Crime fiction has changed in many ways as it has evolved. One of them is arguably an increased focus on the sleuth as a fully developed character. Most modern readers like to know something about the sleuth. So long as it doesn’t detract from the main plot, there’s often an interest in the sleuth’s personality, home life, and so on. In fact, the sleuth’s personal life can be a really effective source of story arcs (in series) and sub-plots.
Of course, there are always exceptions to any trend, but a look at crime fiction before the Golden Age suggests that sleuths weren’t really fully-developed characters with spouses, home lives, or a real backstory. For instance, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone features the theft of a valuable diamond, an untimely death, and the search for the truth about the gem. The main emphasis is on the various members of the ‘blueblood’ family involved in the mysteries, and on some of their staff. There is a detective, Sergeant Cuff, who investigates the case. But we don’t really learn anything about him. He’s simply the police detective who’s assigned to the case.
The same is true of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Burnley, whom we meet in Freeman Wills Crofts’ The Cask. Burnley is called in to investigate when the body of a woman is discovered in a cask that was supposed to contain a shipment of wine. The shipment came from Paris, so Burnley travels there, and works with M. Lefarge of the Sûreté, who happens to be a friend of his. Together, the two men trace the woman’s identity, and investigate the people who might have had a reason to want to kill her. It’s a complex puzzle, and the focus is on that, rather than on the sleuths. We don’t learn much at all about Burnley’s home life (or Lefarge’s for the matter of that). Readers are privy to Burnley’s thought process as he makes sense of the various clues, but there’s very little else about him in the novel.
With the coming of the Golden Age, some authors started to share more about their sleuths, so that they’re a bit more fleshed out. Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are married, have children, and so on. There are story arcs about their children, and several domestic scenes in the books, too. Christie fans also know some things about Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, too. Several of the stories featuring those sleuths include domestic scenes, some backstory, and personal characteristics.
We could certainly say the same for Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Readers learn about Wolfe’s many eccentricities, tastes and habits, as well as some of his history. And many of the stories take place at least partly in Wolfe’s New York brownstone, so we get to ‘visit’ his home. There are other ways, too, in which Stout fleshes out Wolfe’s character, so that we get to know him as a person.
There are, of course, many other Golden Age writers – I couldn’t even begin to list them all here! – whose sleuths are more fleshed out. Some of them (I’m thinking of Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, for instance) included story arcs that concerned their sleuths’ personal lives. Others chose to keep the emphasis more on the mystery than on the sleuth. Even so, we arguably see the development of the sleuth as a person as the Golden Age goes on.
And that trend seems to have continued. Fans of more modern sleuths often know quite a lot about those characters. If you’re a fan of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire, you could probably tell me a lot about his personality, his backstory, and so on. If you’re a fan of Attica Locke’s Darren Matthews, you could probably do the same. And those are just two examples. All you need do is think about the contemporary fictional sleuths you like the best, and I’d guess you could probably jot down a fairly well-developed character study. One reason why is likely that modern authors are putting more emphasis on their sleuths’ personalities. That’s true for authors such as Cathy Ace, who write traditional-style mysteries, as well as authors such as Nicci French, who write other sorts of crime fiction.
If this is a trend, is it a good one? That’s a bit harder to say. Some readers prefer not to know a lot about their sleuths. To them, putting that much emphasis on sleuths takes away from the mystery – the main plot – itself. There are also many readers who don’t care for the trope of the damaged detective who can’t function and can’t maintain a relationship. Certainly there are plenty of fleshed-out, fully developed sleuths who don’t fall into that category. But sleuths who do have become much more common in recent decades, when there’s a lot more emphasis on the sleuth’s life in crime fiction.
There are certainly authors and fictional sleuths who aren’t consistent with this trend. I’m sure you could offer examples. But it is interesting to see how crime stories have changed over time as the emphasis in them has changed to include the sleuth. Do you see this as a trend? What do you think of it? If you’re a writer, where is your emphasis?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Air Formation’s Into View.