stories seem to radiate the active --- the cop, the private
eye, the annoying snoop dig ever more deeply for revealing the
perpetrator of an evil deed or five. They knock on doors, introduce
themselves to one stranger after another, keep getting in and
out of cars. They are in perpetual motion.
look closer. The typical detection tale actually operates off
a protagonist sublimely passive. Crimes, suspects, red herrings,
more crimes and suspects --- essential ingredients for a plot
that leads the protagonist by the nose. He (or she) is markedly
reactive. Even when he tries to get ahead of an arch fiend,
researching histories and ancient records and anything else
illuminating precedent in order to zero in on the culprit, he
is a tram running down tracks laid firmly into the asphalt.
Some of the stops might have been decommissioned before his
interest in them, but they magnetize that interest.
took you so long to get back here and get off, shamus?
straight novel that depicts a protagonist exclusively at the
mercy of external developments would be hard-pressed to elicit
sympathy for him and likely bathe both reader and tale in creeping
ennui; merely sustaining interest in endless objectification,
when not victimization, would be a battle. Not that there haven’t
been successful novels of the kind. The melancholies of central
European and Midwest fiction, for example, have thrived on it,
sometimes to an artistic degree. But for the most part, the
protagonist of the straight novel is somebody changing his life
because he has seen what had previously gone unnoticed, whether
in his home, in his social surroundings, or in his mirror.
ignites ferment, takes on the consequences of his belated awareness
and its unavoidably rising cost, maybe transforms more than
himself because of it, maybe gets defeated by it, but certainly
can’t indulge any illusion that he is the same person
that he had been before his awakening.
the typical detection story, on the other hand, the major change
is from the miscreant unidentified and not captured to the miscreant
identified and captured. The investigating protagonist’s
proclivity isn’t so much for the fertile expanses of logic
as for the narrow restraints of syllogism: There is a grievous
deed needing resolution, I am looking into the grievous deed,
ergo I will resolve the grievous deed. Why seek more subtle
deductions? The day after the last page of the crime tale, the
sleuthing characters can be assumed to be back operating as
they had been before the reader had opened to page one (and
for the most popular franchises, awaiting the next grievous
deed in another part of town). Nothing at all complicated about
it if you accept that the genre knows best and you acquiesce
to its traditional demands.
predominantly passive nature of the detection story hero affects
more than the evolution of the tale as such. More often than
not, it makes the protagonist less of an interesting character
than his quarry, even when the latter remains nameless in the
the villain has demonstrable desires, execrable as they might
be, the protagonist is usually restricted to a series of professional
urges (this occurring ironically even in stories in which murderously
whimsical urges are advanced to define the acts of the culprit).
in the most encompassing sense falls to a figure synonymous
with the obscure, the unnamed, and the evil while its opposite,
the putative hero present from the narrative’s opening
words, struggles to acquire more than caption-detail substance.
If only from the nature of the body count, we know what the
villain wants -- always a fundamental beginning for deciphering
a personality. By contrast, the detective figure is chronically
depicted as being layered only through the morose, the manic
depressive, or some other self-abusing quality equating colorfulness
with self-pity. In most of these cases, character complexity
comes down to a choice between Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels.
it have to be this way? What about a joyful policeman absorbed
in a pursuit because he knows that every case he makes will
earn him more reason to love the world? A private detective
who couldn’t care less about a culprit but just wants
to meet more people with idiosyncrasies? A busybody who has
always craved writing a sequel to Rear Window and is determined
even to falsify evidence to attain that end?
Haven’t seen any of them in a detection tale lately. And
yet, the possibilities should be there. Who condemned the crime
story protagonist to his professional functions and nothing
more? In fact, there are suspects, and none more compromised
than the pulp magazines that survived on detection fiction for
so long on the premise that readers wanted conciseness more
than subtlety, immediate immersion in a plot more than intimations
of cavernous characters, and formulas of one and one equals
two more than of speculation about infinite numbers. But the
statute of limitations has long expired on that blame; the only
visible heirs of those magazines are TV cop shows where in the
name of character the heroine detective attends AA meetings
and a hero detective can’t shake off his childhood memory
of once having encountered extraterrestrials in his backyard.
more serious crime literature, there is little reason why a
protagonist cannot be, as the ugly redundant neologism has it,
both a pro and active.