detective stories in general.

It is true even when the detectives in question are not tremendous, wonderful, sexy, pedestal-standing people. The Wallander books by Swedish author Henning Mankell– who died, actually, in October of this year– are a character study of an incredibly ordinary person with extremely typical problems. But Kurt Wallander’s problems have interesting stakes, and his brain becomes interesting because we care about it and because its contents are familiar enough that we sympathize with them. He may remind us of people we know, dads and grandads we know.


This weird frisson between his highly unusual problem-solving detective brain and the difficult familiarity of his problems is even more effective in the three excellent seasons of the Swedish TV show starring Krister Henriksson. Henriksson’s Wallander is the ultimate cranky old community misfit, uncomfortably occupying both a position of power and a position somehow outside the normal functioning of the community. He is always both exactly where he needs to be and terribly out-of-sorts. We watch with fixed attention as he experiences a variety of absolutely tragic miseries and stumbles over them with his sad, fraught detective brain. I, personally, would watch an episode consisting entirely of Wallander crankily trying and failing to board a flight at an airport. Though he’s no Holmes, this is exactly the kind of fascinating broken loner detective brain we all expect and crave from the genre.

Of course, the loner identity is the other side of the detective-brain coin. Because they think so differently from other characters in their fictional worlds, our detectives are very often major loners. they run the full gamut from ‘amusing and eccentric aloneness’ to ‘apocalyptic aloneness.’ They may have a partner, and they may have a family, but there is usually something about them and their precious brain and precious problems which makes it hard for them to fit in with the rest of their community. Holmes is a loner. Wallander is a loner. Rust Cohle and Sarah Linden and Alec Hardy and John Luther and Stella Gibson and Will Graham and, reaching back, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are all loners, to greater or lesser degrees. Here in the US, Netflix has just released a BBC TV show called ‘River’ where Stellan Skarsgaard, trying very hard (and failing) to not sound as Swedish as he actually is, acts the part of a completely bonkers detective who is so alone and miserable that he hallucinates the presence of his murdered partner almost 100% of the time. Our logic goes: if we are going to spend this much time in a stranger’s brain, it better be interesting. And ‘interesting’ usually means ‘broken’– so ‘interesting’ and so ‘broken’ that this person must be totally, astonishingly alone.

Of course, this is not all innocent drama. It is political that one of our major entertainment genres is primarily concerned with telling elaborate melodramatic stories about the precious brains and precious problems of imaginary good-guy policemen. And it is also wierd that we are glorifying and idolizing a bunch of imaginary people whose behavior nevertheless conforms pretty closely in many cases to untreated depression and other serious untreated mental illnesses, especially when these problems are credited with giving them their “appeal” and “charm” and “mystery.”


And these imaginary people are all so elaborately broken! Now, I don’t actually know any detectives personally, but I hear tell that the vast majority of them are fairly ordinary people whose lives feature no extraordinary, melodramatic level of brokenness or aloneness. Most people, I think, are aware of this. The Sad Lonely Detective Man is very obviously a trope that we use because it is fun, not because it tells any great truth about detectiving or detectivehood. I think the point of detective stories is to give us a place where we can do outrageously melodramatic character studies, where we can feel free to stretch out and roll around in the misery-mud with a bunch of wan-faced wasting men and women. The framing fiction of a ‘detective story’ has built-in goals and built-in villains and provides excellent structure upon which we can hang the frail, tortured skins of our imaginary brain-dudes.

I think this genre has largely become about what it is like to be various kinds of lonely sad person. We may not really have any idea what it is like to detect shit, but we all know exactly what it is like to be sad. The detectives are all establishment figures, System People, and that makes it easy and uncomplicated for the average person to empathize with their complicated sadness. We definitely need this place in fiction where loads and loads of imaginary sad characters can putter over fairly-formulaic problems while the story really focuses on how sad and interesting their brains are. I am not being facetious! There are so many of these stories, and they are all so similar, that there really must be something in them that we want. They aren’t filling a niche; they are filling in a gigantic crater of lonely sadness. They’re doing a good job.

Of course, I am not being entirely fair to the genre. The formula is much more varied than I have described it. You have shows like The Blacklist, where ‘the detective personality’ has been displaced from the actual detectives onto their criminal consultant; you have the US version of The Killing, which features loners but gives them absolutely no hint of abnormal brilliance. Broadchurch has one drama detective and one relentlessly ordinary detective, then partially swaps their roles at various points in the story. You have stuff like Columbo, which turns the misery-brain trope on its head, featuring instead a very down-to-earth detective who is interesting for his common friendliness. You have anti-detective stories, like Twin Peaks, where the detective’s smart-man expertise makes absolutely zero sense to the audience. The genre is so big that I cannot ever cover it comprehensively. There are endless twists on the formula. You can probably name many yourself.


But we do cleave to the formula a little too tightly. For example, we will even stretch it to include baffling examples of “anti-establishment” policemen. On The X Files we followed the adventures of two rebellious FBI agents who, over the course of the show, somehow managed to shed almost 100% of their institutional qualities and become entirely anti-system rebels while inexplicably retaining their jobs– and even when they lost their jobs, we received two replacement agents who began an identical journey from scratch. We’d apparently rather jump through those bizarre hoops than deviate even slightly from the time-tested detective-man plan!

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about this lately because I am halfway (well, slightly more than halfway) through writing an interactive mystery story myself. In some ways, it is extremely formulaic: it features a very alone adult man who has a melodramatic past and who is trying very hard to solve a murder case. But it also deviates from the formula in a few ways I think are important. I have been taking absolutely for-fucking-ever to write this story, but I am making consistent progress, and that’s giving me a good environment to slowly mull over what I think of these tropes and whether they are useful or good for me. It is important to think about what you are supporting or buying into through the tropes and stereotypes you use in your work. I have a better idea of what I like, now.

But: I would recommend staying far, far away from TV Tropes when doing this kind of thing. Losing yourself in TV Tropes has never been better than simply marathoning a TV show or chain-reading an entire book series and just allowing yourself to get lost in someone else’s story. A writer reading TV Tropes is like an alien trying to learn what a cake tastes like from a cookbook. The best solution is to simply go eat the cake.

A final story: since first or second grade, I have been repeatedly and relentlessly informed by all my peers and many of my elders that I am extremely weird, and that I have an unusual way of putting things and of looking at the world. I can’t disagree. As a child I had an encyclopedic command of large numbers of useless facts, an aggressive, double-barreled stare, a complete lack of interest in all gendered social activities, and a habit of constantly trying to get and hold other people’s attention. Though this stopped being a problem for me over a decade ago, when I was very small I derived enormous amounts of angst from my defective personality. But in third grade, after a life-changing classroom reading of The Red-Headed League (that I still remember with bizarre detail), I ended up absolutely inhaling Sherlock Holmes. I read almost all of the original canon without stopping and later re-read it all on a yearly basis, novels and all, all the way up through high school. I found the stories soothing, not least because they were about a weird person whom everyone seemed to worship.


As a child I took Sherlock Holmes as proof that someone could be weird and smart and alone, but nevertheless fulfilled. I sort of idolized the Holmes-Watson pair as an example of complete and ultimate friendship, and I took it as proof that if I could only do one or two things extremely well, then someone would admire me for it and be my friend. It did not occur to me until much later that the Holmes-Watson friendship is actually rather shitty, and that Watson is constantly trying to get away from it by marrying people and having a career. I also sort of glossed over the fact that Holmes is a sexist and that he probably would have despised me if he were real. For quite a long time, my secret role model and idol was a caricature of a grouchy fictional British detective, and I can tell you: it didn’t do me much good.

In high school I changed my behavior dramatically and became rather decent at making friends. My opinion of Sherlock Holmes changed too, and although I still think those stories are the finest short stories ever written, I no longer treat glorified miserable smartass aloneness as a thing to aspire to. As a result, my relationship to the entire goddamn mystery genre has changed. I don’t necessarily laugh at these stories, but I do a lot of laughing with them, with their melodramatic mud-rolling misery, and I think I enjoy them in a more genuine way now that I can treat them as inherently absurd.

I think the true sign of real comfort with a genre or style of writing is the ability to treat it as completely ridiculous. Not necessarily all the time, but some of the time, certainly. I would give a lot to be a fly on the wall in some of my favorite detective shows’ writers’ rooms. I would like to see whether they laugh at themselves, and how much. I think I can guess which writers’ rooms are relentlessly po-faced.

Hint: it’s probably not the best ones.