Addicted to Addicted Detectives

Crime fiction is cheerfully described as an addiction by many of its fans, including such diverse personalities as Sigmund Freud and Woodrow Wilson. Just as neurochemical addicts have an endless menu of obsessions to gorge on (alcohol, tobacco, narcotics, gambling, chocolate, sex…), crimefic addicts have an ever-growing and ever-mutating variety of subgenres to sample. But one sub-subgenre has been with us since the beginning: the literary detective hooked on his or her own addiction, fighting crime as well as the DTs or withdrawal.

I’ll stick with literary detectives here, a big enough subject all by itself; detective-addicts in film and TV will have to wait their turn.

The first literary detective, Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, wasn’t an addict but, as a traumatized shut-in, was certainly not healthy. But with Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (hooked on morphine and cocaine), the first superstar fictional detective, we see the beginnings of an archetype that stretches from late Victorian England to modern Scandinavia (Harry Hole, alcoholic, and Kurt Wallander, near-alcoholic) to San Francisco (Hayden Glass, sex addict).

Why would a writer inflict a potentially debilitating disease on a detective-protagonist, who needs to be clear-headed in order to do the job?

Christopher Vogler, in his seminal The Writer’s Journey, maintains that “the dramatic purpose of the Hero is to give the audience a window into the story.” To do this, heroes need to be “propelled by universal drives that we can all understand” and can’t be “stereotypical creatures or tin gods without flaws or unpredictability.” (In other words, they can’t give in to the deadly Mary Sue syndrome.) One way to achieve this is to ensure the hero has a weakness or character flaw, which makes him or her more human.

This device was certainly needed for Holmes, who could otherwise be a pretty obnoxious character. Other detective savants (such as Hole and Rex Stout's food addict Nero Wolfe) likewise need something to offset their purported brilliance so we’ll continue to care about them. Jo Nesbø (Hole’s creator) is upfront about this: “You also have to have a conflict on the inner level. And to me Harry’s fight with alcoholism is sort of a symbol of Harry’s fight with the world and with himself … alcohol is Harry’s Kryptonite.”

But why continue to use this characterization crutch when the 1930s rise of the everyman-detective supposedly gave us heroes we could readily identify with?

Vogler again: “Flaws also give a character somewhere to go,” or an arc. “Flaws are a starting point of imperfection or incompleteness from which a character can grow.” Much of detective fiction starting with Holmes has been series fiction, in which we move through many cases with only a recurring protagonist (and his/her small supporting cast) to string them together. As each crime gets solved (usually) by the end of the novel, the only throughline is the protagonist’s development—or lack thereof.

An addiction is an easy way to throw continuing obstacles in the protagonist’s path and to continue to challenge him/her even as we know he/she will beat the bad guy. Will he get sober? Will she stay sober? Will this villain/sweetheart/case drive him off the wagon? For instance, both James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux and Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder have won and lost bouts with alcoholism over the course of their many adventures. Recovered alcoholic Temperance Brennan (Kathy Reichs's print character, not the Emily Deschanel TV version) thinks longingly about booze at various points in Déjà Dead as shorthand for her growing distress at the goings-on around her.

The ever-looming bender is also a convenient roadblock in case the detective-protagonist is solving the crime too quickly or seems insufficiently haunted by it. It’s also an excellent way to create conflict with coworkers and any remaining loved ones. For instance, John Rebus (Ian Rankin's borderline alcoholic) can be relied on to drink himself blind when circumstances require it, and Harry Hole’s cases could be wrapped up in novellas if he’d stay off the sauce. Even if the detective doesn’t actually fall off whatever wagon he/she is on, the threat of or longing for relapse (such as Robicheaux’s recurring “dry drunk” dreams) can layer internal tension onto whatever external tension the case provides.

Further, if the detective-protagonist is the author’s stand-in, the character’s addiction can be a device for the author to work out his/her own problems. Arthur Conan Doyle’s father was an alcoholic, and late in life Doyle himself became a sort of addict (to spiritualism and the supernatural). James Lee Burke is a recovered alcoholic, as is Ian Rankin. Stephen Jay Schwartz (creator of Hayden Glass) is a recovered sex addict. The confessional-by-proxy can be a kind of therapy. Says Rankin, “Crime writers are usually very well-balanced, approachable people, because we channel all our crap onto the page.”

It’s pretty clear why writers love this device. But why do readers stick with these afflicted characters? Back to Vogler: “Heroes have qualities that we can all identify with… Audiences love watching Heroes grapple with personality problems and overcome them.” We all have greater or lesser weaknesses; a “perfect” protagonist would be unrelatable and off-putting. The greater the Hero’s gifts—keen observation, encyclopedic memory, supernatural powers of deduction, an unswerving sense of justice and duty, a mean right hook—the less our ability to identify with him or her. But a potentially fatal weakness balances out all that capability and allows us to not only identify with the Hero, but maybe feel a little superior.

And that’s why we may never go on the wagon from our addiction to addicted detectives.

Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His addiction (other than dark chocolate) is writing, which brought about his 2012 debut international thriller Doha 12. He tweets (@lcharnes) about scuba diving, shipwrecks and archaeology, among other things.

Read all posts by Lance Charnes for Criminal Element.


  1. asfandancer

    I love a flawed men, and no one is more flawed the Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole. He is without a doubt my favorite literary character. Thank you for including him in this article.

  2. Ken

    And then here’s James Ellroy’s detectives, who are often some of the most addicted (to booze, pills, dames, obsession itself) and flawed ever created.

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thank you, sir, for referencing me in such fine company. And I’m a big Vogler fan, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *