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.