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Are Detectives the Main Characters in their Own Stories?

An interesting trend in mystery fiction is the "outsider" nature of the classic detective. These characters – Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Adrian Monk, Shawn Spencer, Scooby Doo, etc – seem to exist for the purpose of helping other people’s stories reach resolution. Although they are often the perspective characters in their stories, it can be argued that the main characters are the victims and the perpetrators of the crimes being investigated. Those are the characters who are causing events to happen and having events happen to them.
Consider the stories where a detective finds themselves in the middle of a mysterious situation they were not hired to investigate, and yet they decide to root out the who, how, and why for the net benefit of everyone else.
An article on this topic could explore why detective characters are so often written this way. Why does this affect the mystery genre in particular? Is this a net benefit or problem with the genre?

  • This is an intriguing way to look at detective stories. When discussing the affect the conventional detective point-of-view has on mystery stories, as well as to what extent this benefits the genre, it could be interesting to mention the few mystery stories that do not position the detective as the focal character. Off the top of my head, the only detective story I could think of that does foreground another character over the detective is the first Knives Out film by Rian Johnson. [MILD SPOILERS FOR KNIVES OUT] The second half of the film is told primarily from the perspective of another character, with the detective Benoit Blanc not even appearing in some scenes focused on the other character. Within the context of the film, this shifted focus is supposed to subvert expectations of the mystery genre, as the story follows the other character’s efforts to avoid the detective finding out what they did. – Magnolia 9 months ago
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  • I think this is a potentially interesting topic. In terms of other detective pieces that could be discussed are the detective tv series Columbo (and others like it, like the more recent Poker Face), where the detective sometimes turns up a little late in the story. The beginning focuses on other characters, other stories. – AnnieEM 7 months ago
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  • I find this to be a very interesting topic for various reasons 1) The perspective of the detective as outsider who becomes the insider by choice mirrors the process the reader goes through; she after all steps into the "situation"/the fiction by choice (picking up the book/movie/TV show) and 2) the idea of net benefit has a lot of potential: I think noahspud uses the idea in two ways. First, it is suggested that the detective decides to solve the mystery with a net benefit for everyone else. Moreover, it is also suggested that the detective as a main character in their own story "gains" something by being involved, so the detective is really part of the net-benefitting? Secondly, insofar as the reader develops parallel with the detective, she "benefits." Of course, the reader can also develop beyond the detective, in which case she also benefits (albeit differently). It would be interesting to explore how these benefits look if we were to take different literary examples. I am thinking in particular of the recent season of the TV show Endeavour (a season which had a huge audience across various countries), which takes its audience through a significant emotional and ethical journey alongside the main detective but in such a way that the detective always deflects from total identification with him. I look forward to reading someone's article on this topic, and appreciate the ideas. – gitte 7 months ago
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  • I think this topic could be properly expanded by looking at the crime genre more broadly, and how various elements or components of the genre have been explored to give the genre its vast diversity despite its genre unity. From the top of my head, crucial components would include the crime (event), the setting, the criminal, the victim, and the detective(s). A detective story can be written event-centred to not have main characters. Otherwise, an author could choose to make the detective, or the criminal, or the victim the main character. These options in a way create the subgenres within crime fiction, such as the classical mystery, or noir, or gothic/horror, or psychological thriller. – lgorejones 2 weeks ago
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