Investigating a murder is not usually a pleasant thing to do. As homicide detectives can tell you, it’s ugly, often messy, dirty and sometimes, very dangerous. Not many detectives get very rich solving crimes, either. So what draws detectives to the job? Why do police detectives and private investigators keep solving crimes? In real life, of course, different detectives have different motivations for doing the job. For some, it’s the sense of having kept innocent people a little safer. For others, it’s the challenge of the job. Others have other reasons, some of them personal. The same is true of crime fiction. Something keeps crime fiction sleuths in “the business.”
For some fictional sleuths, it’s the intellectual challenge of solving mysteries. That’s certainly true of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. He gets bored when he doesn’t have a case to solve, and as we see at the beginning of The Sign of the Four (among other cases), he gravitates towards drugs when he’s bored. As that novel opens, Holmes prepares a seven-percent solution of cocaine against Watson’s objections. Holmes then says:
"My mind," … "rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession,--or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world."
Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse also seems to stay with the job because of the intellectual satisfaction that it gives him to best the killer. He gets a sort of grim satisfaction out of finding out the truth. For instance, in The Secret of Annexe 3, Morse is called in to investigate the murder of a New Year’s Eve partygoer, although he’s on holiday furlough. He’s asked to look into the killing because the murder took place very near Morse’s home. When Sergeant Lewis arrives to help and Morse knows he can get down to work, Dexter tells us that
There was perhaps just a hint of grim delight to be observed on his [Morse’s] features as he saw the police car pull into the gutter…..and waved to the man who got out of it…
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot also enjoys the intellectual challenge of solving crimes. In fact, he mentions that in more than one case. In Hickory, Dickory, Dock (AKA Hickory, Dickory, Death), for instance, Poirot is asked to investigate a series of thefts of very odd things at a student hostel. One of his reasons for accepting the case is the seemingly unrelated nature of the things that have been taken, and the intellectual challenge that presents. He admits to himself (if not his secretary, Miss Lemon) that he’s been bored lately, and the challenge captures his attention.
Even more than the intellectual challenge, though, Poirot has a passion for the truth. In fact, he says as much in Three Act Tragedy (AkA Murder in Three Acts). In that novel, Poirot investigates the poisoning deaths of Reverend Stephen Babbington, a beloved clergyman, and Dr. Bartholomew Strange, a medical specialist. At one point, Mr. Satterthwaite (an interesting character in his own right) asks Poirot why he interests himself in the murders. Poirot says that he has a passion for getting at the truth, and that
In all the world there is nothing so curious and so interesting and so beautiful as truth.
Curiosity is also a lot of what motivates Rita Mae Brown’s sleuth, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen. As that series begins, Harry is the postmistress of tiny Crozet, Virginia. In that role, she hears all of the gossip and knows all of the neighbors. Her small-town “nosiness” and her intellectual curiosity get Harry into a lot of trouble sometimes as she follows leads. They also very often help her find the clues that she needs to solve murders. My own Joel Williams is also an incurably curious person. He enjoys the intellectual challenge of a mystery, and he finds it hard to leave a puzzle alone until he has the answer.
Sometimes, it’s the desire to see justice done and wrongs righted that motivates a sleuth. That, one can argue, is what motivates Martha Grimes’ Inspector Richard Jury. Jury wants to “get the bad guy” because he wants to see justice done, and in a sense, that’s idealistic. He’s by no means naïve, though; in fact, more than once he shows how pragmatic he can be. For instance, early in The Old Contemptibles, Jury’s in a marketplace when he spots Jimmy the Dip, a local shoplifter. He certainly could arrest Jimmy, but he doesn’t. Not only has he developed a fondness for Jimmy, but also, Jimmy sometimes proves quite useful when Jury’s after “bigger fish.” Interestingly enough, Melrose Plant, Jury’s friend and fellow-sleuth, stays involved in cases for a slightly different set of reasons (although he, too, can be pragmatic and he certainly doesn’t want criminals going free, either). He’s as much engaged in the intellectual puzzle of a murder mystery as he is anything else.
Some of the classic private investigators, like John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, also stay “in the business” out of a sense of fairness and justice. They take cases in part for the money, but mostly because they want to see wrongs righted. Some people have claimed that it’s as much vengeance as it is anything else that drives some of these sleuths, and there’s an argument for that. In McDonald’s The Green Ripper, a sense of vengeance drives Travis McGee to find out who’s behind the sudden (and quite deliberately planned) illness that kills his fiancée, Gretel Howard. In Mickey Spillane’s My Gun is Quick, it certainly could be argued that it’s Hammer’s sense of vengeance that leads him to try to find out who’s behind the “accident” that kills Nancy Sanford, a prostitute he meets by chance in a coffee shop.
Some sleuths stay with the job because they want to feel they’re making a difference. Ian Rankin’s Siobhan Clarke is like that. In fact, towards the end of Exit Music, she and John Rebus have a short conversation about that. In that novel, they solve the murder of dissident Russan poet Alexander Todorov. The two of them find out who killed Todorov and why, as well as who’s responsible for the death of recording expert Charles Riordan and the destruction by fire of his studio. When all is said and done, Clarke says,
“And what do they all add up to, these results?”
He [Rebus] wagged a finger at her. “I’m leaving just in time- a few more weeks and you’d be jaundiced beyond saving.”
“Be nice to think we made a difference, though, wouldn’t it?”
“I thought that was what you were about to prove to me.”
In the end, almost all of the crime fiction sleuths we love – Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole, Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti, and so many more – stay at least partly for that reason. They endure the long hours, the thankless interviews, the sometimes gruesome and nauseating work of investigation and sometimes, real danger, because that’s what it takes to solve crimes. And we love them for it.
Why do your favorite sleuths stick with it?