Angsty Detectives

And the award goes to . . .

Inspector Alleyn

Many people would pinpoint Lord Peter Wimsey as the angstiest detective of all time, but Lord Peter's angst is fairly localized. He feels angst about the end of cases, the part where people get arrested and hanged, etc. etc., but up till that point, he enjoys the whole detection process. On the other hand, Alleyn always feels vaguely embarrassed or conscience-striken about having to interview people or read through the deceased's correspondence. He apologizes when he makes deductions; he gets all remote when people bring up his book on criminology. I believe Marsh watered some of these affectations down in later novels, but there are times, reading Alleyn mysteries, that I ponder, Why on earth don't you do something else!? At least, Wimsey likes quizzing people, snooping into their personal affairs and coming up with fantastic solutions. (For an even less angsty version of Wimsey check out Kate Ross' Julian Kestral.)

The most marked aspect of angsty detectives is that, brooding romance heroes aside, angst is very high maintenance. As P.D. James said once about Dagliesh getting married, "Who would do the laundry?" That's how I feel whenever I watch Inspector Morse. He's always so glum, and his passions are always so romantic--what a lot of work! The women in his life always find out some really, really good reason why they can't stick around, and can you blame them? I suppose some women like the idea of being a romanticized, ideal figure, always sought after and desired by an unhappy man looking for perfection; I find it all rather tiring.

Which brings us to the winner of the non-angsty detective award . . .

Well, other than Miss Marple, who wins hands-down, no question, my favorite male non-angsty detective is Charles Parker (Wimsey's Scotland Yard link).

Charles Parker is a far better sidekick than Hastings or Watson (although Watson of the short stories wasn't as simple-minded as he ended up being played; the whole point of Watson's "I don't get it" was to magnify Holmes' genius to the reader. But in fact, the good doctor was very astute and besides, he did have his own profession). Parker makes no pretense to great imagination, but he does know that he is diligent. He works hard. He likes his job. He is tolerant and careful. He admires Wimsey, but unlike Fox (Alleyn's side-kick) or Grant's side-kick, he doesn't hero-worship Wimsey. In fact, he thinks Wimsey is rather lazy and would never make a good detective because he wouldn't do the leg-work. Parker also has the wonderful ability to take people exactly as they are without feeling compelled to change his moral or ethical standards in order to do so. He is the most refreshing character in all detective fiction, and I've always been a little in love with him. So much matter-of-fact equanimity is always attractive. (I like C.D. Sloan of Aird's novels for much the same reason.)

Concerning Miss Marple and her descendents, I am more sympathetic of female angsty detectives, so long as the angstiness doesn't descend into "the blame game." (Evil society, evil men, blah, blah, blah.) I like Harriet Vane, P.D. James' Cordelia Gray and Charlaine Harris' two latest female detectives (she writes supernatural detective stories). There are numerous NUMEROUS detective stories in which the female detective--who often owns some kind of store--ends up with two gentlemen admirers, and I don't mind them so much, although I get tired of the books. If the author hasn't figured out by book four which guy the heroine ends up with, I begin to suspect idle fantastization on the author's part rather than the development of a fully-rounded character. Just make up her mind already!

Naturally, on my list of well-rounded, non-angsty, non-blame-game female detectives, Mma Ramotswe heads the list! I like McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie as well; she is more analytical than Mma Ramotswe but still relentlessly honest and never willing to excuse herself.

So, while I don't like pandering to male angst, I don't much like pandering to female angst either. As Harriet Vane pointed out, "We all indulge in a little self-pity, but nobody likes to be patronized and pitied." Or something to that effect.

2006

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