The Detective as Shaman

Crime writer P.D. James reckoned that:

‘What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order.’

Her observation is something that I’ve kept in the back of my mind when writing my own Cornish Detective series.

My protagonist detective is as much a healer as he is an avenger. But, he’s considerably more vengeful than his boss, the Chief Constable, who worries about the image of the force. He’s willing to cover up investigative failures if it prevents holidaymakers from being scared off from visiting Cornwall, which depends on tourism for much of its income.

I’ve been confident about the stance of my protagonist, who is an unusual character, while still fretting a bit that he’s too freaky and also that he’s a bit boring. I rationalised this, by remembering that villains, the antagonists, are always easier and more fun to write. Also, even if I’ve written a truly frightening fight scene, it’s not going to scare me as I know exactly what happens!

It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d created a protagonist who’s in good fictional company. The article is written by crime novelist Jason Webster, whose Spanish detective Max Cámara is an unorthodox character. Webster is a maverick author, at least so far as Fatal Sunset, the sixth story in his series goes, for he seemingly kills his hero on the last page—leaving a mystifying cliffhanger, which made me eager to read the next novel to see how he gets out of it. It’s a useful technique, for it made me remember the author’s name more than if all of the loose ends had been neatly tied.

Image result for webster Fatal Sunset,

Webster makes some wise observations about what function a detective serves:

If nothing else, he (and, later, she) is a problem-solver; someone who can restore order where there is chaos. Faced with the worst crime (what could be more existentially troubling than a murder?), the detective gives us answers to the most pressing and urgent questions: not only whodunit, but how and why and what it means. He does all this by taking us on a journey, discovering pieces of evidence, seeking out hints and clues. In the best examples of this game, we see everything that the detective sees, yet we are unable to solve the crime ourselves. Only the detective, in a final display of mastery, can reach the correct conclusion. We need him, with his special knowledge and abilities, to make sense of it all.

In other words, a detective is a kind of priest. Throughout history, priestly castes have boasted a unique capacity to answer the great riddles of existence….’

My detective hero is a very wealthy man, owing to an inheritance, and he’s also a son of a farmer locked into the moods of nature. His love of art, music, books and the countryside keeps him sane, but he’s definitely weird when compared to the typical drug and booze abusing detective or private investigator, who also gambles and womanises. My protagonist is left-wing or liberal, believes in a Green approach to living and is Bohemian in nature from his love of art. He doesn’t smoke, do drugs and rarely drinks alcohol. He was also celibate for eight years, following the death of his wife, though I gave him a sex life in the latest story.

I deliberately wanted to create a different type of detective, not that I dislike the hard-boiled tough guy coppers, but they’re better suited to city locations. My stories are set in Cornwall, featuring dark and dirty deeds—poisoning, cannibalism, human trafficking, BDSM, illegal abattoirs and murder as a roleplaying game—but my hero solves the crimes using his cunning and intelligence.

Inadvertently, I’ve written stories that fit into a subgenre of crime writing known as Country Noir or Rural Noirwhich is alright with me, for I’d rather create tales that scare the reader, than pen comfortable cosies they can enjoy on the beach; there’s nothing cosy about murder!

Thinking about famous fictional detectives, characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and private investigators like Philip Marlowe and Dick Tracy, they share the trait of being recognisable by their appearance, in the same way that founts of wisdom such as Gandhi, the Buddha, Confucius, Mother Teresa, Einstein, Steve Jobs and Stephen Hawking all have an appearance that lends itself to being instantly identifiable, even in silhouette.

It’s certainly something to consider when describing the looks of your own detective protagonist.

Even rough diamonds can take on the role of priest, healer and shaman. I read a dozen Walter Mosley detective novels last year, and the heroes of his two main series of books, Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill are both street tough brawlers, but they’re also well-educated and have a social conscience, going out of their way to help the downtrodden victims of the crimes they’re investigating. That’s not to say that they won’t take any casual sex that’s offered to them, or put a bullet in the head of a baddy, as that’s more justice than handing him over to the law.

They both remind me of the proverb quoted by Theodore Roosevelt when referring to American foreign policy: Speak softly and carry a big stick.

If you write crime stories, what kind of detective do they feature?

If you read crime novels, who are your favourite detectives?







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