As the mystery genre « progressed » towards greater realism, it became clear that the Great Detective of yore just wouldn’t do. Everyone now knew that criminal investigations in real life were carried out by professionals, not by amateurs. Everyone also knew that said professionals were not romantic figures relying either on their computer-like brains or hammer-like fists but everyday men working as a team and whose crime-solving methods were anything but romantic or thrilling. The genre needed a new kind of hero, one that would fit in this new world crime writers were about to conquer.
Thus was the Beta Detective born.
While I don’t need to dwell on what an Alpha Detective is – the words speak for themselves, and everyone can name one, even many – the Beta Detective needs some further explanation as the concept may be confusing to some readers. A Beta Detective is not a bad or mediocre detective, nor is he (for he most often is a « he ») a bland one. The words that describe him best are « Not particularly ». He is not particularly bright, not particularly handsome, not particularly charismatic, not particularly colourful – all while being enough of all these things to be interesting and memorable. He is the kind of detective that crime writers think solves crime in real life: an ordinary human being with ordinary human flaws and faculties.
The Beta Detective’s first and most important peculiarity is that he is not a genius. Getting to the truth takes him longer than his Alpha colleagues, which is just as well since the books in which he appears are longer too. He is not possessed with super-human deduction or observation skills but instead uses intuition and common sense. Most often he stumbles on the solution – for instance with a vital clue being brought to him at the last minute, or the culprit confessing for some reason – but he rarely deduces it, which is one of his sharpest departures from the Alpha model.
This lack of sleuthing prowess as well as of bigger-than-life features risk making him forgettable and even worse, boring, but he makes up for those with his inner and personal lives which sometimes are more interesting than and take up as much space as the cases he’s working on. Alpha Detectives usually don’t have family, health or money issues – this is one of the reasons that make them Alpha in the first place. Beta Detectives on the other hand have plenty of those that frequently interfere with their work in one way or the other. It is not unusual that the Beta Detective knew the victim before they died, or identifies with them so much that he loses his balance. He is rarely the « disinterested witness » that most Alphas are.
Does this all this « human interest » stuff make him a more realistic figure than the Alpha? On surface it certainly does and most readers think so. There is no question that he is closer to the everyday man (if not policeman) than the more flamboyant sleuths of the past but ultimately he is only a little less artificial than they were. Why? Because for all his « guy next door » personality he is still too interesting, too distinctive. Being from a « police » family (my great-grandfather, my grandfather, one of my uncles and one of my cousins were on the force) I can tell you that professional detectives tend to be extremely normal people living extremely normal lives and with a job that is rarely enthralling. Not really the stuff of fiction, and definitely not that of popular fiction. So writers having ditched the quirks and eccentricities of the Alpha Detective have to reintroduce them under the form of issues, family backgrounds, even disabilities. This is why the Beta Detective these days is so often alcoholic, suicidal, divorced and/or estranged from his kids – and we’re talking here about the luckiest ones. Both critics and readers see it as « character development » but it is anything but. A real successful character doesn’t need tragedy after tragedy to come to life.
The Beta Detective is thus not a realistic character, which is not a criticism as absolute realism in the mystery genre is an impossibility both by definition (it is fiction after all, not reporting) and because real-life crime and crimefighters rarely make for the thrilling narratives that fans are after. He fulfills his purpose however, which is to give readers – and writers – a feeling that he and his stories might be for real. Alpha Detectives never had to bother with that.