You’ve doubtless heard of Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher books in which the gargantuan ex-serviceman does plenty of fightin’ and figurin’, and if there’s a bigger name in publishing today it’s only because James Patterson has, like, 86 co-authors.
As a fan of traditional detective fiction, I should probably scorn the gross popularity of Child’s writing, but I honestly approve of what he does. Not only are the best of the Jack Reacher books very deftly plotted — c.f., Die Trying (1998), Persuader (2003), One Shot (2005), The Hard Way (2006), Gone Tomorrow (2009), and that’s without having read any of the last six or seven — but he’s also refreshingly candid when it comes to talking about his writing. Find any interview in which he holds forth on plotting (the light switch analogy he made once is perfect) or the perception of genre fiction from the cheap seats of prize-winning fiction or, indeed, almost anything and you’ll see a gleeful genre nerd who has a great perspective on good, old-fashioned thriller writing. I don’t always agree with what he says — his argument that all fiction is essentially one plot was, to my way of thinking, one of the notable failures of Occam’s razor — but I’m always entertained.
When I recently purchased a copy of Dorothy L. Sayers’ gargantuan Have His Carcase (1932) and saw that Child had written the introduction, I’ll confess to a moment of cynicism that couldn’t work out which way to point: was this the publishers trying to court popularity, to show that they’re still down with what’s hip and that classic detective fiction is cool because they’d gotten arguably the biggest thriller writer in the world to introduce one, or was it Child himself trying to ingratiate himself with the classic mystery crowd in the hope of some reflected glory? Either way, it doesn’t matter, because Child’s introduction is superb — capturing in typically concise style the context of the book for both Wimsey and Sayers alike, giving an overview of Sayers’ life, times, and frustrations, and communicating a great enthusiasm for the book itself. It’s not an enthusiasm I share — I tried, I tried, but I think Dot and I are going to be on nodding terms only where her novels are concerned — but as an introduction it’s a very accomplished piece of writing.
Which brings us to The Hero (2019), Child’s first non-fiction book — though at 77 A-format hardback pages of not exactly small font (and featuring some nice if not exactly suitable full-page illustrations) it’s really more of a TED talk. When this was announced, I, probably in common with everyone else, assumed it would be a sweep though the hero archetypes of history — Odysseus, King Arthur, John Wayne — to establish a sense of their commonality. In fact, we don’t get to Homer until page 53. Prior to that, we start with the discovery of morphine and then heroin and then engage on a fascinating, necessarily speculative exploration of etymology — why, of all the names that could have been chosen, was heroin named for the Greek word hero? In a way this is pure Child: give ’em what they want, just not what they expect.
Google image search: “Hero”
Allow me to diverge here to explain to the impatient among you why an etymological discussion from 2019 is taking up space on my classic detective fiction blog. Kicking off from the false premise of my expectations of this book, I got to reflecting on my own view of fictional heroes, and my perceptions of the heroes in the books I read. And here’s the thing: I would feel uncomfortable describing, say, Gideon Fell as the ‘hero’ of the 23 novels in which he features, and the same goes for Hercule Poirot, Inspector Cockrill, Mrs. Bradley, Lord Peter Wimsey, Joseph French, Conan Edogawa, or any other detective figure in the classic mould. I’d call them the protagonist, the series character, the detective…but never heroes.
This realisation immediately gave rise to two questions, both of which sound rather defensive: “Why not?” and “Who do you consider to be a hero, then?”. There’s certainly an element in answering the first that Curtis Evans recent raised in a post on the Golden Age Detection Facebook group, looking at the decisions made by some classic detectives in allowing murderers to go free simply because it suited them to do so. While the concept of allowing murder to go unpunished because of a moral balancing — as in, say, a rather famous case by Agatha Christie — was raised, and while we must consider that the classic non-professional detective often saw their duty to be far more about Truth than Justice, there are also undoubtedly instances that leave a sour taste when a killer is allowed by a court of one to escape sanction because they’re known to the detective or because of their supposedly elevated position in society (as in, say, a rather less famous case by Agatha Christie).
This alone could be seen as sufficient argument to strip the detective of their hero status, but for the fact that not every fictional detective is equally culpable — your police detective was, one imagines, bound by a sort of literary Hays Code and so unable to simply nod the villain out the door — and yet I don’t think I’d call Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith heroic any more than I would Dr. Lancelot Priestley. Arguably the only real difference between your truth-seeking amateur and your justice-dispatching professional detective is that the latter was paid to pursue justice — so they‘re only seeing it through because of the money. My…hero?
Heroic glasses, apparently.
Since Child’s book wisely doesn’t given a strict series of criteria against which to judge the classic-era detective figure, I thought I could at least start with what Child does give us, and work outwards from there. His chief line of approach comes from the discovery of language and its use in telling stories:
There are only two real people in fiction — the storyteller and the listener. The story proceeds based on the teller’s aims and the listener’s needs. … If the listener needs reassurance of some kind, or consolation, and the teller aims to better equip her family for future trials, then the story will likely be suspenseful in nature, replete with dangers and perils, over which a memorable character will eventually triumph in a decisive manner…
So far, so good. Edmund Wilson missed the point when he asked “Why do people read detective stories?”, and it’s captured here neatly: our tales of detection are often driven by the suspense of who the killer is, how the clues are being laid, who the next victim will be, how the crime was committed, etc. And frequently our detective is a memorable character thrown in to stand against the world of the book’s milieu to reach the answer when all seems lost. In classic era detective fiction we can cast aside Ronald Knox’s assertion that “[t]he story derives its excitement only from the danger of the criminal getting off scot free, or of some innocent person being condemned in his place” because we know full well that our criminal will be identified and made, in one way or another, to face judgement: either by being laid bare before their peers, or by being forced into drastic action such as suicide, or by facing the full force of the law and the public opprobrium that would follow hard upon. We can be assured that our detective character — usually memorable, even if their lack of ‘character’ makes them uninteresting — will triumph in a decisive manner.
More than anyone, Odysseus codified the long-term mainstream understanding of ‘hero’ — one who suffers, one who endures, one who survives a long and complicated journey through dangers and perils, and thereafter emerges with his identity and honour intact.
That our detective succeeds often from a position of apparent weakness — being deemed feeble on account of their appearance, their provenance, or any other era-appropriate form of belittlement (c.f., Lionel Townsend’s impervious dismissal of Sergeant Beef’s abilities) — makes that triumph even more decisive in the face of greater adversity, preserves or emphasises their honour. After all, where’s the skill or talent or conferring of kudos in solving something rudimentary? Anyone could have done that. The endurance to see these tricky cases through, that’s a key facet of the detective as under discussion.
In fact, Odysseus was motivated solely by personal pride, hubris, and arrogance, but the nineteenth century preferred to imagine an element of altruism in his struggles.
Here, then, might be the first point of telling separation between our detective and the popular imagination of the hero. Because your classic era amateur is usually a little conceited — that was Roger Sheringham’s entire raison d’etre, after all — and countless examples can be found: Poirot’s unswervingly pompous self-confidence, Nero Wolfe’s self-aggrandising staging of every element of his cases to the extent of almost never leaving the house so that everything was done on his turf, etc. As W.H, Auden said in ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ (1948) of that most archetypal of heroic amateurs “[Sherlock Holmes] detects for his own sake and shows the maximum indifference to all feelings except a negative fear of his own” — but we can then go on to raise a contention with his ensuing claim that Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector Joseph French “detects for the sake of the innocent members of society, and is indifferent only to his own feelings and those of the murderer”. Nothing so altruistic — French is painfully aware of his own career, and while no-one would accuse him of being purely careerist in how he selects cases, there are frequent opportunities to reflect on how a particular success will go over well at the Yard, or how ‘pulling a boner’ might count against him.
So, might these detectives not seem to be heroes to me because there’s often a clear, personal motivation behind their detection? Perhaps, and there’s nothing wrong with that: what you do can still be (and, indeed, is) meaningful without being ‘heroic’. They are there by choice: either by inveigling their way into an investigation or by deign of the career they have opted to pursue, and it’s difficult to get too swoonsome over someone galivanting in to do what they’d be expected to do in that position anyway (is a plumber who stops your shower leaking at 4am still a hero after they charge you £80 an hour for the privilege?). The hero was whoever came in and did the things that needed doing which no-one else was brave or capable enough to do. From here, as Child says, “hero” eventually came to mean “the main character in a book”, and thus the folk hero tradition of Robin Hood and his ilk — “some tough, sparky guy who would show up and fix things” — was born. But what you start talking about then is not the hero in the classic, Greek sense of the word.
Child ends with a genuinely great point about how tractable the modern consciousness has become where the notion of heroism is concerned. Was Robin Hood far more an Establishment hero supporting the existing social hierarchies than the champion of the oppressed? It was, after all, the absence of the monarchy and the consequent interruption to the status quo that necessitated his actions. “Most First World War soldiers,” Child suggests, “were not heroes by any definition — many served in a reluctant and desultory manner … No doubt their experiences were horribly unpleasant and uncomfortable, but the automatic association of ‘soldier’ with ‘hero’ was explicitly political, as it still is, and served to short-circuit discussion, as it still does”. Undoubtedly we would consider some soldiers — those who were drafted, did not want to be in the War, and went and did their duty to the best of their ability anyway — to have exhibited heroic conduct, but in this days and age the notion of heroism has become too conflated with too many other things to have a clear, simple meaning and purpose.
So, do I discriminate between my fictional detectives and my fictional heroes for any reason beyond the choice of being in that situation in the first place? John McClane in Die Hard (1988) would be a decidedly less heroic figure if he’d come out of that bathroom with his shoes off and his hands up and had just sat around with the other hostages for a couple of hours. And this brings me back to my second slightly defensive question above: “Who do you consider to be a hero, then?”. Ian Fleming’s James Bond is a man doing a job by choice (and, let’s face it, making some terrible decisions in the process), as is Len Deighton’s nameless spy, as is Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne (expect for the first book, where he’s a terrified man desperately trying to find out who wants to kill him — but he immediately becomes far less interesting in the sequels, as heroes tend to). For me, I think the notion of a broad term like ‘hero’ only applies in two cases: firstly to the sort of grand scheme you find in a Matthew Reilly novel or Marvel movie, and secondly as a sort of sardonic dismissal of the needs for the modern protagonist to be weighed down with every fault going and yet still triumph anyway (misogynist, alcoholic, orphan, shell-shocked ex-solider, diabetic, agoraphobic, outcast…and heroic cop!).
Hello Darkness, my old friend…
So maybe I’m reluctant to classify these detectives as heroes because there’s both too much baggage and insufficient shading when you put such an old, multi-purpose word to a use for which it was not designed. The classic detective was a restorer of order, yes, and a force for the establishment of a sort of socially accepted normality, and often worked through the Hero Journey in miniature with confounding clues and open xenophobia taking the place of three-headed dogs and ocean-spanning quests, and yet they’re also doing what they want to be doing. Maybe, too, context plays a part — we never really have a sense of the wider impact of their ‘work’ beyond knowing that a criminal is identified and everyone else sort of moves on; the detective themself remains necessarily unchanged (the modern fetish for an evolving personal life of the protagonist has on me the contrary effect of making them less memorable, because I’m too busy trying to keep their coterie of entourage straight in my head) and so could be seen to float through all their heroic deeds without ever really being touched by them, inaccessible, impervious, and godlike — too powerful and aloof to warrant any sensible comparison to the everyday man. After all, a journey would imply some sense of change, right? Or at least growth.
Hmmm, it turns out I’m no closer than I was before starting this…any help would be appreciated!
Incidentally, it turns out you can read the opening chapter of Child’s book on the TLS website.