There is a stereotype in crime fiction of the relentless sleuth who perseveres, works all hours and so on to solve cases. And of course I’m sure you could name dozens of fictional detectives who fit that description. But there are also sleuths who are, to put it plainly, lazy. They don’t exert themselves unless they have to, and even then it can take some effort to get them going. They’re no less brilliant for that, but they certainly don’t go running after cases to solve.
This sort of detective is arguably a little tricky to write. One has to create a lazy character who is also brilliant enough to solve a complex mystery – and is still credible. That’s not as easy as it seems, but there are examples out there.
One of them is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mycroft Holmes. He is Sherlock Holmes’ older brother and actually even more brilliant than his brother at deduction. But he rarely bestirs himself to look into cases. He spends most of his time at the Diogenes Club, which he co-founded, and certainly doesn’t go chasing after clues and shadowing suspects. Here is what Sherlock Holmes says of his brother in The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter:
‘He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right.’
Interestingly enough, Mycroft Holmes actually does take some action in this story. A young man named Melas has been more or less kidnapped in order to serve as an interpreter for another man who speaks only Greek. This gets Melas into life-threatening danger and the Holmes brothers and Dr. Watson end up rushing to the remote location where he’s been taken in order to try to prevent tragedy.
I don’t think it’d be possible to do a post about lazy sleuths without mentioning Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. He is much more interested in his orchids, fine food and good wine than he is in solving mysteries. And as Wolfe fans will know, he almost never leaves the New York City brownstone home where he lives. Wolfe is lazy, but he is brilliant. And he’s self-aware enough to know that he is fond of good living and fine things – and that all of that costs a lot. So he’s usually willing (if reluctant) to take a case when Archie Goodwin points out the pragmatic benefits of doing so. And even when Wolfe is on a case, he doesn’t physically exert himself; he has Goodwin, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather to do that. And he doesn’t see clients outside of very specified hours. Wolfe is definitely not one to let work get in the way of his life if I may put it like that.
Neither is Roderic Jeffries’ Inspector Enrique Alvarez, who lives and works in Mallorca. He prefers good food, a drink and his regular siesta to running himself ragged in an investigation. In fact, that’s how his cousin Delores persuades him to take an interest in a case in Definitely Deceased. At that point in the series, Delores is keeping house for Alvarez and he has become quite fond of her cooking. Delores asks Alvarez to look into the arrest of a cousin-by-marriage Miguel Munar, who is accused of smuggling. Not only does Alvarez not want the extra work, but he has no desire to be on the wrong side of his bad-tempered boss Superintendent Salas. But Delores has a secret weapon – her cooking. When Alvarez refuses to investigate the Munar case, she punishes him with terrible food. It’s not long before he decides it’s in his interest to try to clear Munar’s name. When he does though, he finds that the one person who is in a position to corroborate Munar’s innocence has been killed. Alvarez may be innately lazy, but he is also dogged in his way and in the end, he gets to the truth about the smuggling and the murder.
There’s also Joyce Porter’s DCI Wilfred Dover of Scotland Yard. In Dover One, the first of this series, Dover and his assistant Charles MacGregor are sent to Creedshire to look into the disappearance of a housemaid Juliet Rugg. The local police haven’t found a body or evidence of murder, but if I may put it this way, if she is alive, she would be not be misidentified easily. So Creedshire’s Chief Constable Bartlett suspects foul play. Here’s what DCI Dover has to say about the assignment:
‘I don’t know why it is…it always seems to be me that gets landed with these jobs. You’ll see, we’ll hang around there for a couple of days and she’ll turn up again, older and wiser if you know what I mean. Holed up in Brighton, that’s where she is! And when her money runs out, the boy-friend’ll hop it and she’ll come back home.’
Dover is bad-tempered to begin with, and especially when he is expected to exert himself. So he doesn’t start this case in the best frame of mind. But he and MacGregor (who unlike his boss, is quite ambitious) head to Creedshire, where it turns out that there’s much more to this case than a woman running off with a boyfriend.
M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth is also lazy when it comes to his career. He is perfectly content to be the village bobby in the Highlands town of Lochdubh. In fact, he’d far rather be fishing, spending time with his dog or just relaxing than investigating crime. And in novels such as Death of a Bore, we can see that he’d rather resolve a conflict than make an arrest. In that novel, writer John Heppel has settled in Lochdubh and decided to offer a writing class. Several of the locals sign up, hoping they’ll become well-known authors. At the first class Heppel insults his students and their work. Macbeth hears about this (Lochdubh is a small village) and pays Heppel a visit with the goal of smoothing over the situation. Not only does he care about the people of Lochdubh, but also, it’s less work to offer a friendly word than to make an arrest. Heppel’s unwilling to listen to Macbeth though, and the second class is, if possible, worse than the first. When Heppel is found dead not long after that session, Macbeth finds that more than one person had a good motive for murder.
There are of course other lazy fictional sleuths but honestly, I can’t be bothered to mention any more. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Moody Blues song.