On Writing: The Strange Occurrence of the Defective Detectives

The Defective Detective is a trope that’s been around at least as long as the mystery genre in Western fiction, with Sherlock Holmes and C. Auguste Dupin of “The Purloined Letter” being sterling examples. (It’s possible it’s been around in Chinese and Japanese literature longer, given the rather odd behavior of some fictional judges, including one in Japan who had a tattoo (Gasp! Horror! Unbecoming of samurai!) and would use that fact to go undercover among criminals to roust out suspects.) Modern c-dramas include Su Ci of Maiden Holmes, who admits she’s not much good for anything besides solving cases, and pretends to be a man without much caring about it, and Commandery Prince An (Xiao Jinyu) of The Imperial Coroner, who… oh man, he goes well beyond nerd. If that character’s not officially a high-functioning autist he’s at least tap-dancing on the edge of the spectrum. A full list of his oddities would go on a while. So far in ep 9 he’s topped himself by casually revealing in front of the whole Imperial tea party that the device he just used to prepare exquisite tea is one he came up with to precipitate soil out of water samples when he’s trying to solve cases….

The Defective Detective is a classic trope, and used well, very effective indeed. It neatly solves two storytelling problems when you have a Great Detective as a main character. First, it lets you explain how on earth this detective always seems to know the one obscure fact that punctures a killer’s alibi, or allows him to track a suspect – or victim – to the ends of the earth. If the character’s hyper-focus and special interests all relate to crime-solving, then of course he’s got a whole library of said info in his head. Second….

Great Detectives are geniuses when it comes to investigation. That’s what we want; to see the truth laid bare in a single pulled thread, to see impossible murders solved, to see evildoers brought to justice – in a court of law if possible, dead in bloody self-defense if not. We want this. It’s part of the whole detective fantasy: that wrongs can be righted, the truth brought to light, and the trust of society shattered by crime at least partly made whole again. We need that genius.

But an actual genius is very, very hard to live with. If they’re so smart, why do they need anyone else? They run a risk of being someone the reader can’t connect to as a character, and that can wreck your whole story.

A Defective Detective, though? One who can track killers like a bloodhound, but can’t – quite – grasp the normal behavior of people at a party socializing? Who will, in fact, get in serious trouble if they try? They need someone who understands them. So Holmes has his Watson, Su Ci had Prince Qi, and Prince An has a tight group of friends and guards who do their best to make sure he’s got someone in his corner when the social stuff Goes Horribly Wrong.

A Defective Detective is someone broken in the eyes of the world, and thus even more driven to make what they can whole. They’re someone we can understand.

And if readers understand your characters, and respect them, they can grow to love them. And that will make your story stand out above all the rest.

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10 thoughts on “On Writing: The Strange Occurrence of the Defective Detectives

  1. /by casually revealing in front of the whole Imperial tea party that the device he just used to prepare exquisite tea is one he came up with to precipitate soil out of water samples when he’s trying to solve cases…./

    What’s wrong with that?
    They should be happy to know their mulch-water is so perfectly filtered.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. But did he *clean* it thoroughly between jobs?

      Oddly, remind me of an alien-invasion manga where the Very Logical Aliens start fixing hunger issues… using recycle human biomass. And get very confused when the human population rises up in horrified rage once the truth comes out.

      One alien said (roughly): “Why are they so upset? We broke it down to the elementary atomic level! More thoroughly than their natural biome recycling!”

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Eeeek.

        Sounds like folks to run away from very, very quickly– there are really nasty kinds of “logical” choices to which no sane person wishes to be subject. The physical portion of a human being disrespected by being treated as a material source is a big red flag for dang good reason!

        (voice in the back of my head: wouldn’t algae or such be a better choice anyways? But I know that’s not the point of the story.)

        Liked by 2 people

  2. “Great Detective Conan, what is best in life?”

    “To see One Truth prevail, watch lawbreakers carted off to prison, and hear the lamentations of their defense attorneys.”

    Liked by 5 people

  3. This contrasts with the Lord Darcy sort of setup where the Master Detective has a companion whose technical skills are invaluable in situations.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Detective as Shaman. Shamans traditionally are apart from their society in various ways which explains/compensates/pays for their ability to move between worlds/have wierd powers/talk to ghosts.
    Much more interesting in stories and literature than dogged persistance and incurable curiousity and ability to ignore social cues “I don’t want to talk about. Leave it alone. You are just digging into old wounds. Its not your business. ” “Tough. I need to know. Yes it is my business”

    Liked by 1 person

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