Flawed Heroes & Detective Stories


Yeah, Doc, how come you charge me for an hour, but our sessions are only fifty minutes?

Heroes are a bit boring if they’re perfect. Not everybody has picked up on this, though. In fact, as we speak, there are new writers e-scribbling about “handsome Pewsey P. Prattwarble” and his beauteous light of love, Patrice von Ditzenberg, his flawless Facel Vega (that’s a car, for those of you under forty), and the delicious meals his mother cooks for him twice per chapter. Zzzzzzzz. [“Delicious” is one of the 10 early warning signs that a story is going to be boring. The other nine I’ll tell you sometime soon.]

But those writers are in the minority and eventually figure out that stories thrive on conflict, imperfection, and struggle. Anyone who’s been in a writing workshop for long has learnt to create gobs of outer (visible) conflict  It takes them a while longer to get to inner conflict, the emotional destitution of their hero–his tragic flaw–that he must overcome to get what he/she wants. Oy.

There are exceptions. Historically, detective novels have not had huge hero flaws or pronounced main character arcs. Holmes’s cocaine habit is a minuscule feature of the stories, with no mention at all in most of the Canon, and he conquers it off-camera.

Poirot has little of importance in his personal life except getting ze little moustaches trimmed evenly. He’s also a compulsive neatnik, often rearranging bric-a-brac on the mantle  or putting the pool balls in numerical order, even as Col. Faversham’s body is trundled out of the mansion’s fireside room or billiard room.

Emphasis in detective novels is on the intellectual: the solution of the puzzle of who did it, why, and how, along with the methodology of the detective–how did he/she figure it out? They’re typically not about Sam Shovel overcoming his addiction to Bromo-Seltzer, his warped childhood, or his masochistic tendency to get blackjacked in every adventure.

Nero Wolfe is not going to the gym to address his physique or its underlying emotional roots. He’s happy with himself and his orchids and solving the occasional crime by pure intellect, except for a trivial amount of legwork by his assistant Archie Goodwin. [Nothing is difficult for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself.]

I suspect the fact that detective novels tend to be part of a series works against the “flawed hero” concept. You could give the hero an internal conflict in the first book, yes. He overcomes it to arrive at the successful conclusion. Then, in a series, you’d have to give him another flaw for the next book, and another for the one after that, and so on. That’s going to make him/her seem like some sort of sad sack sooner or later.

A detective with the same ongoing deep flaw, story after story, like Wallender, makes me want to give him a good, swift one. Why should a tec clever enough to catch villains be too dumb to get effective help? [Come to think of it, Wallender let an interviewee step into the other room and off himself with a shotgun, so maybe he’s not all that clever.]

My theory is that a character flaw with a large mental component is incompatible with intellectual achievement, the sine qua non of detective fiction. Thus the recent tendency to introduce a permanent psychic flaw in the tec is perhaps a poor way to differentiate him/her from the jillion others out there. Maybe it’s best to stick with the traditional differentiation method: i.e., making your detective a blind, Mohican, epileptic vegan with a st… st… st… stutter.

So who’s your favorite mystery solver? And what is his/her flaw?

Public domain photo via wikimedia commons
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One Response to Flawed Heroes & Detective Stories

  1. Pingback: Flawed Heroes & Detective Stories – Lili's Dark Tales

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