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.)