Earlier this week, I was thinking about characterization and character development, specifically as it relates to detectives. A detective represents the power of society in many ways, but none as well as in finding and catching criminals. Usually murderers. Often serial killers. As “good” characters, they must still be interesting, sympathetic, and somehow easy to relate to for the reader. How to make a “good” character interesting?
We never seem to tire of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. I think he must be the standard against which all other fictional detectives are measured. Since Doyle’s books, we’ve seen fan fiction, movies and TV shows using Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson as the primary characters. What is it about Holmes that makes him so fascinating?
For one thing, he’s brilliant. Doyle must have been brilliant himself to create and write him. Holmes can be rather abrasive at times, though, and he’s eccentric to a fault. Watson definitely puts up with a lot. Holmes plays the violin, has a drug habit, and an ego bigger than a barn. But we love him. He makes the world right. In other words, he’s not at all a goody-two-shoes or an idealist about humanity and justice. He has flaws. And he’s brilliant.
So, I started thinking about other “brilliant” detectives, wondering if they have been able to fill Holmes’ large shoes for us. The first that came to my mind was DCI Morse as played by John Shaw on Inspector Morse for Masterpiece Mystery. Writer Colin Dexter created him in the original novels. In keeping with the Holmesian tradition of abrasiveness, Morse is known for his short temper and being a curmudgeon. He can be downright difficult. But he doesn’t like dead bodies at all, i.e. he stands away from the victim at a crime scene as he quizzes the medical examiner. He prefers not to go to the morgue for the autopsy report. He drinks too much — it landed him in the hospital in one episode. He’s particular about his red jaguar. But his powers of observation surpass anyone around him. He loves classical music, especially opera, and is a champion at solving crossword puzzles. He’s also a slightly paunchy middle-aged guy who likes the ladies but whose love life leaves him alone most of the time. Poor Sergeant Lewis has to endure Morse who has no illusions about humanity. But Morse is absolutely brilliant.
It’s interesting to note that the Brits are masters at creating interesting and brilliant detectives. Adam Dagleish, for example. Jane Tennison. And most recently, a TV series about the young DCI Morse in which we learn what Morse’s first name is, Endeavour. What parent names a kid Endeavour? No wonder he develops into a curmudgeon. This series interests me specifically because it shows us how Morse developed into the detective he was in middle-age, the people who supported and challenged him, his blunders as well as longer glimpses into his personal life.
Finally, an American detective of brilliance who can stand proudly with his British comrades: Adrian Monk. I stumbled onto Monk while in the hospital, and I was incredibly grateful I did because watching his exploits made my hospital stay much more pleasant. Monk adds a tragic personal life to the mix: his beloved wife Trudy was murdered and her case has never been solved. He suffered a mental breakdown after her death and left his job as a detective with the San Francisco Police. After he recovers, he works as a private detective. Soft-spoken and vulnerable, Monk suffers from OCD, i.e. obsessive-compulsive disorder. His OCD also makes him incredibly observant about details and solving the puzzles that are murder investigations. The thing I loved about this show and this detective was the ultimately positive light they shone on Monk’s OCD. Yes, it could be unbearably painful and debilitating, and they show that. But it also makes him a brilliant detective.
I cannot stand an unsolved mystery. I can be very compulsive myself once I’m hooked on a detective. It is so comforting to watch a brilliant one solve a mystery and take a world that was in disorder and give it order….