Detective sob stories: Why are today's fictional sleuths so depressed?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 February 2004)

His drinking had reached the point where sometimes he just swigged from the bottle. "The weekend stretched ahead of him, one football game the extent of his plans."

The poor wretch we're talking about is John Rebus of Edinburgh, one of the world's most popular fictional detectives, the hero of 14 novels by Ian Rankin. The Rebus books have made Rankin (the London Spectator recently suggested) the most successful Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott. His publishers claim that 10% of all crime novels sold in Britain are about Rebus.

What fascinates me is Rebus's mental state. The quoted passage, from Set in Darkness (2000), continues: "He reached again for the bottle but it was empty. He thought of a dozen places where he could get a drink, even at two in the morning. The city -- his city -- was out there waiting for him, waiting to show its dark, shrivelled heart."

Rebus is far from unique in crime fiction. Novelists everywhere are describing depressive, despondent sleuths with crippled human relationships. There's so much of this going around that it raises a suspicion: Are crime writers trying to break into "literary" fiction by laying on the angst and despair, moods that are notorious for winning Nobels and Bookers? Are they angling for a cultural upgrade?

Sherlock Holmes occasionally retreated into a cocaine haze to brood through a problem, but today's popular detectives are something else. Cops created by writers as different as Elmore Leonard, Peter Robinson, Henning Mankell and Rankin exhibit all the symbols of depression, from chronic loneliness to low self-esteem. Today's typical detective novel makes a reader start thinking like a psychiatrist. Obviously, these chaps need something, but what? Prozac, maybe. Zoloft? Paxil?

Even Leonard delivers a pretty sad detective in his current novel, Mr. Paradise. Frank Delsa, a Detroit homicide cop, lives alone in the house he shared with his wife until her death a year ago. "The hardest time for Frank was coming home, walking into the silence of the house." He also worries about the two men he killed four years ago, though the department psychologist said he was handling it well.

Frank's so lonely he can't keep his hands off the gorgeous Kelly, an underwear model, even though she may be a suspect and is certainly a witness in the double murder he's investigating, and it's not clear whether she likes him or just wants to use him. Frank knows this stuff can get a guy thrown right off the job, but his emotions are so rocky he can't help himself. Leonard, however, lightens the despondency in one way: He hints at a happy ending.

There's nothing like that in sight for moody, introspective Alan Banks, the detective expertly chronicled in the novels Robinson writes in Toronto about his native Yorkshire. Banks's wife left him long ago because he neglected her for his work, and he still mourns their marriage; the fact that she's had a baby with her new husband provides a fresh reason for sadness and frequent resort to Laphroaig.

In the new book, Playing with Fire, we find Banks still alone, his dead affair with a colleague, Inspector Annie Cabbot, now only a source of trouble between two otherwise well-suited colleagues. Naturally he's jealous when she takes up with a too-slick-by-half Londoner. When he goes to see his former wife, reasoning that she may know something about his current case, he neglects to call ahead and encounters her on the street. She thinks he's stalking her and the reader wonders if he's finally snapped.

Mankell's Kurt Wallander, on the other hand, wouldn't dare break down. There's too much work to do. He does his detecting in Ystad, a small Swedish town, but no cop ever worked harder than Kurt. He's another brooder, always afraid he's not up to the current assignment. Kurt's wife also walked out when she couldn't catch his attention, and his duties have cramped any subsequent romances. When not tormented by his own troubles, Kurt worries about the state of civilization. Violence that was once limited to the big cities has now spread to the countryside. "The future of our society gets gloomier and gloomier," he reflects at one point.

Mankell can tell a terrific story, as books like Faceless Killers and The White Lioness demonstrate, but I sometimes get a little tired of the morose Kurt. So, apparently, did Mankell, who recently stopped writing about him. Mankell spoke of his creation as someone with an independent and uncontrollable existence: "I think he's of the Calvinist generation, in the sense that you are supposed to work and pray ... That is supposed to be your life."

In the new Rankin novel, A Question of Blood, Rebus deals with the case of a madman who shoots two students to death in a school, wounds another, then kills himself. Rebus works his way brilliantly through a maze of criminality (Rankin never tells one story when he can tell three) without ever letting a drop of sunshine fall on his own personality. As Rankin describes him, "Rebus is a dark and brooding character who burrows into other people's lives as a way of not dealing with his own problems."

Rebus's wife gave up on him long ago, he rarely hears from his daughter, and he's lost touch with his brother. He's overly secretive, short-tempered and resentful of his bosses. He thinks that only work will keep him sane, but it doesn't make him happy. And now he's suffering from a trick that his creator, Rankin, has played on him: He's creeping into upper middle age, and not enjoying it at all. He was 40 when the world first met him in a 1987 novel called Knots and Crosses, and ever since he's grown old in what Rankin calls "real time" -- he's now in his middle fifties, he's slowed down and, as Leonard Cohen says, he aches in places where he used to play. His regard for Edinburgh society declines daily and he no longer has much respect for his colleagues. In the latest book he's been named as a suspect in one murder case even as he tries to solve another one. He's turning into one depressive who couldn't be helped even by a Zoloft drip.

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