The Anti-Detectives of Crime and Thriller Literature

With my novella, The Bluebell Informant, in full swing I have been inspired to take a look at the types of anti-detectives that have appeared in literature over the last hundred years or so. Whilst many people’s minds immediately spring to Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Rebus, Miss Marple or Inspector Wexford, there has been a significant amount of crime and thriller fiction dedicated to the peculiar talents of the anti-detective who, through their bumbling inefficiency, complete disinterest and flawed logic somehow manage to find their way to a solution to some truly complex crimes…

Or not as the case may be.

Quinn – City of Glass (1985) – Paul Auster

As a novel, City of Glass is remarkable in the way it subverts the detective-fiction form. But it is the characterisation of the lead, Quinn, that truly gives this book its master-stroke.

Quinn is a former poet, now a writer of crime fiction, who receives a phone call from a person asking for someone else. Through this conversation, Quinn is hired to follow a former convict who is believed is planning murder and, during the course of novel, begins to take on the characteristics of his own fictional detective, Max Work.

But the finest part of Quinn’s characterisation is the ensuing paranoia that begins to set in during the course of the story. As a detective fiction writer, Quinn recognises that no sentence or word is ever wasted and, as such, begins to apply the same principles to his detective persona. As Quinn follows every lead, no matter how irrelevant, his case turns into a confused mess of ambiguity and confusion trumped only by his own paranoid delusions.

Dr John Watson –Sherlock Holmes stories – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle  

In a world inhabited by bumbling police detectives and the brilliance that is Sherlock Holmes’ consulting detective, Dr Watson is often over-looked as little more than the official biographer, a side-kick who is just along for the ride to provide clarity of narrative.

And yet, whilst all other detectives in the stories can be described, at least to some extent, as professional in nature, Watson stands as one of the very few truly amateur detectives. It is often easy to forget that Holmes himself values Watson’s detective abilities to a certain extent, a fact shown by his frequent testing of Watson’s deductive logic and his willingness to send Watson on surveillance missions. The fact that most of these tasks nearly always end with Holmes berating Watson for his incompetence places the good doctor very firmly in the realms of the anti-detective and may, perhaps, be the first literary example of such a character.

The Ghost Writer – The Ghost (2007) – Robert Harris

In Robert Harris’ political thriller, the unnamed main character is hired to take over writing the autobiography of a recently unseated British prime minister, Adam Lang. The former ghost writer had apparently committed suicide and our main character finds himself in a strict lock-down situation until the book is completed.

As he delves more into the life of the former prime minister, the main character begins to take on the persona of a detective, interviewing various witnesses to Lang’s rise to power and uncovering new evidence that brings the politician’s entire career into question.

Whilst he’s not strictly speaking a detective, the main character is somewhat forced down the path as he struggles with his obligation to complete the autobiography to the best of his ability and to uncover the truth about the man he is working for. It is this struggle that plucks him out of the role of the regular writer and drops him very squarely in the role of the anti-detective, leading to some rather shocking and disastrous revelations.

Thomas Fool – The Devil’s Detective (2015) – Simon Kurt Unsworth  

In this stunning blend of crime and gothic horror, Thomas Fool plays the part of a detective in Hell. Whilst the concept of having law enforcement in hell is enough to engage most readers, it is the characterisation of Fool himself that really makes the novel a joy to read and places him firmly on my list of anti-detectives.

Apart from the obvious play on words in Fool’s name, there are many aspects of his character that make him a fine example of the anti-detective. From his lack of experience and interest to being a detective, to his haphazard method of stumbling through an investigation, Fool jumps from one bad decision to the next with some devastating results. But what makes the character so brilliant is that, whilst in reality such a detective would be suspended or struck from the force altogether, the lords of hell are more than happy to allow Fool to continue crawling through his own personal hell and, when he finally reaches the solution, you truly wonder how he ever made it there in one piece…

Richard Hannay – The Thirty Nine Steps (1915) – John Buchan  

Hannay is the quintessential anti-hero; from the very outset of the book, Hannay does little but complain about how bored he is in Britain and how he would love to return to Rhodesia. And yet, by the end of the book, Hannay is desperately trying to uncover a spy and save Britain from an embarrassing breach of security.

What brings about this drastic change is the countrywide police chase brought about by the discovery of a dead body in his apartment. Desperate to prove his innocence, Hannay adopts the persona of the anti-detective, forcing strangers to exchange clothes with him and breaking into cottages to try to clear his name and reveal the truth. But what makes his character so appealing isn’t any form of patriotic duty, but simple self-preservation making him a prime example of the anti-detective that would develop over the next hundred years.

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