Saturday, January 22, 2011

It's Been a Hard Day's Night*

Investigating murder cases is difficult, both physically and mentally. Helping victims' families cope with the trauma, facing on a regular basis the reality of what humans can do to each other, and dealing with the long hours and stress takes a toll on the detective. It takes a special kind of person to be a detective for that reason. But even detectives, both fictional and real, are human. They have their limits and they, too, feel the trauma and the bleakness of the cases they investigate. How do they manage it?

Some sleuths take liquid solace. That's quite po
ssibly why there are so many fictional detectives who drink. The best-written detectives, though, don't completely lose themselves in their drinking. For instance, Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse arguably spends more time at his local than he does at home. And when he is at home, he's never far from a bottle. As he tells one character in The Daughters of Cain,

"Don't worry. I'm the only person in Oxford who gets more sober the more he drinks."

And yet, despite the amount of drinking Morse does, he's no
t your typical (if there is such a thing) alcoholic who's been bested by the bottle. Dyfunctional, quite possibly. But Morse's drinking doesn't get in the way of his ability to solve cases.

The same is true for Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus, Ann Cleeves' Inspector Stanhope and Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch. They do certainly spend their share of time drinking. And yet, it doesn't get in the way of their being able to do their jobs.

Other sleuths cope through spirituality. For example, Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee is a traditional Navajo. In fact, in the early novels that feat
ure him, Chee is studying to be a yata'ali, or healer. He frequently takes solace in the traditions and rituals associated with Navajo spirituality and more than once, goes through cleansing ceremonies during and after difficult cases. Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paiboun also takes solace in the spiritual. He shares his body with a thousand-year-old shaman named Yeh Ming, and often focuses himself by meditating. Dr. Siri doesn't "officially" practice a religion. In fact, in The Coroner's Lunch, we learn that

"…he wasn't much better at Buddhism than he
was at Communism…"

Still, the ancient spirituality of his native Laos is an important source of solace to him.

At times, wisecracks get detectives through the terrible work they sometimes have to do. It's not that these detectives aren't aware of how horrible murder is. But making jokes can help them cope with the terrible reality of it. For instance, in Kel Robertson's Smoke and Mirrors, Australian Federal Police officer Brad Chen is recruited t
o investigate the murder of former politician Alec Dennet and editor Lorraine Starke, both of whom were wearing night-clothes when they were killed. As Chen's looking at the video of the crime scene, he asks,

"'Who's the woman?'…

'Lorraine Starke, senior edito
r at New Horizon Books. She was working with Dennet, finalizing his memoirs.'
'It looks like she was working overtime on the hardest bits if she was visiting his bedroom in her jarmies,' said Turner."

The camera shows details of Starke's wounds:

"'See how deep that is' said Talkative as the aspiring cinematographer…
'Yeah, very nasty,' I [Chen] said. 'I don't think I can handle much more without Jaffas or a choc top.'
Turner tapped on my shoulder with a foil-wrapped roll of chocolate-coated caramels."

Some sleuths cope with the bleakness and sorrow of murder by distancing themselves from the tragedy of it and treating it, you might even say, as a challenge. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot does that. For example, in
The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Captain Arthur Hastings is staying with his friend John Cavendish at Styles Court, the family home. While Hastings is there, Cavendish's wealthy stepmother Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. Staying in nearby Styles St. Mary is Hercule Poirot, who is among several Belgian war refugees whom Mrs. Inglethorp had sponsored and helped. Poirot considers Mrs. Inglethorp his benefactor and is shaken and upset by her death. But he deals with that tragedy by determining to solve the problem of her murder.

Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes also treats the tragedies he has to face as much like intellectual puzzles as anything else. It's not that he has no feelings for the victims of tragedy and their families. For instance, he acts with real
compassion in The Adventure of the Dancing Men, The Adventure of the Abby Grange and The Adventure of Sir Charles Augustus Milverton. However, he detaches himself from the emotional "fallout" of the crimes and feels that he can do the most good by not getting caught up in the tragic aspect of what he does.

But even Sherlock Holmes seeks solace from time to time. He plays the violin, both to help him think and to work through his own reactions to the cases he takes. For instance, in
A Study in Scarlet, he and Watson are working on the mystery surrounding the murders of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson. At one point in the novel, they think they've gotten a clue to the killer from an old woman. But it turns out that the clue was a ruse. Holmes is angry with himself for being "taken," and

"…long into the watches of the night I [Watson] heard the low melancholy wailings of his violin, and knew that he was still pondering ov
er the strange problem which he had set himself to unravel."

Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch seeks solace in m
usic, too. His choice is the jazz saxophone and in The Black Ice, we learn that he seeks out jazz music more than he does the company of people.

Of course, there are also several fictional sleuths who cope with the pain and tragedy of their jobs by surrounding themselves with loving f
amilies. That's how Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti, Caroline Graham's Tom Barnaby and Ruth Rendell's Reg Wexford cope. You might say that's the healthiest way to cope with the trauma of the job.

What about your favourite sleuths? What are their coping strategies? If you're a writer, how do your characters cope?

On Another Note…

Having good people in our lives is an important way to cope with the stresses all of us face. I'm lucky to have people such as Mason Canyon in my life. The host of Thoughts in Progress, Mason shares all sorts of reviews, guest author bloggers and updates (oh, and great giveaways, too!). My thanks to Mason for this terrific Fair Dinkum award. I'm honoured and flattered. Folks, please check Mason's blog out if you haven't already. You'll be glad you did.

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles' Hard Day's Night.


  1. So far Rhapsody is far too new & inexperienced to feel the need to get away from her detection. She detects to get away from cooking and cleaning!

    But I have noticed that what crime fiction WRITERS do to get away is eating chocolate. Not me, though - my drug is liquorice. Right now - Saturday night in the vicarage - I have a mug of coffee and a bowl of candy right next to me. Yummie.

  2. Dorte - Oh...that does sound yummy! I think you're right that chocolate is the "drug of choice" for a lot of writers - at least a lot of them that I know.

    You actually make an interesting point about Rhapsody, too. I wonder if amateur sleuths like her have a different perspective on detection because to them, detection may be getting away from something else. Thanks for the "food for thought." Now where did I put my chocolate-covered macadamias? ;-)

  3. My guy and I just spent the last I don't know how long watching all the five seasons of The Wire. I am completely blown away by the writing, the acting...the everything. It is the most astounding thing I've seen. Most of the detectives who are dealing with lots of murder, so much real down sadness, drink, make jokes, use sex as a numbing device. Believe me, as a psychotherapist I know what I'm seeing! I'm not sure how this plays out in my mysteries, all one and a half of them - my protagonist worries a bit about drinking but not too much and really as a major crime person in Nova Scotia it isn't on the same level - her side kick is a meditator

  4. Jan - Thanks for that info about The Wire. I have to confess, I've never seen that show, although you're not the only one who's told me it's terrific. I'd guess it's probably not uncommon for sleuths to use sex as a numbing device; hadn't thought of it, but it makes sense. So, of course, do drinking and wisecracking. I'm interested to get your psychotherapist's view on this, too, as I'd guess that a lot of people in law enforcement may not even be aware that they're just numbing the pain with those things. Fascinating point!

    A lot of what writers experience in real life plays out in their writing, even if this particular issue isn't a big thing in yours. You know, the more I hear about your stories, the more I want to read them.

  5. Tony Hill drinks but he also takes his mind off the problems by playing video games. Preferably Tomb Raider. I think that's cool.

  6. Clarissa - Oh, that's true! I'm really glad you brought that up, because one of the things that makes sleuths interesting as people is when they do things like that - like play video games - that make them, well, human. It is kind of cool.

  7. I love Morse - quite a character! Another complex man I admire is Adam Dalgliesh who writes poetry to cope. I imagine policemen-poets are a rare breed. I also enjoy Poirot's efforts at growing vegetable marrows - gardening is always relaxing!

  8. Book Mole - Absolutely! Morse is terrific! And I think it's fascinating, too, that Dalgliesh writes poetry; he's the only policeman/poet I've read about. And I have to say I laughed at the scene in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd when Poirot tries to grow vegetable marrows...and gets annoyed with them. Your point made me think of Nero Wolfe, who takes solace in his orchids...

  9. Margot, thank you for such kind words. I'll be blushing all day. You do represent 'Fair Dinkum.' Your thoughtfulness and caring comes through your writing. I learn so much each time I visit.

    As for protagonist using vices to deal with the tragedy they see, authors who write that into their stories make the sleuths more realistic. That adds another layer to the characters for me.

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Mason - Oh, trust me, I meant every word :-). And now I'm the one who's blushing....

    You know, that's what I think about protagonists who use "coping (de)vices." It's believable that a sleuth would want to escape, because investigating murders has to be an unbelievably stressful job. There has to be some way in which a sleuth would need to let off that stress. Of course, not all of those ways of coping are healthy, but we can understand that in a character, too, and if it's written well, you're right; it adds a solid layer to a character.

  11. Have you read any of Jess Lourey's Murder by Month mysteries? I can't remember if it was the protagonist or the author that drew comfort from a certain Minnesota candy product (I can't remember the brand name but it was very tasty)...but I totally identify with that coping method.

  12. Pat - Oh, that sounds tempting! I have to confess that, though I've heard of the series, I haven't dipped in yet. But I, too, can completely identify with that kind of coping. Um, but for me? Chocolate-covered almonds or macadamias ;-).