If you think about the qualities that detectives need to have, you might not list ‘self-discipline’ as one of them. And yet it’s an awfully important quality. Even the most brilliant detective isn’t going to have a lot of success without a certain amount of self-discipline. For instance, a police detective may know exactly who committed a crime, but that doesn’t guarantee a conviction. The detective needs to ‘go by the book’ and interview people appropriately, handle the evidence carefully and so on. Otherwise there is no case. There are all kinds of examples of the way fictional detectives have to exercise self-discipline. Here are just a few.
In one sense, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes doesn’t appear to be what you’d call self-disciplined. After all, he’s a drug user, he doesn’t keep regular habits, and so on. But when it comes to solving his cases, he is quite self-disciplined. His focus is entirely on the case, and he starts early and works late if I may put it that way. More than that, he has a real intellectual self-discipline. He reads and writes extensively on topics that help him do a better job of detection, and continuously adds to his store of knowledge anything that he thinks he’ll find useful. He isn’t the type either to take a holiday and just relax.
Another kind of self-discipline that sleuths need has to do with the way they work with witnesses and suspects. It can be overwhelmingly tempting to lash out at a suspect or threaten a witness. But it’s often not successful. Instead, it takes patience (sometimes a lot of that) and self-restraint to get people to open up. We see a bit of that in Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle. Inspector Konrad Sejer of the Oslo police is working on a missing person’s case. Andreas Winther hasn’t been seen for several days, and his mother Runi is worried about him. At first Sejer isn’t overly concerned, but as more time goes by, he begins to pursue the case more actively. The one person who may be able to help him most is Andreas’ best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe, so Sejer works hard to try to establish a relationship with the young man. But Zipp’s not willing to talk. It’s soon clear that Zipp knows more than he’s saying, and it takes all of Sejer’s patience and self-discipline to find out the truth.
Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh is not a particularly patient person. He’s not what you’d call reckless, but he likes his cases to move along in a certain way. That’s not what happens in A Calamitous Chinese Killing though. In that novel, he’s seconded to Beijing to help find out the truth about the killing of Justin Tan. Justin was the son of Susan Tan, First Secretary at the Singapore Embassy in Beijing, so his murder is not going to be investigated in the usual way. The police are inclined to think that he was killed in a mugging gone wrong, but Susan Tan doesn’t think so. And as Singh begins to talk with some people and get a feel for the case, he starts to think she’s right. Singh works with former police detective Li Jun to find out what really happened and that process takes self-discipline. Li Jun is not difficult to work with, but Singh is unaccustomed to the Chinese way of doing things. So it requires a great deal of self-discipline on his part to work with witnesses, to let his counterpart take the lead in certain interviews, and to have a sense of the politics involved in what he’s doing.
It’s not just witnesses and suspects either. It takes a lot of self-discipline to work with certain colleagues, too. For instance, Catherine Aird’s Inspector Sloan is a smart, intuitive detective. However, those skills don’t seem to rub off too easily on his assistant Constable William Crosby. Constable Crosby isn’t a bad person, and he does try. But he doesn’t seem to learn very quickly and he isn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier as the saying goes. It takes every bit of Sloan’s patience and self-discipline to work with Crosby and that dynamic plays an interesting role in the series.
Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus finds out how important that kind of self-discipline is in Resurrection Men. He and his team are all frustrated by the lack of progress in the murder of Edinburgh art dealer Edward Marber. During one particularly tense team meeting, Rebus lets go of his self-discipline and throws a mug of cold tea towards his supervisor Gill Templar. Needless to say, the incident isn’t let go. Rebus is remanded to Tulliallan Police College for an opportunity to learn to work better with a team of people. He and other police detectives who have difficulty working in groups are assigned to investigate the ‘cold case’ murder of gangster Rico Lomax. As it turns out, that murder is tied in with Marber’s murder, so in the end, Rebus finds out the truth about both cases.
We can all think of examples (Roderic Jeffries’ Inspector Alvarez comes to my mind) of fictional detectives who don’t seem particularly disciplined. But the reality is that it takes a lot of self-control and discipline to be a good sleuth. And characters who can do that (or who learn to do it) are more believable because of that. These are only a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Until the Night.