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?