Going Bland

Un caractère bien fade est celui de n’en avoir aucun.
La Bruyère, Les Caractères

Their names are French, Mallett, MacDonald, Manson, Wace, Rivers among many others. They all are detectives either professional or amateur, and pretty good ones judging by their record. This is not their most remarkable feature, however. What they have in common, their most distinctive characteristic – is that they don’t have any. They are to fictional sleuths as the humdrums are to crime writers which is not a coincidence since they most often appear in the latter’s works. Their fans, for they have some, call them unassuming and serviceable, others less charitably inclined say they’re just dull.

Yet the Bland Detective as we’ll call them from now on is never an insignificant one, hard as they try to be. The first reason and the most obvious one is that they nevertheless do the job; as I said above their records are pretty good as far as sleuthing goes. The second one is that their dullness is never coincidental. It always tells one something about the author, their methods and their goals.

A Bland Detective may be so for four reasons:

1°) The author’s characterization skills are just not that good. The suspicion arises when every character in the book, even those that are supposed to be memorable, are bland too. I won’t give any names; there are too many of those.

2°) The author cares only about the puzzle and the detective is only there to solve it – to make him too flamboyant would risk being distracting to the reader and besides the author doesn’t have the time for it, busy as he is planting clues and red herrings.

3°) The author is more interested in the supporting cast. The detective functions as a deus ex machina in a drama in which they are not personally involved. This kind of character was most frequently met in post-war crime fiction.

4°) The author wants to take a stand. This last reason is the most interesting one in my opinion.

Almost from the beginning of the genre crime fiction has been torn between two tendencies, the baroque and the mundane. On one hand you had Dupin and Sherlock Holmes; on the other the casebook detectives and Martin Hewitt. This dichotomy endured well into the twentieth century and is not entirely over today – few contemporary fictional detectives can be called mundane after all, as « realistic » they and the worlds they inhabit are said and believed to be.

To choose as your protagonist a character without obvious characteristics can thus be a statement of sorts, especially in a period such as the Golden Age when the cult of the Great Detective reached its apex. It can be either aesthetical (« I’m being realistic unlike you swollen heads! ») or political (« I’m standing for the little guy! ») or both at the same time. It can also be a reminder that the detective novel is not necessarily a novel about a detective.

The Bland Detective is thus not that bland after all and I daresay their presence is healthy provided of course that it doesn’t become the rule. There are many other elements in a detective story than the titular sleuth and the Bland Detective at least allows them in skilled hands to exist too, which is not bad for a character without any characteristics.


2 commentaires sur “Going Bland

  1. « Character » detectives are, I feel, the colourful means by which many get enticed into the genre, and the « Blands » are the measure of how invested you are in what GAD has to offer once you’ve read a few. Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant was the point where I realised that I cared about the plot more than the character at the centre of it (which given Tey’s shortcomings in plotting will be ironic for some…) and from The Man in the Queue there was no going back!

    As you rightly say, if what goes on around the detective — as deus ex, as plot- and clue-finder, or as a way of making a larger point — is well handled and interesting, the detective shouldn’t matter at all. And, good heavens, don’t Character detectives end up in a lot of dross in their later careers…!

    Aimé par 2 personnes

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