Fictional detectives are a quirky lot. Sherlock Holmes assisted his powers of ratiocination with the help of cocaine and morphine. Hercule Poirot showed tell-tale signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder — he was strangely fixated on keeping an exact balance of 444 pounds, four shillings and four pence in his bank account. Nero Wolfe, that Falstaff of private eyes, weighted almost 300 pounds and hated to leave his home — I guess that’s what happens when your author’s name is Stout.
But when it comes to the modern and post-modern novel, the investigators get even stranger. In Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem relies on a detective afflicted with Tourette syndrome, a disorder that leaves its victims with nervous tics and a tendency to exclaim obscene, insulting or inappropriate remarks. Not a good thing on a low-key stakeout, needless to say! In Thomas Pynchon’s recent novel Inherent Vice, our private investigator is a hippie whose excessive marijuana and drug use has left him with barely enough functioning brain cells to recognize his surroundings, let alone unravel a murder mystery. In Paul Aster’s The New York Trilogy, the line is blurred even further, and it is sometimes hard to say whether our investigator solves crimes or merely writes about them.
Then we come to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in which a 15-year-old autistic boy tries to find the culprit in a local murder. Christopher Boone models himself on his hero Sherlock Holmes — that is, when he is not dreaming of becoming an astronaut — and keeps a journal of the progress of his investigation as part of a project at his school for students with special needs.
The crime: the mysterious death of a neighbors’ dog. Okay, it’s not a robbery on Fort Knox or the thwarting of a terrorist plot, but every private investigator needs to start somewhere. And even Sherlock Holmes was caught up in a case about a hound back in the day. Even so, it is hard to make much headway when you are afraid of the colors yellow and brown, avoid strangers, and collapse screaming when people get too close to you. But Christopher perseveres despite his limitations and obsessions — even rising above them when necessary.