Solving mysteries, especially murders, isn’t your normal, average, everyday thing to do. Making a living solving them can take its toll on a person, both physically and psychologically. So most “normal” (if there is such a thing) people don’t get involved in crime-solving. You could argue that it takes a special kind of mentality to be at very close quarters with crime – especially murder. That may be one reason why there are several fictional sleuths who are, you might argue, just a little crazy. After all, it would be nearly impossible to spend so much time around crime and criminals and not have it affect one. And you could even argue that it takes a certain kind of lunacy to be attracted to a life of crime detection in the first place.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes certainly isn’t what most people would call “normal.” He keeps strange hours, he’s addicted to cocaine and morphine, and he doesn’t exactly have strong social skills. He goes through long periods of seeming indolence, followed by frenetic activity that sometimes lasts for days. Many people would argue that Holmes has sacrificed any emotional connections he has (apart from his friendship with Watson) in favor of the intellectual stimulation of deduction. Is he crazy? Maybe. But he’s also brilliant, and has a keen insight into the way criminals behave and especially, the traces they leave behind.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has often been accused of being a little crazy. In fact, his friend, Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp, has said Poirot has “a tortuous mind.” Poirot is obsessive about order and neatness. In fact, in several novels in which he appears, Poirot’s obsession with order and neatness give him valuable clues to the murderer he’s chasing. That happens in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and the play, Black Coffee, among others. Poirot’s been known to abruptly leave gatherings, narrowly miss being hit by a bus, and other odd behavior when he’s struck by an idea. Several of Poirot’s acquaintances have been dismayed by some of the strange things he does. And maybe he is a little “touched.” But his ability to get to the psychology behind a murder is uncanny. So is his way of getting people to confide in him. He also happens to be brilliant.
Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer also would probably not be classified as exactly “normal” (again, if there is such a thing). He’s got what modern psychology would probably call anger management issues. He drinks far more than is good for a person, and is often reckless and self-destructive. He doesn’t seem able to maintain a relationship; in fact, many people have called him misogynist. Is he crazy? Maybe a little; he certainly doesn’t have what most people would call a balanced lifestyle. But he’s doggedly determined, brave, and very ethical in his own way. And for some people, Hammer’s all the hope they have.
Hammer has some modern-day descendants, so to speak, who aren’t exactly what you’d call “sane,” either (if we can really define that term). For instance, many people might call Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch at least a little crazy. For one thing, he has real difficulty working with authority figures. He has trouble managing his anger, too. For instance, in The Last Coyote, Bosch pushes his supervisor, Lt. Pounds, through a glass window and finds himself suspended and required to undergo psychological counseling before he can return to his job. Pushing someone through a window is not exactly a normal, psychologically healthy thing to do. You could argue that Harry Bosch is at least a little off his proverbial rocker. It’s that very passion, though, that pushes Bosch to do what he considers to be the right, ethical thing. It’s that very anger at what he considers injustice that drives him to solve cases.
Another modern-day sleuth with some similarities to Bosch is Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus, former member of the Special Air Service (SAS). Like Bosch, Rebus has what a modern psychological specialist would call anger issues. He most certainly has difficulty relating to figures of authority, too. In many of the Rebus novels, he’s been suspended for disobeying an order, for going outside the bounds of his own authority, or for some other breach of policy. Rebus is a heavy drinker who finds it all but impossible to maintain strong personal relationships (although he does have a bond with his daughter, Samantha). Rebus might certainly qualify as very much in need of counseling. In fact, in Resurrection Men, Rebus and some other police officers are sent to Tulliallan Police College for just that purpose. And yet, Rebus is determined, has a strong sense of justice, and can withstand the horrors and seaminess he sees as a part of his job. Would we call him a lunatic? Could be, but it’s sometimes his very oddities that help solve cases.
Robert Crais has created some very oddball sleuths whom you might call unbalanced, even crazy. Joe Pike, for instance, is an ex-Marine, ex-member of the L.A.P.D. He’s a part-time soldier of fortune and gun-shop owner who’s been known to carry guns in his guitar case. In fact, he often carries several weapons at the same time. He prides himself on showing as little emotion as possible, and he isn’t exactly what you’d call a warm, friendly individual. But he’s got determination, “street smarts,” and a strong sense of what is right. So does his partner, Elvis Cole, who you also might say has a screw loose. Cole owns a detective agency and sometimes calls himself “the world’s greatest detective.” He shares his house with a very independent black cat, and protects himself with a .38 caliber revolver. But in many ways, Elvis Cole isn’t exactly what you’d call a “normal” detective. He keeps Disney characters on the desk and file cabinets in his office. He’s even said he’d like to be like Peter Pan, never quite growing up. Are Pike and Cole crazy? Maybe a little. But between them, they’re quite good at solving some very nasty cases.
And then there’s Ricardo Carlos Manoso, AKA Ranger, who works with Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. Ranger is a former Special Forces operative with a somewhat mysterious past. For some reason, he’s no longer welcome in the state of Nevada. He’s also been connected with the death of drug dealer and gangster Homer Ramos. Ranger lives in a vacant lot, and is CEO of RangeMan, LLC, a protective services company. He also has done mercenary work all over the world. Ranger’s got a somewhat checkered past, including time in juvenile prison. Perhaps he’s a little crazy. But he’s also Stephanie’s helper and mentor, and he’s absolutely fearless. He’s a crackerjack bounty hunter, too.
And then there’s Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun, Laos’ chief medical examiner. In many ways, he’s what you might call normal. He was thrust into this career when he himself had planned for quiet retirement, and does the best he can with what he has. But is it really “normal” to share your body with a thousand-year-old shaman, as Dr. Siri does? Most people would say, “no.” And yet, Dr. Siri has profound insights into people that help him solve cases.
No discussion of sleuths who may be a little crazy would be complete without a mention of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. She’s a social misfit with anger issues of her own, caused in part by a harrowing past. She’s also got what modern psychologists might call troublesome issues with relationships. She’s also a fearless and highly intelligent sleuth who also happens to be a very skilled computer hacker.
So, in the end, do you have to be a little crazy to be good at solving mysteries? I don’t think so. All of us could, I’m sure, think of a long list of fictional sleuths who are what most of us would call, “normal.” That has its own appeal, as readers can identify with a “normal” character thrust into extraordinary circumstances. But being a little crazy can make a character interesting, add suspense and twists, and allow the reader to imagine what it would be like to break out of what we think of as “normal.” Who are your favorite, “maybe-a-little-crazy” sleuths?
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's You May Be Right.