Mysteries of the Heart: Detectives in Literature and on Screen Could Use a Little Warmth in Their Quest to Solve Cold Cases

By McCormick, Patrick | U.S. Catholic, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Mysteries of the Heart: Detectives in Literature and on Screen Could Use a Little Warmth in Their Quest to Solve Cold Cases


McCormick, Patrick, U.S. Catholic


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IN 1886 THE SCOTTISH NOVELIST ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON created a modern classic of horror fiction when he published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, a psychological thriller in which the good and evil coursing through every human heart was split into two separate and opposing personalities.

A year later another Scotsman, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, began the world's most-celebrated detective series with A Study in Scarlet, and like Stevenson's Henry Jekyll, the cerebral and antisocial Sherlock Holmes was but half of a person, a towering intellect missing a heart. Indeed, Holmes' constant companion and alter ego, Dr. John Watson, usually provided the only human warmth and compassion in the adventures of Conan Doyle's great detective.

Ever since, dozens of authors have created a slew of fictional detectives laboring in the long literary shadow cast by Holmes. These crime-solvers have come in every shape, size, and color, and they have investigated murders in every location known to man. They have been hardboiled private eyes, well-bred police inspectors, and hard-working cops. And though there have been notable exceptions, most of these fictional detectives have been emotional cripples, loners who were long on brains and determination but decidedly short on warmth and affection.

Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series are tender-hearted souls oozing warmth and compassion. But they and a few other gentle investigators are outliers in the large literary tribe of detectives who have little

time for sympathy, affection, or a cup of tea. As Christie's other famous detective, Hercule Poirot, would note, crime-solving is not a labor of love, but a task for "the little grey cells" of his mighty brain.

FOR NEARLY ALL OF THE FICTIONAL DETECTIVES working their various beats, the work of investigation is seen as best suited to lonely, friendless investigators who are not known for their warmth. These men and women do not marry well, do not have many good friends, do not work and play well with others, and they almost always end up going home alone.

Christie's Poirot is an odd little man, a brusque egotist to whom one does not easily warm up. Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade is a cold loner described by his creator as a blond Satan. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe is a hard-boiled ex-cop who can be as tough and ruthless as the case requires--not the sort to offer a shoulder on which to cry.

And the long line of private eyes who filled their gumshoes down through the decades imitated their tough loner style. This was true of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer and John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, and it is true of Michael Connelly's L.A. homicide detective Harry Bosch and Robert B. Parker's Boston private eye, Spenser.

EVEN THE WOMEN WHO TAKE UP FICTIONAL sleuthing tend to embrace the role of the emotionally stunted loner. On television's Bones Dr.

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Mysteries of the Heart: Detectives in Literature and on Screen Could Use a Little Warmth in Their Quest to Solve Cold Cases
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