One of the interesting things about crime fiction novels is the way they reflect society’s changing attitudes and values. If you look at the evolution of the mystery novel, you can see how those attitudes have changed over time. That’s why, for instance, today’s crime fiction addresses certain social issues in increasingly honest and forthright ways. It’s also one reason for which there’s such a diversity of different kinds of sleuths, each of whom has a unique approach to solving crimes. Those differences among sleuths add fascinating layers of interest to their stories.
In the early days of crime fiction, most sleuths were white men. They varied, of course, to some extent. Most, such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Ngaio Marsh’s Sir Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot were “gentleman detectives.” There were some female sleuths; Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Prudence “Tuppence” Beresford, and Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane are some examples. But in the main, sleuths were arguably, “of a type.”
The “hardboiled” crime fiction novel paved the way for the working-class detective. Many of those “hardboiled heroes” didn’t come from privileged backgrounds, and they didn’t confine themselves to “upper class” cases. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is just one example of the “hardboiled” sleuth who added an important new dimension to crime fiction. Hammer frequently investigates cases that involve people from lower social classes. For example, in My Gun is Quick, he investigates the death of a prostitute. In The Big Kill, he finds out who killed a down-and-out con man who’s trying to “go straight. “
The class barrier is, of course, not the only one that’s been broken by fictional sleuths; the race barrier has also been broken. Beginning (at least in the U.S.) with John Edward Bruce’s The Black Sleuth, sleuths of color have become an increasingly important factor in crime fiction. The Black Sleuth is the story of Sadipe Okukenu, a Yoruba from West Africa, who travels to the U.S. state of Maine to continue his formal education. In the United States, Okukenu encounters the institutionalized prejudice of the times (this novel was written in serial form between 1907 and 1909), and in fact, Bruce used that treatment as a platform for social critique. Later, Okukenu becomes a detective for the International Detective Agency. He’s recruited to trace the whereabouts of a valuable stolen diamond, which he follows from the U.S. to Europe, and back to Africa. This story was never finished, so we don’t know what the outcome is. But The Black Sleuth arguably helped pave the way for today’s black sleuths, such as Walter Mosley’s Ezekial “Easy” Rawlins and Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. There are, of course, numerous other very popular fictional sleuths who aren’t white; there isn’t room in this one blog post for me to mention them all. But it is interesting to see how the concept of who gets to be a sleuth has broadened.
That concept also now includes strong female characters as sleuths, and these sleuths also bring a unique perspective to the genre. Even during the Golden Age of crime fiction, some mystery authors wrote about female sleuths. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Tuppence Beresford and Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane are three examples. We might argue that these authors were ahead of their times in that regard, because there was still a great deal of institutionalized sexism while they were writing. Today, of course, the female sleuth is a force to be reckoned with in crime fiction. A lot has been written about this evolution in crime fiction, so I won’t rehash it here. Just a few examples should serve to make my point. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett are very different, of course, but they’re both strong, smart characters who haven’t stopped being what people call feminine because of that. That balance, between powerful characterization and femininity, can be difficult to achieve, but these authors do. So do many others, including Alexander McCall Smith, whose Precious Ramotswe is very strong, yet she’s traditionally feminine in many ways.
Sleuths’ personal lives have also become much more diverse as time has gone by. There are, of course, more traditional sleuths, such as Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache and Caroline Graham’s Tom Barnaby, who are married. There are also gay sleuths, such as Richard Stevenson’s Donald Strachey series. Strachey is an openly gay private detective who lives and works in Albany, New York. While he often investigates murders within the gay community, he doesn’t always. For instance, in Tongue Tied, Strachey investigates the murder of a far-right radio “shock jock” who’s outspoken in his anti-gay views. Strachey is often assisted by his partner, Timothy J. Callahan, who’s a more strait-laced character. Callahan’s an attorney for the State of New York, and his connections are sometimes very helpful to Strachey.
Mark Richard Zubro has also created a gay sleuth, Paul Turner. Turner is a Chicago police officer with two teen-age children, one of whom has spina bifida. His partner, Buck Fenwick, is not gay. In Another Dead Teenager, Turner and Fenwick investigate the high-profile murders of Jay Goldstein and Frank Douglas, two teenage sons of powerful Chicago families. Because of the victims’ status, Turner and Fenwick are under a great deal of pressure to find the killer as soon as possible. At first, no-one can imagine what would have motivated the killings. Both boys were well-liked, successful high-school athletes. They weren’t involved in drugs, gangs or any other activities that would have made them enemies. As the pressure on Turner and Fenwick increases, they look deeper into the connections between the victims, and find out that their deaths are connected to an old secret that the killer has kept for a long time.
Another kind of diversity in sleuths has been sleuths with disabilities. We usually think of disabilities as being debilitating and making it difficult, if not impossible, to function, let alone take on the many challenges of sleuthing. But there are several sleuths who haven’t let having a disability get in the way of their investigations. One such sleuth is Michael Collins’ Dan Fortune, who lost an arm in an accident while he was looting a ship that was docked at New York. After he recovered, Fortune served in the Merchant Marines and then became a private detective. Since he can’t really get involved in physical fights, Fortune tends to use his wits, rather than strength, to get out of difficult situations and to get answers. Dick Francis’ jockey-turned-racetrack investigator Sid Halley has a similar disability. He permanently lost the use of his left hand after a fall, when a horse stepped full on it. Later, the hand had to be amputated. While he struggles to deal with this loss, it doesn’t stop him from investigating racetrack crimes.
Vivian Gilbert Zabel’s Midnight Hours also features a sleuth with a disability. Lieutenant Martin Rogers has lost the use of his legs as the result of a gunshot. While he’s trying to recover, he spends a lot of time on the Internet, and soon meets a woman who goes by the name of Midnight. She and Martin strike up a relationship and he soon falls in love with her, despite the fact that she’s extremely reticent about herself. Rogers begins to suspect that Midnight may not be what she seems, and he tells two of his colleagues and Assistant District Attorney Lisa Harris about his concerns. Soon, they’ve connected Midnight to a group of suspicious deaths, and they set up a “sting” operation to catch the killer. As it turns out, Midnight is much more elusive than anyone thought, and now Rogers himself is in real danger as the team tries to stop the killer before anyone else dies.
One very interesting sleuth with a disability is Michael Palmer’s Dr. Thea Sperelakis, the sleuth in his The Second Opinion. Sperelakis returns to her native Boston from her work with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) when her father is gravely injured by a hit-and-run driver and left in a coma. Thea Sperelakis and her brother, Dmitri, become convinced that their father was deliberately targeted, and they start to investigate what really happened. Their other two siblings are eager to have their father’s life support cut off, so Thea has to work quickly to find out what was behind the crash. As a cover, she takes a position at the prestigious institute her father founded, and begins to find out its secrets. What’s interesting is that Thea Sperelakis has Asperger’s Syndrome. While that complicates her ability to form and maintain social relationships, she has a near photographic memory and a precise eye for almost un-noticeable details. She also has a brilliant medical mind, and uses these skills as she investigates.
In modern crime fiction, nearly anyone can be a sleuth. Today, that includes people from just about any background, of either sex, in just about any personal situation. As more and more social barriers have been broken in real life, this has been reflected in crime fiction. That evolution has resulted in an incredible diversity of sleuths and unique approaches to crime-solving and that benefits the genre. What changes have you seen in the kind of sleuth who populates crime fiction? What changes do you see coming next?