Unlikely Detectives: Unconventional Sleuths in Mystery Fiction (Part One)

Unlikely Detectives Unconventional Sleuths in Mystery Fiction


Mystery fiction is constantly evolving, and nowhere is that more evident than in the realm of detectives. Over the years, detectives have become less stoic and more accessible for readers to identify with and root for. A paraplegic detective, an eccentric amnesiac, or a teenage girl smarty-pants are far more inviting characters than their distant predecessors.

While their environment, partners, and technology have changed drastically, one thing has not. And that’s the need for dauntless intellectualism to solve thorny murder cases, a hallmark of all popular detective fiction since the dawn of the genre.

Unconventional sleuths are a popular choice among mystery lovers. A lot of this is due to their unique outlook on life and the often eccentric personalities that drive them to uncover the truth about criminal acts and wrongdoings.

Whether it’s a brilliant detective with autism trying to make sense of the puzzle in front of them or an amnesiac trying desperately to recover lost memories, readers are captivated by an unconventional sleuth’s story and struggles.

With intense plotlines and complicated emotional investments, these types of stories relentlessly draw in readers and keep us hooked until we are ready for the final twist in the tale.

Classic Detectives and Their Traits

Traditional fictional detectives often exhibit several classic traits that have become defining characteristics of the archetype. These traits have been popularized through the works of authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Raymond Chandler and continue to influence the genre to this day. Some of the classic traits of traditional fictional detectives include:

  • Keen observation: Traditional detectives possess an uncanny ability to notice the smallest details and make connections that others might miss. Their keen observational skills are often key to solving the case. It’s hard not to reference Sherlock Holmes when discussing keen observation skills!
  • Logical thinking and deductive reasoning: These detectives are known for thinking logically and using deductive reasoning to analyze clues and draw conclusions. This often involves making inferences based on available evidence and working systematically to eliminate possibilities until the correct solution arrives.
  • Persistence and determination: Traditional fictional detectives are often highly persistent and determined, doggedly pursuing leads and working tirelessly to solve the case, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
  • Emotional detachment: Many traditional detectives maintain a level of emotional detachment, which allows them to approach cases objectively and without bias. This can sometimes lead to a perceived coldness or aloofness, but it also enables them to make rational decisions and maintain their focus on the case.
  • Strong moral code: Classic detectives often adhere to a strict moral code, believing in justice and the pursuit of truth. They are usually motivated by a sense of duty and are committed to righting wrongs and bringing criminals to justice.
  • Intuition: Besides their logical and observational skills, traditional detectives often possess a strong sense of intuition, which helps them to make leaps of insight and uncover hidden truths. A great example is Jessica Fletcher from the Murder, She Wrote series.
  • Professionalism: Classic detectives are often portrayed as highly professional, demonstrating a strong work ethic, discipline, and dedication to their craft. They may work independently or as part of a police force, but in either case, they are committed to upholding the highest standards of their profession.
  • Expertise in their field: Traditional detectives typically possess a wealth of knowledge and expertise in their chosen field, whether forensics, criminal psychology, or other specialized areas. This expertise allows them to approach cases with a deep understanding of the complexities involved and gives them a unique advantage in solving crimes.

These classic traits have come to define the traditional fictional detective archetype and continue to shape the genre. However, modern authors often challenge and subvert these traits, creating unconventional detectives who offer fresh perspectives and unique approaches to crime-solving.

The New Unconventional Detective

The modern unconventional detective trope diverges from the classic traits of traditional fictional detectives in several ways, offering a fresh take on crime-solving and often challenging genre norms. Some key differences between modern unconventional detectives and their traditional counterparts include:

  • Atypical backgrounds: Unconventional detectives often have backgrounds that differ from the standard detective archetype, which can include a wide range of professions, personal histories, or experiences that inform their approach to crime-solving.
  • Unique skills or abilities: Modern unconventional detectives may possess skills or abilities outside traditional detective work, such as hacking, supernatural powers, or a deep understanding of a specific subculture. These unique skills can provide new perspectives and insights when solving crimes.
  • Diversity and representation: Modern unconventional detectives often represent a broader range of backgrounds, cultures, and experiences than their traditional counterparts, reflecting the diversity of the natural world and offering more inclusive representation within the genre. The autistic detective of Dan Padavona’s Wolf Lake thriller and mystery series is one of the best examples.
  • Personal struggles or flaws: Unlike traditional detectives, who are often portrayed as emotionally detached and highly professional, unconventional detectives may grapple with personal struggles, emotional vulnerabilities, or character flaws that make them more relatable and human. These struggles can add depth to the character and contribute to the overall narrative.
  • Non-traditional methods: Unconventional detectives may employ unconventional or unorthodox methods to solve crimes, challenging the standard approach to detective work and keeping readers guessing about their next move.
  • Complex relationships and dynamics: The relationships between unconventional detectives and their allies, adversaries, or even their inner selves, can be more complex and nuanced than in traditional detective fiction. This can lead to more character-driven stories and the exploration of deeper themes.
  • Subversion of genre norms: By challenging the classic traits of traditional detectives, unconventional detectives can subvert genre expectations and norms, offering fresh takes on familiar tropes and potentially broadening the appeal of the genre.
  • Focus on character development: While the traditional detective archetype often emphasizes the solving of the crime as the primary focus of the story, modern unconventional detectives may place greater emphasis on character development, personal growth, and the exploration of themes beyond the crime itself.

These differences between modern unconventional and traditional fictional detectives help create fresh, engaging stories that challenge genre norms and offer new perspectives on crime-solving. This, in turn, can attract a wider audience and maintain the ongoing popularity and relevance of the mystery and detective fiction genre.

Coming Next

In part two of this study, we will be looking at some examples of the modern and unconventional detective, and examine how their differences impact the story while challenging the accepted norms of mystery fiction. Then, in part three, we’ll  look at how those unconventional sleuths challenge genre norms and, finally, take a look at just why those detectives with a difference have become so popular.

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