Saturday, May 1, 2010

You Better Let Somebody Love You Before It's Too Late*

One of the enduring sleuth types in crime fiction is the “lone wolf,” who has little, if any, personal life and no permanent relationships. Of course, there are plenty of sleuths who have marriages and families; just ask Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti or Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford. But the “lone wolf” sleuth is an interesting phenomenon. In many ways a sleuth with no real personal ties makes sense. Solving crimes is time-consuming, emotionally and physically draining, and sometimes, downright dangerous. So it’s not easy to be a sleuth’s “better half.” That’s especially true for sleuths who are really passionate about their work. On the other hand, the “lone wolf” sleuth can turn into a clichéd character if the character isn’t well-drawn.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is an interesting example of a “lone wolf” sleuth. On one hand, he doesn’t investigate cases alone; he partners with Watson and the two have an enduring friendship. On the other, Holmes never marries. He becomes smitten with Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia, but he doesn’t date or seem particularly interested in an intimate relationship. Holmes says that he’s afraid marriage might get in the way of his deductive capabilities, and didn’t want any emotion to get in the way of his thinking process. That’s what Holmes says; here, just for fun, is another take on why Holmes didn’t marry. I can't take credit for this, but it was too funny not to pass along. Holmes fans should appreciate it…

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot never marries, either. While he, too, has an enduring friendship with Hastings, he also doesn’t really have what you’d call a home life. He doesn’t seem to have any objection to marriage; in fact, he assists in more than one “matchmaking.” And in The Murder on the Links, he even plays Cupid for Hastings. Yet, he never “takes the plunge” himself. Practically the only time we see Poirot really show signs of attraction to a woman is when he meets the Countess Vera Rossakoff, a flamboyant and very accomplished jewel thief. In fact, as the years go by, she remains his ideal of what a woman should be. Perhaps he never marries because, after she disappears from his life, no other woman measures up…

Several of the classic “hardboiled” detectives are what you might call “lone wolves.” For example, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is unmarried. He meets and falls in love with socialite Linda Loring in The Long Goodbye, and she even asks him to marry her, but, at least in the novels, he doesn’t (although there is evidence in later short stories that he ends up married to Loring). Marlowe is dedicated to his job, and passionate about righting wrongs. In fact, he seems to care more about his work than he does about meeting someone, which may be the reason he doesn’t have a family. It could also be that he just doesn’t want to be tied down, or that he’s cynical about women. That makes sense, too, when you think about the number of times he’s lied to and betrayed.

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is also a “lone wolf.” He has no real interest in marriage and certainly not in domesticity. In fact, many people have said that Hammer is misogynistic. He certainly has plenty of affairs, but no lasting intimate relationship. The only woman Hammer seems to truly respect is his secretary, Velda. Velda is, in her way, as tough as her boss is, and just as interested in their cases. That doesn’t stop Hammer from getting superficially involved with dozens of women, though, and he doesn’t really have what you’d call a home life. Throughout the series, though, it becomes obvious that Velda’s in love with her boss, and inl 1966’s The Black Alley, Hammer and Velda make it “official” and get engaged.

More modern “lone wolves” have arguably become a little more complicated as characters. One reason for that is quite possibly that today’s crime fiction fans are more sophisticated and want more “real” characters. So, one of the interesting changes in “lone wolves” has been that very often, they’re now their own worst enemies. We see that very clearly in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Bosch has frequent relationships, but they don’t last. At one point, he’s married to Eleanor Wish, former FBI agent, and then professional poker player. Wish leaves Harry, though, although he still loves her. Later, she’s killed. Bosch has several personal demons, among them a very painful childhood, the murder of his mother, and service in Viet Nam. He also has anger and authority issues. His devotion to his job, and to solving cases, along with those personal issues, arguably makes it hard for him to have a real long-term relationship.

Very similar in many ways is Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. Rebus is also passionately dedicated to his job. He’s a heavy drinker with a gruff exterior, and not exactly warm and friendly. So it’s no surprise that he’s also somewhat of a loner. He’s been married, but he and his wife were divorced years ago. Since then, he’s had girlfriends, but not a permanent, lasting relationship. In fact, in The Black Book, Rebus himself mentions that his job has always been more important to him than any person.

Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole is another example of a “lone wolf” who’s very much his own worst enemy. Hole is an alcoholic who’s also extremely dedicated to his job. He’s also what’s often called a “loose cannon.” He’s a brilliant detective, but he’s not good at “playing by the rules” or using orthodox methods of catching criminals. Harry also has difficulty in his personal life. He loves his girlfriend, Rake Faulke, but their relationship is complicated by his drinking and his obsession with solving his cases. In some ways, Harry Hole is very self-destructive.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, also a “lone wolf” (and, I admit, a personal favorite of mine) is also obsessed with his work. He certainly finds women attractive, and he’s had several affairs, but no permanent relationships. He’s a bachelor who’s rather set in his ways, and who seldom lets people see his “softer side.” He’s got little patience and can be quite prickly. In The Riddle of the Third Mile, we learn that he was once very much in love, and in fact, that love affair was the reason that he never finished at Oxford. Since that time, Morse hasn’t let his attraction to women get in the way his doing his job. In a sense, that makes him a very successful detective. After all, some of the women he falls for are suspects in his cases (e.g. The Daughters of Cain; The Jewel That Was Ours). On the other hand, he doesn’t have what most people would call a personal life.

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is also very much his own person, with no permanent ties. He’s had girlfriends, most notably Jodie Garber, who “officially” becomes Reacher’s girlfriend in Tripwire. However, Reacher is a drifter who never stays anywhere for very long. In fact, Lee Child was once asked if Jodie was going to be “regular” and whether the right woman was going to come along. Child’s response was,

“I'd get killed if Reacher ever settled down. I tease the readers with the possibility.”

The “lone wolf” sleuth with few ties and not much of a home life can be clichéd if the character isn’t interesting. Yet, some of the more compelling protagonists in crime fiction fall into this category. What do you think? Do you enjoy these sleuths? Or do you prefer sleuths like Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby or Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon, who have domestic ties?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles' Desperado.


  1. Can women be lone wolves, too? Kinsey Millhone and V.I. Warshawski come to mind.

  2. Karen - Oh, they most certainly can be lone wolves! You've given terrific examples, too. Not just Kinsey Millhone and Warshawski, either, I think; I'd also include Ann Cleeves' Vera Stanhope in that category.

  3. I love lone-wolves, especially when you define them a little more widely to include characters like Holmes and Poirot.

    One thing I like too, though, is when a hard-boiled author like Dashiell Hammett lets you see the cracks in the veneer of the lone-wolf. With his Continental Op, you don't know anything about the character. (He could have a wife and kids for you know, at least in some books.) In RED HARVEST the telling of the tale all seems so emotionless, but then the Op is briefly involved with a woman - no change in the emotionless style, but it suddenly is emotionally charged.

  4. The lone-wolf protagonist makes for an interesting read. There can be so many mysteries about their background - why are the alone, have they every been married, what keeps them from marriage, etc. In a way, as a reader you can "believe" a lone-wolf would go chasing after the criminal. But if the protagonist is married, then they wouldn't be as quick to abandon their family to chase a criminal (and we won't want the to).

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Daring Novelist - I agree; that particular definition does get more interesting when you broaden it just a bit.

    You also make a well-taken point about how much more interesting a story is when you see something beneath that "lone wolf" shell. I liked that about Mickey Spillane's The Big Kill, where we see Hammer get (dare I say?) sentimental about a toddler left behind by the first victim in the novel.

    Mason - That's a really interesting point. It can be easier to picture a "lone wolf" dropping everything to go after a criminal, especially a very dangerous one. It's harder to imagine someone leaving her or his family. Unless, of course, that someone is a cop, in which case that's her or his job. And, like you, I like the mysterious aspect of the "lone wolf." One can wonder about how that person turned out to be the kind of person who simply doesn't make those intimate connections.

  6. Once again, thank you for your brilliant essays on crime fiction. I am from 1937 and started reading crime stories from the danish equivalent of Black Mask. It was in the McCarthy period so Mike Hammer was just the thing. I thought he was long forgotten as his kind of patriotism was no longer comme il faut. But you stirred my memory. He is still in the contemporary lone-wolf protagonists i.e. Bosch, Robicheaux, Rebus as Spade, Marlowe, Archer was in Mike Hammer.

  7. Great post. And wonderful examples. I don't know where you find the time to research your fantastic articles! So many great characters referenced here,


  8. Palle - Thanks for the kind words : ). It's interesting, isn't it, how crime fiction sometimes responds to, and reflects, the concerns of the era when it's written. As you say, during the time Spillane was writing the Hammer novels, they responded to genuine fears people had. Hammer's brand of patriotism may no longer be in vogue, but as you say, he's still reflected in many of today's "lone wolves." Thanks for mentioning Bosch, Robicheaux and the others. They really are, in many ways, the descendants of Hammer and his ilk.

  9. Michele - Why thank you : ). They are great characters, aren't they? And my answer to your question? Coffee. Lots of it ; ).

  10. Another insightful post, Margot! I personally enjoy reading about the sub-plots involving the relationships that the lone wolf sleuths are in, as long as they don't take away from the main plot. Jury and his relationships, Dalgliesh and Emma Lavenham, Lynley and his relationships with Deborah and Helen all made interesting reading.

  11. Book Mole - Thank you : ). I think you have a well-taken point. It really is interesting to learn about how those "lone wolves" negotiate their personal lives, especially when they're also trying to get their professional work done. It certainly is possible, though, to take it too far; when those sub-plots distract from the main plot, it's taken too far.

  12. Lone Wolves are very handy-they can think about their cases nonstop. If anything, gregarious detectives are less common, I think.

  13. What a great post, Margot. I was hooked from the title, since the Eagles are to me as Billy Joel is to you!

    In mid-post, my thoughts turned to "lone she-wolves" because I'm currently reading "U is for Undertow" by Sue Grafton and I began categorizing female detectives: "Is she a lone-wolf or not?" I think Kinsey Milhone is the best of the modern female lone wolves--Jane Marple is, of course, the category's quintessential cup-taker--and I agree with Karen Russell above about V.I. Warshawski. Temperance Brennan is quite the lone she-wolf in Kathy Reich's books but not so much on TV. M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin and Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe are most definitely "lone wolves" but I'm not sure if others I've read fit the category: Detective Inspector Jane Tennison, Anna Pigeon, Alexandra Cooper, Sunny Randall, Emily Pollifax, and Kay Scarpetta, might not meet with the "lone" part of the category; although admittedly, the word has a multitude of definitions here. It could be argued that Dave Robicheaux does most of his sleuthing with a partner or partners (e.g., Clete Purcell, the New Iberia police), yet he's arguably the "most lone" of the lone-wolf sleuths due to Burke's characterization of his history and "demons."

  14. Patti - Good point. The "lone wolf" doesn't have a lot else to occupy her or him, so there's more time and energy to devote to the case. You could be quite right, too, that that kind of person is the more common in the world of sleuthing.

    Bob - Thanks : ). I actually like the Eagles very much, too.

    About "she-wolves," you're absolutely right, I think, about Tempe Brennan and Agatha Raisin. They don't have stable, settled personal lives, and they do tend to devote all of their time to their cases. One could even argue that that's part of the reason for which they don't have what you'd call a family life. The same is most definitely true of Kinsey Milhone, whom I like a lot, too, and of course, Warshawski. I think that's also true of Carol O'Connell's Kathleen Mallory.

    You bring up an interesting point about Dave Robicheaux. In a sense, he's not a "lone wolf," because he works with (and depends on, and is aware he depends on) partners and other team members to solve cases. On the other hand, he does, indeed, have personal demons, devotion to his work, and other "roadblocks," if you will, to a real home life. In that sense, he is a "lone wolf." Interesting example, and I'm glad you brought him up.

  15. I think Karen asked a fine question, but my feeling is that Vera Stanhope is only a lonely wolf because no man has dared ´take her on´. It does not seem to be her choice.

    Interesting that you mention Marklund´s Annika Bengtson. After having read the sixth Annika story I think she may be considered a lone wolf at heart even though she is married. She is certainly not better at handling career and family than male protagonists.

  16. Dorte - You make a solid point about Vera Stanhope. I, too, think that she would have a family if she could have it her way. She does have her demons, so to speak, but yes, I think she might like to be married.

    Interesting, isn't it, how we might argue that it's the opposite for Annika Bengtzon. She does have her share of trouble managing her home life and career, doesn't she? Maybe I should do a post on mismatches between what sleuths want and what life ends up giving them....

  17. I think that is an interesting idea!

  18. Dorte - Thanks : ) I'll have to start thinking about that...