Is it time to retire the defective detective?

A post at Kill Zone Blog: Is It Time To Retire The Defective Detective?

My instant response: YES YES YES It was time to retire this painfully cliched protagonist AT LEAST twenty years ago.

Let me tell you about the detective in this gritty, realistic noir-ish detective novel: He is about fifty. He is alone. He is an alcoholic, semi-recovered, or self-destructive in other ways. His wife left him and took the children. Probably she left him because she wanted to be the center of his attention 24/7, never mind that someone was killing girls or whatever. She could not cope with the detective working on actual crimes when he should have been arranging special candlelit dinners for two. This shows how sensitive she is and how insensitive he is. He has almost no relationship with his children, who appreciate how sensitive mom is compared to dad. Now here he is, as I said, alone. He barely gets through is days. He is cynical and hopefully competent, though maybe not.

This is Everydetective. I encountered this exact detective innumerable times, in every single gritty, realistic, noir-ish detective novel I picked up until I completely stopped reading that kind of novel. My impression is that the wife is usually a bigger component of this Everydetective’s current life in movies, so the audience can watch the marriage crash and burn on stage, because wow, that’s so much fun.

This is PJ Parrish. This is actually two coauthors. What do they say?

Now, we all love a flawed protagonist. Their personal journey is a parallel track that runs along side the main murder plot and creates interest and empathy. But man, does everyone have to be addicted, divorced, friendless, childless, and beset with demons from their screwed up childhoods? Do we really need another detective whose only steady relationships are with Cutty Sark and John Coltrane?

Spoiler: WE DO NOT LOVE THIS PARTICULAR FLAWED PROTAGONIST. We are very, very tired of Everydetective.

Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, gambling, or just plain paralyzing depression or grief, a large segment of the mystery writing community frequently writes broken protags. Some of these characters have been very critically successful. I have sort of a different take. I tend to regard emotionally damaged protags as a bit of a crutch.

Response: YOU THINK?

PJ Parrish then offers a quick discussion of cliches vs tropes. Without going into the distinction, I will just say briefly that in my opinion, a cliche is a badly done trope. No tropes get old if they are handled well. Readers who like whatever trope will like endless iterations as long as they are handled well. This is no doubt true for this kind of Everydetective as well; it’s just that I find that character unendurable and the surrounding characters equally unendurable and the plotlines that follow Everydetective through the destruction of his life worst of all.

I doubt I will read anything in the gritty, realistic, noir-ish detective genre ever again. I know absolutely for sure that if I am reading a detective novel of any description, the moment Everydetective picks up a bottle in the hope of drowning his sorrows, mentions his divorced wife or his estranged daughter — it’s always a daughter — or wakes up alone in a grungy setting, I’m not only done with that particular novel, but with that author.

In other words: it’s like grimdark. I’m one hundred percent not interested and I never will be.

Also: unlike grimdark, I don’t think it needed to be that way. Grimdark is intrinsically grimdark. But gritty, realistic, noir-ish detectives do not have to be Everydetective. That, in my opinion, IS INDEED a crutch.

For a less diatribe-ish take, you can click through and read the linked post.

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17 thoughts on “Is it time to retire the defective detective?”

  1. I recently enjoyed the detective in George Sanders’ (ghostwritten, but with heavy input) novel CRIME ON MY HANDS: the narrator is Sanders himself in 1942, bored and in danger of getting typecast after playing movie detectives. He gets a starring role on a Western film… and promptly finds a corpse whose murder he SHOULD be able to solve. Did he play all those detectives for nothing??

    Despite being written at peak noir, and featuring several corpses, it’s in many ways a cheerful, lighthearted book—witty, with no intrusions from the narrator’s personal life (he spends most of the book on a movie set in the California desert). It reads very much as a daydream from a guy who did get bored of playing debonair dangerous men!

  2. Now THAT sounds much more like my cup of tea, Mary Beth — I’m off to get a sample. Oh, wait, it’s just $0.99 — I think I’ll just pick it up.

  3. I like the detective novels where the detective used to serve a god or goddess, but the god or goddess died (Kelly McCullough’s Broken Blade series, the Kingfisher books) or where the broken down detective becomes something more (Douglas Hulick’s Tale of the Kin series, which does not have an end, unfortunately), or the Alex Verrus series by Benedict Jacka. These books don’t have much romance in them but do have some personal growth. In a good detective series the mystery is the least part of the story. Oh and of course Martin Walker’s Bruno series is fun, if you read it for the geopolitics and the cooking, as we’ve discussed before. Grimdark is NOT fun.

  4. I’ve got the first Bruno book, though (of course!) I haven’t read it yet.

    I agree that I like the paladins of the Saint of Steel; that’s fine. That’s a lot different from the alcoholic, lonely, abandoned Everydetective I’m thinking of. One of the differences is that the setting is not the typical gritty contemporary setting. Another is that the paladins aren’t exactly detectives. Another is that they aren’t abandoned; they’re supporting each other with considerable dedication.

  5. Oh, I like that: “a cliche is a badly done trope”!

    Can’t say I’m much for noir, let alone murder mysteries. But I can’t imagine I’d enjoy that type of character at all. Wes was reading the Dresden Files for a time as audiobooks and I didn’t find myself interested in what I overheard.

  6. Picked up Crime on My Hands, thanks, Mary Beth! I’ve been done with murder mysteries for a while now (except for the Paladin series, which to me fall into the romance with murder on the side category), but that one sounds fun! I only ever read them for the character and settings (like Brother Cadfael—loved those!), so I never tried the hard-boiled ones.

    (In Harry Dresden’s defence, he transcends the cliche pretty quickly. Most people recommend skipping the first couple of novels; you can catch up pretty quickly even if you start in book 4 or 5. There’s lots of really interesting character stuff happening in the later part of the series. But only if you’re interested in urban fantasy and *all* the tropes thereof.)

  7. The Brother Cadfael books are so lively, Kim—humanist in the best ways, with a protagonist who is deeply interested in and cares about people even after (semi-)retiring from the world. I read them all last year for the first time, and they didn’t even suffer very much from being gulped down one after the other. You start to pick up the writer’s favorite phrases and character types, of course, but it helped me keep a handle on the history, and it was fun to see characters wind their ways in and out of the overarching narrative.

  8. Jasper Fforde took after this one in the Thursday Next. Thursday explains to a fictional detective that the way to uniqueness is, for instance, to reconcile with his wife.

  9. I have never understood the attraction of the Dashiel Hammett category of detectives. I 100% agree with you and Parrish about that. It’s like, yawn, why do we care?

    I recommend Sharyn McCone by Marcia Muller. She is the first of the woman hard boiled detectives. Muller started writing these stories in the ?70s? and the latest is coming out on the 23rd of this month. The delight is that Sharyn grows, her life goes on…and we get to follow along.

    Another fave is a series set in Alaska by Dana Stabenow. Who is Alaskan. A side effect is that she does great book recommendations – she got me onto Benn’s Billy Boyle mysteries.

  10. I’ve never liked the hardboiled gritty noir detectives, but there are a lot of other kinds of detectives out there, some of which I do like: the more human-focused ones like Dorothy Sayers, Arthur Upfield, Helen McInnes, Mary Stewart, Josephine Tey; and the more static puzzle-focused ones like Agatha Christie and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, of which I reread a bunch last year and liked them again.
    Ellery Queen was a puzzle-focused one I read a lot of in my teens; haven’t reread any recently so I don’t know how they’ve held up. Ditto for Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers collection of short puzzle-detective short stories. In my head, the James White Hospital Ship series of medical-detective SF stories also fall in the same ‘solve the puzzle’ category.

    My detective reading focus was mostly in my teens and twenties so I don’t know a lot of newer writers of those kinds of examples, except for Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 ladies detective agency series, set in Botswana, which definitely falls into the human-focused category.

    My reading preferences have definitely shifted to the more character-focused stories, even when they are detectives!
    Any more good tips for those?
    I can’t believe that all the newer detective writers would only write gritty noir hardboiled stuff to the exclusion of all other kids of detectives.

  11. It’s been s while, but I remember liking Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime series – that author is hit or miss for me, but I thought those were cute.

    I haven’t read them but my aunt really likes the Aunt Dimity series. I think it’s more on the cozy end of things?

  12. SarahZ, I liked the first Aunt Dimity when it was new. As is usual for me and mystery series I got tired of it very shortly thereafter. (yes, not even Cadfael was immune. ) So, try it.

    My Teen has been chortling for a few years over the Donna Andrews series of mysteries all with birds in the titles. I didn’t care much for the first one back when they first came to the Teen’s attention, but finally broke down and tried #5, We’ll Always Have Parrots, and thoroughly enjoyed it and have been slowly working my way through the series from there. They are rather less formulaic than other series I’ve tried, and I am also not reading it exclusively. Lots of characters, most of them likeable except ones you’re not supposed to like.

  13. The sequels to The Goblin Emperor that follow Celehar’s investigations, The Witness for the Dead and Grief of Stones, have some flavor of the damaged detective. He’s not an addict, but he’s clearly depressed and isolated, although he is slowly becoming more engaged.

    I read a lot of mysteries for a while but not as much any more. I liked the Dresden Files, although I haven’t read the last couple. I liked Spenser, although I gave them away in a move because I didn’t expect to go back to them. I liked the Dick Francis mysteries, some more than others. And I like Dorothy Sayers very much.

    Hanneke mentioned Helen McInnes and Mary Stewart. I read a lot of those, along with the Dick Francis books, when I was making the transition from the children’s section of the library to the adult in pre-YA days. I think of those jjjnnas romantic suspense rather than murder mysteries, but I am not sure what separates them. The strength of the romance plot, I suppose, but also a more hopeful quality.

  14. Hanneke, I like Agatha Christie too, and I’m using Ellery Queen as a way to challenge my German. (Yes, I know they were originally written in English, but *I* first read one in translation and liked it, and finding books I like in my foreign language is not always easy.) And speaking of German, a PERFECT way to get most confused in Ellery Queen #1 is to not understand the German word for “top hat” (Zylinder) from context alone and promptly spend five pages under the impression that they’re looking for something tube-shaped that’s about the size of the thing that fell out of the mast of Tintin’s model boat in “The Secret of the Unicorn”… :D

    Otter, I unfortunately found that reading WftD was a very good way to ruin Goblin Emperor; I’ve been attempting to forget it ever since I read it. It was too dark for me, particularly coming off something as hopeful and uplifting as GE was.

  15. I need to do a post about excellent mysteries!

    Heather, I didn’t feel QUITE that strongly about WftD, but I also didn’t much like it. “Dark” wasn’t the problem for me; Celehar’s extreme passivity bordering on self-destructiveness was the problem.

  16. Yes of course OtterB, good catch, I’ve got most of Dick Francis’ detectives in my occasional rereads bookcase – though not the one with the depressed private investigator, that one’s too depressing. Depressed loner detectives aren’t for me, I quite agree with Rachel and the other commenters here!

    I recently read the cosy mystery Furbidden fatality by Deborah Blake, where the main character buys and renovates a run-down pet sanctuary in the Catskills. I liked it, though the two follow-ups were a bit weaker in my opinion: I don’t like the way the murderer gives a detailed confession to tie off all the loose ends. I also find the suspension of disbelief harder in cosy mysteries, such supposedly real-world settings when some innocent woman keeps running into murders in some ordinary peaceful village, and the police bumbling the investigation and letting her step on their toes, repeatedly. So mostly I don’t read cosy mysteries and not many cat-assisted detective mysteries; but enough people have recommended Donna Andrews birds-series that I think I’ll just have to try them sometime.
    Thanks for the ecommendations!

  17. Yes, please do a post about excellent mysteries! I did read a lot of Dick Francis and still recall some of them pretty well. While he definitely had a type for the protagonist, that he rarely reused one helped the mysteries seem less formulaic to me.

    completely off topic
    I thought of you when I ran across this article: https://www.wsj.com/articles/big-love-for-a-small-dog-pets-i-need-rudy-as-much-as-he-needs-me-runtof-the-litter-3d0e996f?mod=opinion_feat2_commentary_pos2. I don’t think it’s behind a paywall – I got to it while not signed in.

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