The detective novel has been around for a long, long, long time. Most of us have read and enjoyed the canon, but now we want something different: a realistic storyline and detectives that feel like real people. Here are a few examples of what works for me.
The Wounded Detective
It’s hard to be a gumshoe when you’re missing a leg. Robert Galbraith’s detective, Cormoran Strike, limps through the streets of London running down leads. It’s clumsy and painful, but Cormoran is determined and eventually finds his murderer.
Often the detective’s wound is psychic. Many times it’s addiction, beginning with the granddad of all detectives, Sherlock Holmes, and his cocaine habit. But way, way too often, we read about the detective’s alcoholism. If it wasn’t for Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole’s brilliant gifts as a sleuth, Harry would’ve been fired from the police force years ago. And then there’s Inspector Morse who never met a pub he didn’t like.
The newest trend in the wounded detective convention is mental infirmity. Back to Holmes, in TV’s new Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant detective pegs somewhere on the autism spectrum. The bipolar Carrie Mathison is a brilliant, ungovernable force in Homeland. And let’s not forget the psycho detective, Dexter.
My favorite detective is Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. His psychic wound is his obsession with his job. It’s cost him his marriage and complicated his relationship with his grown child. In every story, Wallander visits his surly father who for decades has painted the same landscape. Some paintings include a grouse in the foreground, some paintings not. The parallelism isn’t lost on Wallander.
Just When I Thought I Was Out, They Pull Me Back In
Originally spoken by Michael Corleone in The Godfather, it continues to work as an effective mystery convention for the reluctant detective.
Blade Runner, my favorite neo-noir, hands down, stars Deckard—a detective who’s left the force, but gets pulled back in for one last case.
The TV series, The Killing, begins when detective Sarah Linden finds a missing teenage girl in the trunk of a politician’s car on her last day of work.
High Stakes for the Detective
This convention is not necessarily followed in a police procedural, but the best private eyes have more skin in the game than merely doing their job.
A great example is Jake Gittes in Chinatown. Initially Gittes is humiliated when a woman posing as the wife of Hollis Mulwray hires Gittes to follow her philandering husband. The stunt ends with Mulwray’s photograph on the front page of the LA Times and Gittes being slapped with a lawsuit by the real Mrs. Mulwray. Gittes begins the story by trying to find who made a jackass out of him, and ends up tracking down a murder and a tangled story of city and county corruption. Gittes discovers that the two women he’s been investigating are innocent and in danger. He tries to rescue the women, and the story goes “Chinatown.”
From book to book, abused and neglected children tug on the heartstrings of Dennis Lehane’s detective, Patrick Kenzie. In A Drink Before the War, Patrick begins a case of missing-person-with-missing-documents as just a job to make the rent. But once he finds the missing woman, Patrick signs on to fight a corrupt senator and champion a raped child.
The Eureka Moment
The detective has gathered a boatload of testimony and evidence, but he can’t make sense of it. An off-hand remark, or a stray image suddenly ignites the detective’s imagination, and the pattern emerges. Henning Mankell typically uses this convention in his Wallander mysteries, and Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect often has these ah-ha moments.
As a fan, I relate to the modern detective much more than the days of Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey. As a mystery writer, I relate deeply with the modern detective and her story. Like the wounded detective, I’m a solitary, introverted, and poorly-dressed creature who believes at heart that I’m misunderstood. The drive to tell a compelling mystery outweighs all the rejection and lack of money, and I believe in the inspiration that follows a long slog of hard work the way a child believes if she’s good, Santa will come.
Lily Gardner lives in rainy Portland with her husband, two corgis and several thousand books. Betting Blind is her second in the Lennox Cooper series of hard-boiled detective fiction.