We all love to read about Private Detectives ¬†and police investigators who chase after bad guys. They are often depicted by the media and fiction as people who sacrifice nearly everything to “get their man.” This is actually true of some detectives to a certain extent. What difference does this make to readers and to authors as we create the worlds these mysteries happen in?

The truth is, the making of a detective is much more complex than you might think. Most do not go into this line of work for the money–mainly because there really isn’t any. It isn’t something you get paid a lot to do, and the private investigator route is much like being an artist or a writer: income is sporadic at best even if you are good, and sometimes even non-existent. Who makes a great detective in real life and in fiction, someone we really root for?

Someone Obsessed

One of the things that is true of most detectives, at least the ones we like, is that they are often obsessed with whatever mystery or case they are dealing with, often to the point of neglecting some things in the rest of their lives. You could even call them a bulldog. Once they get a hold on something, they are not letting it go until they are finished.

Finished often means when there is a satisfactory solution. How many times in fiction and in real life have we heard about a detective who goes back over his cold case files looking for new evidence or something he missed the first time, and found something? The simple reason is that it is hard to let things like that go.

Detectives are those who like me are notification junkies. You see that little red number? I have to know what it means and why it is there. That may seem like a small thing, but when a mystery eats at you, you can’t just let it go and leave an open case. That is why alcoholism and similar issues are so common with those in the police force. They need something to quiet their inner voice, and when departments are overtaxed and cases often go unsolved it is even worse.

Someone Who Questions Everything

Remember the detective? “Just one more question, ma’am?” Of course you do. The reason is that a good detective questions everything. Remember also the famous Sherlock Holmes quote: “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” This is why when it seems impossible that the old grandmother murdered her husband for this money, or the innocent school teacher is actually a meth-cooking drug lord, the real detective will ignore who they are in favor of looking at what they have done.

This means that while the justice system may be based on “innocent until proven guilty” the detective may take an entirely different attitude. If their instinct or the facts as they see them shows someone’s guilt, proving that person innocent may be much more difficult. The real detective will question everyone and everything, but that questioning may be clouded by a couple of different things, including their own suspicions and at times the need to simply clear a case.

When there are so many times when cases are not solved, sometimes it feels like just getting one win is a really big deal. There is also the pressure that comes from bosses, prosecutors, and even the public to solve cases. Even when they get a win, if the detective is not absolutely certain the person arrested and even convicted is the right person, they may have a hard time letting the case go.

This same questioning is why many detectives have a hard time with relationships. the constant questioning of human nature makes them overly suspicious, making it hard to trust friends, relatives, spouses, and in some cases their own children.

A Stickler for Detail (Sometimes)

You’ve also seen the detective with rumpled clothes and a run down car who notices the tiniest thing out of place at a crime scene. That is because they are a stickler for detail sometimes. It is kind of like the auto mechanic whose car is falling apart: there is so much attention to detail in their work, they often neglect those things in their personal lives as well.

Now, this may be stereotypical. There are some detectives who are borderline OCD with order in their own lives too, in large part because they struggle so much to bring order to the lives of others. There is a pendulum, and it often swings from one extreme to the other.

Is all of this uncategorically true of every detective, fiction or non-fiction? Certainly not. There are as many kinds of detectives as there are people. Just they do tend to have some traits, some good, and some bad. We’ll talk more about those in another post, even talking about the things that cops and criminals have in common.


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