Fictional detectives don’t fundamentally change over the course of a story. They may hone a skill, become savvier, gain experience, but their personalities remains intact. They may undergo an experience that requires transformation, permitting them to overcome personal flaws or weaknesses. Conversely, such an experience may weaken or challenge them, making them vulnerable in a new way. But what draws readers to appreciate fictional detectives and to care for them and their success in the course of the story, even over the course of a series, remains consistent.
Detective fiction is metafiction where the narrative seeks the interaction of the reader, and the detective and her nemesis reveal themselves as author/creators. Detectives have a keen sense of narrative, how stories work, how plot unravels, how the criminals they deal with are writing the script they are in. It goes beyond the concept of understanding human nature to understanding meaning. Detectives understand the criminal as an agent in a plot and with this understanding, the detective also writes a competing narrative. The device of the red herrings is an example of a false narrative.
What are the conventional character traits of the fictional detective?
- They are usually brilliant people, with a particular gift or strength, “super power”, or amazing ability: eidetic memory, extraordinary deductive reasoning skills, the ability to read minds, or gifted with languages.
- They have acquired expertise in a profession or unusual skill that gives the character interesting depth or aids the detective. They may be a poet, a code breaker, a forensic accountant, a psychiatrist, a chemist, a physician, a mathematician, or former or current police detective. They may be a firearms expert, possess arcane knowledge of the history of bookbinding and paper, the history of the Civil War, 17th Century Art, but whatever it is, the knowledge is comprehensive and has exacting depth.
- In some ways the detective is an outsider, misunderstood, does not fit in, either by circumstance or by endowment. Some of our most memorable detectives have been so marginalized they are loners. Yet it’s this aspect of the detective that not only allows the reader to empathize and connect, it gives the detective an edge in solving crime. Many times the detective hides this aspect of herself from others. It’s typically only the reader and confidants who are aware of it.
- They suffer from some sort of physical, mental or psychological challenge. These challenges may be temporary or permanent, like Inspector Alan Grant in Josephine Tay’s Daughter of Time who is temporarily laid up as he solves the crime of Richard III. Yet other challenges are permanent. PD James’ inspector Dalgliesh struggles with the death of his wife and child; Monk battles a spectrum of anxiety, OCD, and a seemingly endless list of phobias; Holmes and House fight addiction and generally don’t like people; Sookie Stackhouse refers to her gift of telepathy as a disability.
- They usually have a tragic event or psychological trauma lurking in their past. This is really a specific example of the previous characteristic, but if the detective isn’t suffering from a challenge, look for this. Juvenile orphan detectives always by definition suffer from a tragic event in their past.
- They always have someone who is the ballast that plays by the rules but whom the reader doesn’t value –or if they do, it’s for the benefit of the detective. There is always tension between the detective and the ballast. House and Cutty is a good example of this kind of relationship. The ballast is not a nemesis, but can turn into one.
- The detective figure has a powerful sense of justice, but that does not mean they always possess a fully developed sense of empathy. Detective Goren from Law & Order: Criminal Intent is a detective who has an interesting sense of empathy for the criminal as well as the victim. His peculiar, and sometimes, crippling empathy leads him to his criminal but also leads him to self-destruction.
- There’s something about them that is idiosyncratic, eccentric –some distinctive mannerisms that make them interesting, unusual even.
- They don’t play by the rules.
- There is a thin line between allure and repulsion. One the one hand the reader may adore them, but meeting them could very well be a disaster.
- They often have a crippling obsession.
- They are generally sickened by society.
- Often, they have experienced a fall from grace—something happened to them, such as losing an illustrious career.
- They are ultimately an enigma. They do not like to receive help from others and thus trust very few people. The reader knows the detective best.
- The detective often has a rival who plays by other rules, the official rules or the depraved rules, and oftentimes that rival becomes part of the crime/problem.
- Usually the detective’s reputation is on the line. They live in a liminal situation, willing to risk everything.
- Setting is important to the detective story as well, the time period. Something about the setting/time period is ill: cold war, Edwardian England, post-9/11, prejudice, tacit cover-up of a crime, conspiracy, and the detective often has to work in a setting that is hostile to her efforts.
These conventions have developed through detective fiction’s beginnings and its evolution. Not all fictional detectives have these characteristics but to a degree many seep in. Even with the intimate allure readers have with the Amateur Sleuth who gets drawn into an investigation due to personal stakes, these conventions become necessary to make the plot work. Authors challenge these conventions as they invent new forms and reinvent past ones, recasting their detectives with more subtlety, drawing the reader into a relationship with a detective who is interesting and equipping their detective with the characteristics, skills, and gifts they need to solve the crime and create opportunities for tension and conflict.