There’s an unspoken rule that fictional detectives have to be eccentric. I suppose we can blame that one on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his hyper-intelligent sociopath of a creation. More than a century after Sherlock’s inception, the Quirky Detective has become a staple of both literature and film.
A few prominent examples of this delectable trope:
- Sherlock Holmes (of course): He’s anti-social and has hoarding tendencies, with a smattering of recreational drug use when he’s bored.
- Hercule Poirot: Belgian, with an enormous ego and exceptional vanity. He’s also finicky in his affectations.
- Nero Wolfe: He’s unapologetically obese, and zealous about food and orchids. In addition, he’s practically a shut-in, devoted to his daily rituals.
Almost everything about these characters screams “Eccentric!” even down to their very names. (What, you know a lot of people named Sherlock, Hercule, and Nero out there? Sure you do.) All three detectives are highly intelligent. They also exhibit a marked indifference—even aversion—towards women, as far as love is concerned.
We wouldn’t want any icky romance getting in the way of our sleuthing, now, would we?
But really, that specific quirk is almost a relief, because in some ways, this eccentric archetype is so off-putting that you’d have to pity anyone who was in a relationship with them. (Can you even imagine Hercule Poirot with a wife? Or a lover? The little grey cells, how they perish at the thought!)
Bane of an Author’s Existence
As my stick-figure caricature implies, Poirot is my favorite of this lot. I like him even better knowing that his own creator did not.
“Why, why, why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature?”Agatha Christie, in an article for the Daily Mail, 1938
I especially like that Dame Agatha parodied herself in her fictional Ariadne Oliver and her doubly fictional Sven Hjerson. Ariadne, one presumes, provides a lovely window into Agatha’s life dealing with such a fussy main character.
“How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? […] These things just happen.”Ariadne Oliver in Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie
Likewise, Arthur Conan Doyle apparently hated Holmes. No word on how Rex Stout felt about Wolfe.
Eccentric Oddballs, All of Them
In homage to this trope, detectives across all media platforms display a full spectrum of eccentricities.
- Batman: He dresses up in bat-themed clothing and roams the streets at night. Does it get more eccentric than this?
- Adrian Monk: He’s OCD to an extreme, and (rightfully) pining after his dead wife.
- Shawn Spencer: This fake psychic is also a man-child with a fear of commitment.
- Flavia de Luce: A pint-sized detective who is not only just 11 years old, but morbidly fixated on chemistry and death.
We love them not in spite of their eccentricities, but because of them. To separate the Quirky Detectives from their traits would be to bleach their very characters of color.
But sometimes… Sometimes those eccentricities push their welcome a little too far. Sometimes it’s nice to take a step back, breathe deep, and look to some other genre for entertainment.
There’s a threshold of tolerance in the consumer. It’s like eating deviled eggs. One is delicious. Two is quite nice. A dozen is cause to upchuck into a trashcan, because your system literally cannot handle that many eggs in one sitting.
Or maybe that’s just me. I loves me some eccentric sleuths, but you won’t find me binge-reading any such series. (Or binge-watching, as the case may be.) In small doses they are delightful. In large, they’re a headache.
(Yes, even you, Poirot. I’m sorry to break the news.)
Ahhhh, but Miss Marple, elderly knitress and maiden aunt, she I CAN binge read. She’s deliciously fuzzy but keen–like a mohair-wrapped poniard. (I agree about the ones you name–they’re all people I wouldn’t want as long-term house guests.) How about Elizabeth Peter’s heroines?
Elizabeth Peters writes amateur sleuths who are quirky, but not *quirky* (if you know what I mean). So Amelia Peabody’s “quirk” is that she’s a Victorian woman who likes archaeology and wants to live independently instead of being ruled by social mores or men. Vicky Bliss’s “quirk” is that she’s a tall, brainy blonde bombshell. Jacqueline Kirby’s “quirk” is that she’s a glamorous romance novelist who loves research. None of these quirks involve obsessive behavior or odd methodology, so I’d put them on the milder end of the spectrum. Same goes for Miss Marple. Her quirk is, as you said, knitting. Not exactly all that outlandish.
Or maybe I’m biased and can stomach female detectives a lot better. 😀
I have this thing where every couple of years I binge-watch the entire Nero Wolfe series. Wolfe is one of my all time favourite characters, though I think a lot of the delight is in his relationship with Archie, who is another favourite character. I binge-read the books every so often, too; but the gorgeous 40s music keeps pulling me back to the series more often. I still cry with laughter when Nero is flailing like a beached whale, shouting that: “It was as though a serpent had entwined my legs!”
Poirot is hilarious, but I don’t love him like I love Wolfe. I do have a sneaking fondness for him, but with me the Poirot books were always more about the other MCs (and Hastings. I quite like Hastings).
Holmes, I never exactly LIKED. I did love reading about him, (that started in my adventure phase) but I preferred Father Brown as a character.
Flavia, now: she’s delightful. Only Bradley kinda ruined her for me by deciding to put her in training as a spy. Bleah. I loved the little cozy mystery/poison delighting/stuff that went on in those books–particularly the adult characters. My, I love those adult characters! But I don’t think I’ll be reading any more. I get cranky when writers do stuff with their characters that feels out of character to me. I’m snobby like that. 😀
I’m sorry to hear that about Flavia. I’ve only read the first of her series (had a deviled-egg moment when I got to the end of it: enjoyed it well enough but knew I needed a break before starting another, and just haven’t picked it back up again). I’d heard that Bradley never intended for her to grow older than 11 or 12, in order to maintain her character. It seems like adding the spy element would destroy as much of her Flavia-ness as aging her would.
(Does that make me snobby too? 😀 )
Exactly so! It was that destroying of her essential Flavia-nes that really grated. It doesn’t happen until the latest one, though, so the others are safe and good to read. The first three are definitely the best ones, though.
I’d honestly love to see her grow up: her character could still be maintained, it would just grow.
(Yes. We’ll be snobs together 😀 )
(Only if we can have matching hats and sashes proclaiming such. Otherwise, the deal’s off. 😀 )
Yes. With feathers. So many feathers.
But of course.