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A Loaf of Bread, A Jug of Whine, and Thou

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So–I’ve been thinking of this thing, this idea that  a detective story should be “about” a detective.

I intimated way back there somewhere that the problem with this idea for me is that any character, lead character or otherwise, has limits to the interesting parts of his life. 

The first book in any detective series does tend to be “about” the detective, because it’s in that first book that the detective’s own story has (and really must have) primary importance.  When you’re first introducing  Gregory Gumshoe, or whoever, readers need to know quite a bit about him, including his backstory.

Once you know that backstory, however, it’s hard for me to see how you can keep Gregory’s story interesting without turning the series into a long-running soap opera complete with random dramatic twists and turns that start to seem overdone and implausible sooner rather than later.

Golden age mysteries largely solved this problem by being about the detection but not about the detective.  Dorothy L. Sayers did quite a bit with the story of Lord Peter Whimsey and Harriet Vane, but she also ended the series with their honeymoon.  Agatha Christie tells us little or nothing about Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot–we get a word here and there, and a little domestic crisis every once in a while, but not much else.  We know that Miss Marple has nephews who are very good to her, but we don’t know anything about her siblings except that they exist.  She mentions, in At Bertram’s Hotel, having been once in love with an unsuitable young man, and having had the relationship cut off by her mother, but who that young man was, what he was like, what her mother was like–nope, nothing.

Modern mystery novels that concentrate on the detective tend to come in two varieties:  the funny kind, where the detective is the only sane person in a field of crazy relatives, neighbors and coworkers; and the serious kind, where, by about book six, the detective starts losing his love interest to a serial killer, his dog to a drunk driver and his sanity to a bout of binge drinking that would leave any actual person in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.

And this is where I have a problem.  Most of us don’t live incessantly interesting lives, and don’t want to.  The more incessantly interesting the detective’s life is, the less he is like any real, existing human beings.  And the less he is like any real, existing human beings, the less interested I am in him.  Or her.  Or it, if we’re talking about those cat mysteries.

Okay, let’s not talk about the cat mysteries.

But here’s the thing.  To the extent that a detective series focuses on the detective, it is limited in the number of decent books an author can produce in it.  The longer a series goes on, the more the writer will find it necessary to saddle the detective with outsized, unusual, overdramatic life events. 

There is, however, one other approach, although at the moment I can’t think of a series of books that uses it.

That’s the presentation of the detective as a  particular type of person, so that every title or episode is a matter of putting that type on display.  There’s still a tendency to put the detective through a life course that rivals a Puccini opera for overwroughtness, but I think that might not actually be necessary to pursuing the form this way.

I give you Christopher Foyle and Gregory House.

Let me start with House, because the writers over there are definitely in the middle of making his life an orgiastic idiocy of crises and coincidences. 

House is technically a medical show, but it operates as a detective show in that the plot is always about House and his team solving the puzzle of a patient’s odd symptoms.  The detection interests me not at all, and the plot is exactly the same show after show after show.

House’s life doesn’t interest me all that much, either, especially since he went off to rehab and decided therapy wasn’t completely crap. 

Although, in the closing episode of this year’s season, there’s an indication that he may be back to thinking it’s completely crap.  Which would be good.

What does interest me in House is House as a personality–a man with a first rate mind and absolutely no patience with stupidity. 

And stupidity here is not defined as what IQ you were born with, but what you do with the one you have.  House is actually quite good to people with limited mental capacities who are doing the best they can with them.  It’s the people who insist on being stupid as an activity who drive him nuts.

And, of course, driven nuts, House doesn’t do what the rest of us do.  He doesn’t bite his tongue and stay polite.  He listens to the mother give a lecture about how her children around vaccinated because vaccination isn’t really needed, that’s just a plot by the big drug companies to take your money–and then he lays into her in a scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners sort of way that’s just so satisfying I can barely stand it.

He’s the same way when people get all warm and fuzzy about human nature, or when they spout platitudes about love and healing and all the rest of the therapeutic nonsense that’s become conventional wisdom for our time–even though most of us know enough not to believe it.  My guess is that your garden variety social worker or Psy.D. would last about three minutes in House’s office.

With Christopher Foyle, my interest is otherwise.  Foyle is presented as possibly the single most decent human being ever to have graced the planet, a man whose civilized instincts are so sure and so solid that it would be an insult to call him a saint.  He’s much better than that.

And he’s no relativist.  In fact, an awful lot of Foyle’s War consists of stories about Foyle’s fight with the endless relativism of British officialdom–and sometimes American officialdom–the “do the practical thing,” “it’s for the war effort” excuses for allowing corruption and injustice to go unpunished and unresolved.

One of the more interesting stories in the series concerns–SPOILER ALERT FOR THE REST OF THE PARAGRAPH–the killing of a young German prisoner of war by a man, a refugee from Germany, who had just that morning discovered that his entire family had been wiped out at Majdanek.  Foyle’s values are absolute, even in a case like this. 

There’s something to be said for a series that gives you a chance to see what it would look like if you did adopt a strong and nonrelativistic moral code and actually lived it.  And that the picture of that is not some plaster saint, or some hypocritical jerk, but an attractive, humane and decent human being.

That brings me back, of course, to Steve Lewis’s suggestion that  part of what readers come to Gregor Demarkian for is the values he represents–and I really wouldn’t argue with that

I’d just argue about that hometown thing.

But that’s for later.

Written by janeh

May 29th, 2010 at 7:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'A Loaf of Bread, A Jug of Whine, and Thou'

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  1. I agree. If a series of novels is actually about a character, the maximum length is around eight volumes. After that, either it goes soap opera–ANOTHER affair? He’s off the wagon AGAIN?–or the character goes into stasis–think Sherlock Holmes, or Tarzan–and the books are about something else: usually detection or adventure, because serial romance doesn’t really work.

    Mind you, I’d be a happier reader if more authors would figure out where they were going with a character, get to that point and stop, starting over with a fresh character and setting, but authors and publishers seem determined to avoid selling anything new.

    I’ve seen a few House and no Foyle. From your description they seem to be something else I have seen now and then: you keep the character and change the situation–either using the situation to illuminate the character or the character to speak to the situation. I suspect there’s a point at which this too grows repetitious, but blended with detection–as I understand both of the examples are–it might go quite a while.

    Foyle sounds, as you say, intensely civilized, which is certainly not sainthood, but may not be better–only different. House is certainly arrogant rude and sometimes self-indulgent–and may be a saint for all that. It’s the whole moral compass thing you mentioned earlier with him. Or did you think saints began cast in plaster with appropriate symbol?


    29 May 10 at 10:22 am

  2. Foyle’s a fascinating character. I’ve seen all the episodes in my local library, but I gather that there are more out there somewhere.

    I don’t know if Foyle is a saint. Saints come in all kinds of personality types, although I think they must all have a certain determination to follow their own paths. Foyle has than, and he certainly has a moral compass. He didn’t appear to be anything special when I started watching the first episode. He appears to be a bland, middle-aged minor bureaucrat who works for the police and doesn’t seem to get terrible upset about much, not even about being turned down for active war service due to his age and the importance of his civilian job. He never gets worked up over anything and therefore mustn’t take much seriously. But this appearance is so misleading in a world in which we judge people’s honest and sincerity by the degree and manner in which they emote on TV! In fact, he has very firm opinions on right and wrong, both in the war and in his job, and although the viewer can tell which wrongdoers he despises and which he rather sympathizes with, he treats them all with courtesy and scrupulously fairly as far as he is capable (sometimes being hindered by various senior officials). The mysteries are all based on common WW II situations which are slightly exotic to those of us too young to have lived through it and who haven’t read much about it.

    I finally got ‘Keeping up Appearances”. Aside from the social issues mentioned earlier, what struck me is how much more fun the dirty layabouts get out of life than the responsible middle-classes do, and how Hyacinth is treated with avoidance and basic courtesy even when she’s on one of her extended fantasies (so extreme as to almost amount to mental illness!)

    Actually, another point that intrigued me is that Hyancinth’s flagrant inventions, as she goes through various explanations for her father’s or son’s goings-on until she hits one one practically divorced from reality, but acceptable to her. We all do that sort of thing, only (I hope) to a much lesser degree. Maybe that’s part of what people can identify with in Hyacinth.


    30 May 10 at 6:51 am

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