Monday, December 21, 2009

The Reluctant Sleuth

The classic, traditional stereotype of the detective or sleuth is a person who’s curious, eager to solve mysteries and is never happier than when she or he is “on the hunt.” In fact, Sherlock Holmes was so bored and unhappy when he wasn’t solving cases that he used drugs. And yet, in real life and in some fine crime fiction, sleuths aren’t always eager to be on a case. The case may be particularly disturbing, or the sleuth may be busy with other cases. Sometimes, the sleuth takes a dislike to one of the people connected with a case and for that reason, doesn’t want to investigate. When that happens,the sleuth has to be persuaded by the promise of a fee, a sense of duty or by a superior officer to investigate. That kind of reluctance makes a sleuth all the more human; after all, we all have to do things we don’t want to do. It also adds an extra layer of interest and sense of urgency to a story when, say, another character has to convince the sleuth to look into a case.

We see that sense of urgency in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, in which Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy investigate the murder of Dennis Brinkley, a financial advisor with a rather macabre collection of antique torture devices. Brinkley is killed one night and his body found underneath one of his devices. When his friend Benny Frayle finds his body, she’s convinced that his death was not an accident. The local police believe otherwise, as there’s no evidence of foul play and Brinkley didn’t seem to have any enemies. Benny persists, though, and bluffs her way in to see Inspector Tom Barnaby. At first, he’s reluctant to investigate. Not only have the police already investigated, but Barnaby is busy with other cases. Still, Benny doesn’t give up and Barnaby and Troy slowly come to see that she was right.

Laurien Berenson’s Melanie Travis frequently doesn’t want to get involved in the cases she investigates. Melanie is busy with her own full and sometimes-complicated life. She’s a wife, a teacher, a mother and an owner of prize-winning Standard Poodles. Her husband isn’t exactly enthusiastic about her getting involved in cases, either. Still, she’s often persuaded to investigate. For example, in Raining Cats and Dogs, Travis and her dog, Faith, enroll in obedience classes. The members of the group she joins, the South Avenue Obedience Club, bring their dogs to a local nursing home periodically so as to cheer up residents. When one of the residents is murdered one evening while the group is there, Travis has to be persuaded by the members of her group to investigate.

You’d think that police officers, or those who’ve been police officers, would welcome the chance to solve murders, but that’s not always the case. For instance, in Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, former Soviet Union special investigator Arkady Renko gets caught up in a murder investigation in which he doesn’t want to get involved. Renko has been removed from his position as an investigator in Moscow and exiled to the Soviet fishing ship Polar Star. One day, the body of female crew member Zina Patiashvili turns up amid the day’s catch of fish, and Renko is asked to investigate. At first, he refuses. It’s been his experience that official investigations are chiefly used to protect those in power in the government, and he wants no part of that. But he’s persuaded that without his help, the crew won’t be able to solve the mystery of how and why Patiashvili died.

In Warren Adler’s American Quartet, Washington, D.C. police detective Fiona McBride is having coffee with her partner, Teddy, when they are summoned to the National Gallery of Art to investigate a shooting there. Neither of them wants to do the investigation because both were counting on enjoying the upcoming Fourth of July holiday. A string of three shootings changes their plans dramatically, and it turns out that the killings are related. They’re part of a plan to attack the U.S. President.

Inspector Morse has a similar interrupted holiday in The Secret of Annexe 3. In that novel, the Haworth Hotel is hosting a New Year’s Eve costume ball. Several sets of guests make reservations for that weekend, and three couples in particular are given rooms in the same annexe of the hotel. Late on the night of the party, one of the guests is murdered, and all of the other guests having rooms in the same area of the hotel are among the suspects. Morse has been looking forward to some badly-needed time off, and at first, he’s unwilling to investigate the murder. However, it turns out that he lives very close to the hotel, so he reluctantly agrees to go to the scene of the murder. What he and Sergeant Lewis find is that all of the guests turn out to have fake addresses and names – and lots of secrets.

Roderic Jeffries’ Inspector Enrique Alvarez is fond of good living, good food, and good wine. While not exactly lazy, he’s not usually one to go looking for cases to solve. Yet, they seem to find him. For example, in Definitely Deceased, Alvarez’ temperamental cousin Dolores, who keeps house for him, asks Alvarez to look into the case of a cousin-by-marriage of hers, Miguel Munar. Munar’s suspected of smuggling, and Dolores wants his name cleared. At first, Alvarez resists. The case isn’t in his jurisdiction, and getting involved could get him in a lot of trouble with his superiors. But Dolores makes it clear that his involvement is the price of domestic harmony. After enough cold treatment and bad food, Alvarez reluctantly looks into the case – only to find that the one witness who could clear Munar has himself been brutally murdered. Now Alvarez is sure that there’s more to this case than petty smuggling.

Margery Allinigham’s Dancers in Mourning also features a reluctant detective. Albert Campion, Allingham’s sleuth, is asked by a family friend to find out who’s been playing dangerous practical jokes on the cast of a musical, Memoirs of an old Buffer. Jimmy Sutane, the star of the show, invites Campion to his country home to investigate the incidents. While Campion’s there, the practical jokes turn increasingly mean, and matters get even more serious when Chloe Pye, one of the actresses, falls off a road bridge near the Sutane home. Campion is very reluctant to get too involved in this case because he’s fallen for Sutane’s wife, Linda. He withdraws from the case, refusing to continue investigating, even after another actor, Benny Konrad, is murdered. Campion finally gets involved again when Linda, herself, begs him to solve the murders.

Even Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who is passionate about finding out the truth, and who often says he disapproves of murder, is sometimes reluctant to get involved in a case. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, an old acquaintance asks Poirot to look into the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger. The lodger, James Bentley, makes a very poor impression on Poirot, who’s more than tempted to leave the case alone. After all, Superintendent Spence, who brings the case to Poirot, was careful about getting the original evidence and that evidence suggests that Bentley is guilty. Still, Poirot’s sense of justice (and Superintendent Spence’s request) impel Poirot to find out the truth.

In The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Poirot investigates the murder of Dr. John Christow, a Harley Street doctor who’s spending the weekend at the country home of Sir Henry Angkatell and his wife, Lucy. At first, Poirot thinks the murder scene is a fake – a tableau set up for his amusement. When he realizes that the murder is real, he and the police start to ask questions and investigate. At one point, Lady Lucy Angkatell asks Poirot to leave the investigation alone. He’s very much tempted to do so, but reluctantly says that he’s got no choice now but to find out the truth. Poirot even refuses a case in Murder on the Orient Express, in which he investigates the murder of a wealthy American businessman who's killed while traveling across Europe by train. At one point, early in the novel, the businessman asks Poirot to help protect him from his enemies. Poirot refuses because, as he tells the man, "I do not like your face."

There are, of course, many other crime fiction novels where the sleuth doesn’t want to get involved in an investigation. There’s an argument that that all-too-human reaction can add depth to the sleuth’s character and interest to the plot when it’s done well. Do you agree? Or do you find that too implausible?


  1. I've got one sleuth who is ALL too eager to get involved. And I've got one who just gets pulled into it. I think it does make it more realistic when the sleuth isn't always chomping at the bit. I'm going to have to rein in Myrtle soon. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - Oh, please don't change Myrtle one bit! She's a fantastic character, and I *like* the way she gets involved. You are right, though, I think, that in real life, sleuths don't always want to go diving into a case. It's a tough question sometimes, though, because it is important that sleuths be curious and want to solve cases.

  3. It depends a lot on the plot itself as to whether the sleuth is quick to investigate or not. In some cases, it adds another layer to the sleuth. If he is slow to become involved in the case, you wonder why and what his motives are. If he is quick to jump on the case (when he shouldn't) you wonder again.

    As always a very thought provoking post. Thanks.

  4. Mason - That's a very well-taken point. The plot itself often has a lot to do with whether or not the sleuth is quick to "jump in" or not. Your comment made me think of Colin Dexter's The Dead of Jericho, in which Inspector Morse investigates the death of Anne Scott, a woman he met briefly before she died. In that case, the victim, the plot, and police politics all play roles in why Morse doesn't get involved at first, but then does. I like your insights.

  5. It is probably more realistic that the sleuth is sometimes reluctant than the ´convention´ that he (never a she, is it?) always prefers being on a case to spending time with his family, and that he loathes holidays.

  6. Dorte - You're right; there are lots more conventional male than female sleuths. Fortunately, that's been changing. There's Liza Marklund's Annika Bengtzon, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone and Carol O'Connell's Kathy Mallory, among many others. It's interesting how crime fiction is becoming more realistic as the years go by. We see sleuths who have other obligations, we see sleuths from a wealth of different backgrounds, and we see reluctant sleuths...

  7. Thanks for this, Margot. Every time I read your post I find more books to seek out. I'm often impatient with the reluctant sleuth, thinking "Yeah, right..." I enjoy more the ones where the sleuth's drive and curiosity are the motivating factors.

  8. Bobbi - Thanks for the kind words : ). You have such a well-taken point, too, about the sleuth's drive and curiosity. One of the things that sets good sleuths apart is their drive to find out the truth. Even when there are good reasons to "hold back," many sleuths do still want to "plunge in." There is, I think, a balance between acknowledging that natural drive and acknowledging that the sleuth may have reasons for not "diving in" right away.