Friday, May 28, 2010

It Just May Be a Lunatic You're Looking For*

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.


  1. Not sleuths, but witnesses --- I'm listening to Henning Mankell's THE FIFTH WOMAN at present. In it Kurt Wallander comes across at least 2 people who are a little crazy. One, whose house is filled with cats but has no furniture, says he is able to walk on water and fly. Another says he decided some time ago to "stop time" so does not realte to time in the real world. Both however are able to contribute a little to Wallander's knowledge of events important to his investigation.

  2. Kerrie - Oh, now that's interesting. I haven't read that Wallander, but those characters sound intriguing. I'm going to have to track that down. Your post reminds me of Agatha Christie's The Clocks, in which Poirot and his friend, Colin Lamb, track down the killer of an unidentified man whose body is found in the home of a woman who doesn't even know the dead man. One of their clues comes from a woman who lives next door to the home where the murder was committed; she has 17 cats!

  3. I think the crazy just helps them see outside of the norm and see the things other people overlook. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Cassandra - You know, you have a very well-taken point. Perhaps it is that odd perspective - that little bit of craziness - that helps sleuths think "outside the box" and figure out how and by whom the crime was committed. No wonder they see things others don't at times...

  5. I love the ones you listed above. I think many modern detectives involve themselves in drink and women to distract themselves from the realities of their job. TO see death all the time must really take its toll.


  6. Clarissa - Oh, no doubt about it, seeing that horrible, ugly side of human nature must have an effect; I don't see how it wouldn't. So you could be right that a lot of times, the heavy drinking, etc. is a reaction - a way of coping. Not surprising...

  7. So not being able to work well with authority figures makes you a little bit crazy huh? I'm in trouble then ;)

    I am reading Malla Nunn's Let the Dead Lie at the moment and her protagonist Emmanuel Cooper has quite a strong voice in his head of a soldier that he fought with in the war which took place 8 years prior to the events of this book. At a couple of points so far Cooper has allowed the voice to choose the direction of his next action. I guess hearing voices, and certainly acting upon them, would put you in the category of a little bit nuts for most mental health experts.

  8. Margot-here in the UK an alleged murderer of three prostitutes announced himself in court as the "Crossbow Cannibal". He was allegedly a mature PhD student in criminology specialising in serial killers!
    Mind you an alleged Holocaust denier in a libel case once addressed the judge as "Mein Fuhrer".
    Not the best approach to be acquitted or win a case.
    That charming TV detective Monk might be considered a little crazy as his obsessive compulsive disorder is so extreme, but then his colleagues are not quite normal as well.

  9. Bernadette - LOL! If not working well with authority figures makes a person a little crazy, then I'm in pretty big trouble, myself ; ).

    Thanks for the comment about Let the Dead Lie. I haven't read that one yet, although I'm tod it's a good raed. It certainly sounds as though Cooper is not exactly what most people would call "normal."

    Norman - I read that story about Stephen Griffiths. That's a very scary instance of getting too close to the work one's doing! That's quite a case. I hadn't heard about the other case you mentioned, but I agree with you that that defendant wasn't going the right way about to be acquitted.

    Thanks, too, for mentioning Monk.You're right that his disorder is a good example of what we might call "a little crazy," and yes, his colleagues aren't exactly what we'd call exactly "normal," either. That's part of the appeal of that show, though...

  10. My favorite odd sleuth is Holmes. :) Brilliant...and a little crazy.

    I think Cassandra is right--it's a good tool for thinking outside of the box for sleuths. A different kind of edge. :)

  11. Elizabeth - You put that quite well! Holmes is, indeed, brilliant - and a little crazy. You and Cassandra do make a very solid point, too, that it helps the sleuth to think "outside the box," which one has to do if one's going to be really good at solving crimes. No wonder there are plenty of sleuths who are also a little loopy...