Lots of modern mystery readers are more interested in character than plotting. They want protagonists to care for, to feel for, to relate to, which most canonical Great Detectives, especially the Golden Age ones, are anything but. I don’t mean this as criticism: readers’ expectations were different back then. Also this is that remoteness that makes them Great Detectives. If it was possible for everyone to relate to, or identify with Sherlock Holmes, then he wouldn’t be Sherlock Holmes. The Great Detective’s prime purpose is to awe, not to move.
Is this to say that the « Alpha » Detective is gone once and for all and that we should content ourselves with the « Beta » sleuths that crop up in modern crime fiction? Should we surrender to the idea of the genre as soap opera or problem play with a criminal element? Are fictional detectives to be imaginary friends rather than real investigators? My answer to all three questions is a resounding « No ».
A writer admittedly has to make a living, and crime fiction remains a popular genre no matter what its Literati wing says. This means in both cases that the reader is the boss and ultimately gets to decide which way to go. Writing works both ways, though. You have to please the reader but the ultimate goal is to subtly « re-formatting » them so that they see things the way you do. It is especially true of a genre like crime fiction which heavily relies on manipulation. There is nothing wrong with giving people what they want, but giving people what you want and making them like it is even better.
What would a Great Detective be like in the digital era then? It all depends on whether you decide to play the game or go fully subversive. If you choose the former option then the later Lord Peter and Albert Campion must be your guides, regular (well, almost) human beings with regular (well, almost) lives who also happen to have big brains and analytical skills. The burden of genius, be it moral or psychological, would be an interesting theme to explore. Being able to see what nobody else sees and think what nobody else thinks may be a recipe for celebrity, but not necessarily for happiness and that would satisfy the « troubled detective » crowd while allowing you to create an interesting character.
If you’re in a more radical mood – and in no pressing need of money, as success is all but guaranteed – you can go the opposite way, which is to make your character as unrelatable and unlikeable as can get, in other words a complete asshole. I can see you frowning and thinking « it’s been done before » and you are right. Anti-heroes have been part and parcel of the crime fiction genre, even back in its most traditional forms, almost since the beginning. The difference is, your detective won’t be an anti-hero. They will be on the right side of the law (unlike Dorrington) they won’t be played for laughs (unlike Dover) they will never be wrong and/or fail (unlike Sheringham) and most importantly they will have no « human flaws », redeeming features and/or extenuating circumstances. The Watson, is one is indeed, may be an asshole too but it would be more interesting to have them a likeable, normal person so as to make the contrast even starker. By making your detective as unappealing as humanly possible you’ll force your possible readers either to reluctantly cheer for a thoroughly deplorable person or concentrate instead on the case at hand and how the nasty people will solve it. Either way you’ll have succeeded in inventing your own reader, which is the the highest feat a writer can achieve.
Having said that, I must admit that I am largely speaking for myself here, first because I’m known for my liking for the unorthodox in crime fiction and also because that’s the kind of character that I would write about if I could. Not being able to write fiction as easily and (hopefully) well as I do analytical and critical stuff is one of my biggest regrets and perhaps one of the reasons why I think so hard about other people’s writing – but this is thankfully not an autobiographical blog, so I won’t say more about that.
What do you think? What to you would be the best (I’m not saying most popular or lucrative) way to bring the Great Detective figure back in fashion?