A Curse, not a Blessing

Warning: The following includes more or less important spoilers to Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Locked Room and Busman’s Honeymoon, John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, Ellery Queen’s Face to Face and Agatha Christie’s One Two Buckle My Shoe. You may want to skip this article if you haven’t read them and plan to someday; you’re on your own if you proceed. – X.L.


« It don’t pay, really […] to be so darn clear-sighted »

These bitter words are spoken by Lord Peter Wimsey as the closing line to the recently rediscovered Dorothy L. Sayers short story, The Locked Room (in Bodies from the Library 2, edited by the always amazing Tony Medawar) and they underscore one of the least pleasant and yet rarely emphasized features of being a Great Detective. Being able to see the truth beyond the appearances is fine and dandy in theory – but it also means in practice being able to see things you’d rather not know about, not mention taking responsability for the consequences of your findings.

That is a recurring theme in the Wimsey canon – Lord Peter at the end of his final novel appearance mourns the death of the person he sent to the gallows – but other authors addressed it as well. Dr. Fell, giving up for once his cheerful persona, brands himself a criminal at the end of The Three Coffins after the murderer’s accomplice has committed suicide. While not all sharing Lord Peter or Dr. Fell’s penchant for self-flogging, most Golden Age detectives have their « I wish I didn’t solve it » case, which usually involves much hand-wringing and rarely ends on an optimistic note. One of the starkest examples can be found in Ellery Queen’s Face to Face in which Ellery identifying the murderer costs him one of his best friends whose life and love are irremediably broken because of him, and the pain still lingers in the following book. Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells also lead him where he’d rather not go in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe but with less tragic results.

Such predicaments have the same function as the erroneous solution (another Queen specialty) which is to give the character some humanity – if they fail then they’re not super(wo)men after all. The absence of lasting impact however limits these insights into the dark side of sleuthing – none of the characters listed above gave up detection after those painful experiences – and that’s why I said that the theme was one rarely emphasized. This is a pity as it would, if done well, open new territories for the genre to explore.

I’ve written before about the relationship between mental illness and being a great detective, asking whether one was a prerequisite for the other – but maybe it was taking the problem backwards. Maybe it’s being a great detective that drives one mad or at the very least makes one an eccentric fellow. Imagine just for a minute what it means to be able to see through everyone’s (including your loved ones) lies and deceits, to know the truth even when it hurts and having to choose between the law and your feelings? This is as good a definition of Hell as any. No wonder then that you end taking drugs or entertaining obsessive-compulsive tendencies. And yet authors – well, most of them – keep insisting that their sleuths live normal, fulfilled lives, with some of them even marrying and having children. This is as improbable and ultimately unrealistic than the human wrecks of modern crime fiction, whose every case « hits close to home » and is life-altering – but we know the improbable and the unrealistic are the stuff of the genre past present and future.


Un commentaire sur “A Curse, not a Blessing

  1. I think with some fictional sleuths such as Miss Marple, their ability to read others and figure out dark truths about them, is so automatic and so part of their personality makeup, that they would be doing it regardless of whether they were using these skills to solve crimes. So there would still be some resulting stress anyways. But perhaps the crime solving arena acerbates and increases the amount of stress such skills can bring, as the expectations and consequences get much bigger. On the other hand I think there are some sleuths which get much less stressed over their crime solving than LPW does, again a personality thing. Not read much Inspector French, but I feel like he doesn’t get so hung up on things (though feel free to correct me on this JJ!).

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