What is it about fictional detectives that we find so compelling? Even luminaries such as Pablo Neruda and WH Auden loved detective stories. A few months ago I was reading The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann, in which he quotes Edgar W. Smith from 1946: “I see him (the detective) as the fine expression of our urge to trample evil and to set aright the wrongs with which the world is plagued. He is Galahad and Socrates, bringing high adventure to our dull existences and calm, judicial logic to our biased minds. He is the success of all our failures; the bold escape from our imprisonment.”
When I invest my time, invest myself, in reading a detective story, I expect the protagonist to pursue the case to the bitter end, to risk whatever violence is necessary, physical or emotional, to uncover the truth. I’m participating in a quest—perhaps the most primal storyline of all. And I know that in the end the detective will prevail, that rational Socratic insight joined with knightly derring-do and an abhorrence of injustice will bring me to a satisfying conclusion. The truth will be uncovered, no matter the cost.
But still I wonder, why?
Why do I care so much about the truth, particularly a fictional truth, revealed to me teasingly, by an author determined to keep me reading to the last page? Why give up a perfectly good afternoon, or two, to such a seemingly trivial pursuit? And why is it some people can’t keep themselves from reading the ending first?
Perhaps it’s the need to know something, anything, for certain in an inexplicable world, a world gone mad. Things happen around me: I read about them in the news, hear about them around the water cooler, but I’m never told the full story. Reportage is rife with inaccuracies, gaps, biases, outright lies. I never know what really happened, the story behind the story. Only in fiction do I get that satisfaction. In the end, I know. Even if that knowledge doesn’t really matter. Even if nothing is changed, no one is safe, the world is not a better place.
For me, that’s the allure of detective fiction: the promise of certainty in a world without certainty, a world where I can’t trust what I’m told, just as the best detectives don’t trust what they’re told, the promise of objective truth in a world where truth is elusive, slippery, and inevitably relative. I will learn the truth of who committed the murder, who plunged in the knife, who fired the gun. I will know who done what to whom. I will know.
And that’s what I find so compelling.