Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Take Two Cases and Call Me in the Morning

You wouldn’t normally think of solving crimes and putting oneself in danger as an antidote to life’s problems and stresses. After all, sleuthing is not easy. It’s sometimes messy, dirty, and ugly, and it can be very risky. And yet, for many crime fiction sleuths, investigating crime and solving mysteries seems to be exactly that – some sort of remedy. It’s almost as though the sleuth needs to solve crimes in order to get back on what’s sometimes called an even keel. Or maybe it’s just that authors know that crime fiction fans wouldn’t forgive them if sleuths weren’t out there looking into matters criminal ; ).

We can see this pattern of the sleuth, if you will, using sleuthing as a tonic in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Holmes craves mental excitement and stimulation, and solving crimes and other problems serves as an antidote to mental boredom. As Holmes says in The Sign of the Four:

“My mind…rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere.”

Watson sees Holmes’ point of view, and for his own part, would much rather Holmes solve crimes than use the cocaine and morphine that he turns to between cases.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot also finds his cases a welcome antidote to boredom. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, Poirot takes a cottage in the village of King’s Abbott, thinking that he’ll retire and grow vegetable marrows. It’s not long at all, though, before he’s once again involved in an investigation. Wealthy retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one evening in his study, and the most likely suspect is his adopted son, Captain Ralph Paton. Ralph’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, doesn’t believe he’s guilty, and begs Poirot to take the case. Poirot agrees to investigate, and his reasons are as much because he finds retirement boring as anything else. In the end, Poirot finds out who the murderer is; he also learns that retirement is not for him.

In Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Poirot’s secretary, Miss Lemon, asks him to help her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, get to the bottom of an odd series of events at the student hostel she manages. Poirot meets Mrs. Hubbard and when he hears about the strange petty thefts and other goings-on at the hostel, he agrees to take the case. On the surface, he’s doing so as a favor to Miss Lemon, and mostly, because he wants her to concentrate on her work for him, and not on family problems. Underneath, though, the case serves to alleviate the boredom Poirot’s been feeling lately. When Celia Austin, one of the residents of the hostel, confesses to the thefts, everyone thinks that the matter is cleared up. However, two nights later, Celia suddenly dies. Now, it’s clear that what’s happening at the hostel goes beyond simple theft. As it turns out the hostel has served as a “front” for all sorts of activities, and Poirot is able to uncover who’s responsible for them, and for Celia Austin’s death.

Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax also uses sleuthing, you might say, as a tonic. Mrs. Pollifax is a suburban New Jersey widow who wants more out of life than just gardening and joining local women’s groups. So one day, she answers an ad placed by the CIA and travels to Washington. Through a case of mistaken identity, she’s chosen for a job as a CIA operative and is given her first assignment in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. What’s supposed to be an easy, routine delivery job soon turns much more dangerous as Mrs. Pollifax gets drawn into international intrigue. Mrs. Pollifax is able to use her wits and her “cover” as a harmless elderly woman, and against all odds, solves the case. For Mrs. Pollifax, sleuthing has become the antidote to feeling useless.

Sleuthing serves as a very effective tonic for Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe, too. When her beloved father dies, Mma. Ramotswe finds herself dealing with not only his loss, but also the breakup of her disastrous marriage to jazz musician Note Makoti. Now, Mma. Ramotswe is more or less alone in the world, and with no clear plan. So she uses money from the sale of some of her father’s cattle, and opens a detective agency. As Mma. Ramotswe’s reputation grows, she begins to get more clients and earns a great deal of local respect. You could argue that it’s through sleuthing that Mma. Ramotswe finds a new set of roles to play and a new identity.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse also finds that sleuthing can be a useful tonic. In The Riddle of the Third Mile, we learn that he’d originally planned an Oxford education and an academic career. In fact, his mentor was enthusiastic about his chances for success. Then, Morse met Wendy Spencer and fell very much in love with her, putting his schoolwork aside. When the relationship ended, Morse fell into a deep depression from which he didn’t seem able to emerge. He ended up having to leave Oxford, and was, for a time, without a plan. Then, Morse’s father suggested the police force; Morse agreed and that decision energized him and has given him a focus. Interestingly, Morse seems never to have really gotten his love life straightened out, but sleuthing gives him a purpose in life.

In Chris Well’s Nursing a Grudge, we meet Earl Walker, a retired bus driver who lives in Candlewick Retirement Community. Walker’s career as a bus driver ended when he was shot and lost the use of his legs. That, coupled with the loss of his beloved wife, Barbara, has left Walker bitter and pessimistic. He generally has a little to do as possible with the other people who live in the retirement community. Then one day, Walker is unwillingly coerced into going to a clandestine chili party, along with some of the other residents. During the party, George Kent suddenly dies. At first, his death is put down to natural causes. After all, he was an elderly man, and not in the best of health. But Walker begins to suspect that Kent was murdered. There are several suspects, too. Kent was a bully and a blackmailer who’d antagonized most of the other residents. As Walker begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, he also finds himself interacting more and more with other people in the community. In the end, not only does Walker find out who killed George Kent, but also, he gets re-connected with those around him.

You could say that sleuthing also re-energizes Australian Federal Police officer Brad Chen in Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors. Chen’s been recovering from physical wounds he sustained in an earlier case. He’s also been dealing with emotional trauma, addiction to painkillers and depression. He’s pulled out of his torpor when he’s persuaded to get involved in a new investigation. Alec Dennet, a former member of Australia’s Whitlam government during the 1970’s, has been murdered. So has Lorraine Starke, a senior editor who was helping Dennet prepare his memoirs. Chen agrees to begin to look into the case, but he soon finds out that more than one group was determined that Dennet’s memoirs would not be published. Chen and his friends get into danger from various groups, including Russian gangsters, a South African group and others. Despite the danger, though, Chen’s pulled back from the brink, you might say, as he works this case.

Sleuthing can be dangerous – even deadly. But it can also be a restorative that draws the sleuth back from the proverbial brink. Which of your favorite sleuths could you say were saved by sleuthing?


  1. Morse. If Morse hadn't discovered his gift as an investigator the man would have spent his life either in a pub or on his sofa with a large tumbler of scotch while listening to Wagner at full blast.

    And let's face it, stressful or not, everyone wants to be a success at something. No one can say writing is stress-free!

  2. Elspeth - That's for certain! Writing is absolutely not stress-free, is it? And you've painted a vivid picture of what Morse would be like had he not found his niche. I can just see him in both of those places, zonked on whatever he's drinking and completely wasting his brains. It's as well for him, too, that he's got Lewis. Even with his sleuthing, he sometimes needs to be "pulled back."

  3. And of course in Daughter of Time, a hospitalized detective uses his time to reconsider Richard III and comes up with a new solution to the children in the attic.

  4. Patti - Absolutely! Thanks for reminding me of that one : ). That's a great example of what I mean.

  5. Great post. Peter Decker in Faye Kellerman's novels frequently puts himself at risk (as does his wife for that matter) but he seems to really do well in moments of high stress.
    Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

  6. Cassandra - You're absolutely right; Drucker almost seems to thrive on stress, doesn't he? It's interesting, isn't it, how some sleuths just do best when they're on a case...

  7. Another great thought-provoking post. As usually I can't think of a book, but you do bring up some very interesting points to think about. In most cases we just take it for granted that the sleuth does what he/she has to do and don't stop to think of their drive to do so.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Mason - Why, thank you : ). You've hit on something very interesting, too. We often don't think of why the sleuth does what s/he does, and how that affects the sleuth. Especially in series, though, I think it really helps in terms of discovering the sleuth's character if we have a sense of what sleuthing does for (or to) the sleuth...

  9. Two detectives came into my mind after reading this post: Agatha Raisin and Joe Leaphorn. I haven't read too many books about the former, but have read most of the latter's novels. Agatha's sleuthing seems to alleviate the obsession she has with her ex-husband (and men in general). Joe Leaphorn went into private investigations after his retirement; even so, the "Legendary Lieutenant" still manages to provide assistance and guidance to Jim Chee, all the while taking care not to infringe upon Chee's jurisdiction within the Navajo Tribal Police.

  10. Bob - Thank you very much for those ideas. I agree completely about Agatha Raisin. She does, indeed, find some peace in sleuthing. And what's interesting is that her friendships with her fellow sleuths seem more stable than her romantic relationships. And I'm also glad you mentioned Tony Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn. Not only does he provide mentorship, etc., to Jim Chee, but he finds, I think, solace in sleuthing after the death of his wife, Emma. When Emma dies, it's really sleuthing that helps Leaphorn maintain some hold on life.

  11. Oh, dear old Mrs Pollifax! A great friend of my youngest daughter and me.

    I think sleuthing is a very good cure for several ailments - just like writing (fiction or blog posts). To engage in something and experience you are good at it, and what can be better than solving crime and locking up criminals. What is a bit sad about modern crime fiction, though, is that very often it seems as if it is easier for the detectives to relate to their jobs than to their families.

  12. Dorte - Isn't Emily Pollifax a great character? I've always liked her very much, myself : ).

    You make an interesting point. Finding something that one's good at and that one enjoys really is a tonic. And if that includes catching criminals, so much the better. It's interesting that you mention that a lot of modern detectives (I thought of five or six just as I read your post) to get very close to their job - closer than they do to their families. I wonder if that reflects larger social issues...