In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into several odd thefts and murders that occur at a student hostel. As a part of that investigation, they get to know the residents and find out about their backgrounds. One of those residents is Elizabeth Johnston, a brilliant, highly driven law student who is interested, so it seems, only in her work. At one point, Poirot and Sharpe are discussing the likelihood of each resident being the killer. Here’s what Poirot says about Elizabeth Johnson:
‘The West Indian girl Elizabeth Johnston has probably the best brains of anyone in the Hostel. She has subordinated her emotional life to her brain – that is dangerous.’
It certainly can be dangerous, but there are people who are more or less completely emotionally detached. It’s difficult to write about them because very often, emotionally detached characters feel ‘flat.’ On the one hand, it’s healthy not to get too emotionally caught up in life. But on the other, emotions are a part of the human experience, so we’re accustomed to characters who have them and are sometimes driven by them. And in real life, many people are like that. So it takes skill to make an emotionally detached character interesting enough to keep the reader’s attention. There are some of them out there, though.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes finds the problems he investigates much more interesting as a rule than the people with whom he interacts. As he looks at evidence, makes deductions and so on, he often remains emotionally detached. And yet, he isn’t as completely detached as perhaps he might like to be. For instance, in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Holmes gets a new client Violet Hunter. She’s been offered a position as governess to Jeprho Rucastle’s six-year-old son. Rucastle offers her a generous salary, but the position comes with some odd requests that unsettle her a little. They make Holmes uneasy too, and in fact he counsels her not to take the position. At first, she listens to him and declined the offer. Then, Rucastle increases the salary he proposes to pay. This time Violet can’t refuse and she takes the job. Holmes tells her that if ever she should need him, to contact him. This she does when some frightening things begin to happen, and Holmes and Watson rush to the Rucastle home as soon as they can, hoping to prevent disaster for Violet. On the one hand, Holmes is detached in terms of deducing what’s going on at the house and why Violet Hunter is in danger. On the other, it’s clear that he feels for her and wants her to stay safe – not a real case of complete lack of emotion. That said though, Holmes is often detached.
So is Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. He can be personable when he wants to be and he has a circle of friends and acquaintances. He even marries as the series of novels featuring him moves along. But he is emotionally detached from most of his fellow humans. He’s responsible for a great deal of crime, including murder. Yet, although he doesn’t delight in killing, he doesn’t have qualms about the crimes he commits unless you count his not wanting to be caught. It’s an interesting case of a character who may be intellectually really interesting, but certainly doesn’t have the full range of human emotions.
In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, we are introduced to Martin Lemmer, a bodyguard who is employed by a personal protection company called Body Armour. Emma le Roux hires the company when she decides to make a dangerous trip and Lemmer is assigned to protect her. Emma is searching for her brother Jacobus who everyone thought died in a skirmish with poachers years earlier. But she has reason to believe he may still be alive and she wants to find out. She and Lemmer travel from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out the truth, and in the course of their trip, run up against some very dangerous people who won’t hesitate at all to kill. Especially at the beginning of the novel, Lemmer is emotionally quite detached from his clients. In fact he makes a point of that. He is also emotionally detached from the work he has to do. He’s not at all what you’d call trigger-happy, but his job is to protect his client.
There’s a really interesting case of emotional detachment in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher Boone is a teenager with autism. He’s reasonably high-functioning, so he can interact with others, learn academics and so on. But his autism prevents him from really making social and emotional connections with the people in his life. When a neighbour’s dog is killed, Christopher decides to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes and find out who is responsible. As he sets about it, we see how detached he is from the way others feel and react. We also see how that detachment is helpful (in the sense that he is not hampered by social niceties), but at the same time impedes him. In a way, the reader can tell a lot more than Christopher can, at least at first, just by paying attention to the emotional/social site of people.
Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy shares the lives of Glasgow’s criminal world, including the lives of the professional hit-men who are a part of it. In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye and The Sudden Arrival of Violence, we see how emotionally detached people can be from others. Several of the characters in these novels like their work and take professional pride in what they do. But they are detached from others. And in a way, the more detached they are, the better they do their work.
Emotions can of course be destructive, and it’s healthy to know how to let go of them and ‘step back.’ But what about complete emotional detachment? What do you think about emotionally detached characters? Do you find they take away from a story? Do they seem too ‘flat’ to you? Or do you find them interesting? If you’re a writer, have you created detached characters? How do you do that, considering most of us are emotionally connected with the world?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am a Rock.