Creating a Detective

Linking to last week’s post on the same theme of mystery writing and crime fiction, Comparing Detectives and Clothing Them, I’ve been thinking about Agnetha’s style, but also about the attributes both linking and beyond her clothing. What makes a detective a detective? How do readers instinctively know that this character is the clever/witty/ingenious/solving one? Of course, the words in writing themselves display what a character is like, but we writers want to go beyond that by showing the detective-like nature of those under said title.

1. Sharp eyes. This is more of a trait for female detectives, but those with a mind attuned to mystery tend to be those who spot a change of expression, know who is lying when, and scrape the crimescene for every little piece. On the upside, they catch the clues that others miss. On the downside, detectives with this trait tend into the OCD or self-restrictive camp.

2. Sharp dress. As I mentioned last week, each detective needs a unique sense of dress. This not only adds to their visual character, but also helps us build a more realistic person.

3. Wordiness. Not a necessity, but I have noticed a trend where the more popular detectives are those who have the chance to give a speech and do so with fluidity. Maybe not ease, but these detectives know their mind and can speak up when another’s life is at stake.

4. Selective apathy. Sometimes one has to be cold. After all, one’s staring a murderer in the eyes and condemning them to a life of cold imprisonment. Each detective I’ve read or watched has this side – and I’m not talking about the detached autistic nature of Sherlock. I mean that grave face they all wear when the denouement approaches, the state of “there’s nothing more I can do. Wrong has been committed, now I back away.” For Agnetha, that means almost pulling the trigger herself in revenge, but, when her heart freezes solid, she learns to take each case with a more neutral expression, regardless of the flames in her soul.

5. A love of creative leisure. For Sherlock, it’s playing the violin, be it creatively or atonally. For Morse, it was opera on vinyl and tape (a la the Gentleman Detective). For Agnetha, in the first book, it’s her singing, which both acts as a coping mechanism over death and a catalyst to her ideas, whether or not she’s using it ironically. Because detectives tend to have so much raw intellectual energy, they need a creative outlet, otherwise they’d burn out.

6. One blatant flaw. Often overworking! In the case of both Poirot and Sherlock, they get physically and mentally ill when they have no cases to crack – the problem with being a ‘tec-for-hire. Other detectives of the Metropolitan police type have vices in the night essential to their day activities. The issue with being surrounded by death and danger in all its forms is that it can affect the morale of any person. The one episode of Inspector Lynley I’ve seen (maybe I’ll get around to watching more one day) was one in which, due to the criminal Lynley was fighting, his wife was shot. Dangerous living.

 7. A tendency to disagree with one’s senior/junior. Here, I am mainly thinking of those TV show partnerships, particular those of Morse and Lewis/Lewis and Hathaway/Tom Barnaby and Jones. Both sides of the detective partnerships are intelligent in their own rights, but their differing backgrounds change the way they react to a situation. In Of Moscow Mysteries, SC Caroline saves the life of her charge as Agnetha watches by, when, normally, their roles would’ve been reversed. But Agnetha’s been away from mystery and stretching her legs, and Caroline has her nose in a Christie novel most days.

Because Agnetha’s temper means she overreacts to this situation, she provides the novel with more of an internal conflict than if the investigative styles of Agnetha and Caroline were identical.

Every reader enjoys a detective-team with intellectual tension!

8. A specific quirk, be that of personality or behaviour. Inspector Japp may always have belittled Poirot for his odd behaviours, but Poirot’s going above and beyond the simplicity of the mystery always got the job done. One of my favourite Poirot stories is Dead Man’s Mirror, where Poirot finds a plastic bag in a waste paper basket, takes it out and lightly exclaims “aha!” as is his way. Japp is a clever mind, but he never appreciates Poirot’s unique touch, and that means that Poirot can be the one to discover the vital piece of the puzzle.

9. A determination based on justice/faith/good will. One of my favourite Poirot quotes is “Justice is a fine word, but it is sometimes difficult to say exactly what one means by it. In my opinion, the most important thing is to clear the innocent.” He is so against bad deeds as principle, but he also has moments where he releases a known criminal into the world – and, of course, if you’ve read/seen Curtain, you’ll know that Poirot becomes the murderer to save a whole bunch of lives at his very end.

In other characters I’ve seen this string, too. Many main police DIs are stronger motivated by not only doing their job, or doing the right thing, but by their desire to see justice/truth prevail. They symp/empathise with the victim and this spurs them on.

10. Blatant disregard for the rules. There are some straight-laced detectives, but, if we’re being honest, the best are those who go against the actual rules of the trade.  Not because they’re relatable, in case you were thinking that, but because their naturally-inquisitive nature means that they must break a few rules in the name of success. First off, a detective who is prepared to break commands as well as legal and societal rules has a stronger personality than those who obey their senior’s orders without question. Secondly, this helps to distinguish them from the ‘supergod’ status some readers – and some detectives themselves! – put them into. DIs are human, too, doing their jobs like the rest of us. Sometimes temptation will give.

Hope you have enjoyed my list of things I look for when reading and creating a detective! Keep an eye out for more crime fiction posts 🙂


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