It’s been well supported by research that we need a certain amount of sleep every night. Each of us is a little different with respect to exactly how much sleep we need, but sleep is essential for all of us. The effects of sleep deprivation can be extremely serious, especially if it goes on for any period of time. You know what it’s like – how you feel the next day – if you go even one night without sleeping well. Consequences from distractibility to fatal crashes can result from not sleeping enough.
And yet, if you look at some crime fiction, you notice something: sometimes the protagonists get very little sleep. Of course, a plot that had too much information on how many hours the detective slept would be, well, sleep-inducing. But it’s unrealistic (at least it is for me) to expect that a sleuth could be at her or his best without enough sleep. And readers are not likely to get and stay engaged in a story if the characters aren’t believable.
There are ways to be realistic about how much sleep people need in a crime novel without going on too much about it. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot certainly stays up late now and again. For instance in the short story The Incredible Theft, he’s wakened very late (or very early, depending on your view) to help recover some important and very secret plans for a new air bomber. But in general, he goes to bed at what most people would call a normal hour, and he doesn’t generally see clients before ten or eleven o’clock in the morning. Getting enough restful sleep matters enough to him that in the stories where he doesn’t, Christie makes it clear that it bothers him (e.g. Murder on the Orient Express and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead). Poirot certainly has his share of eccentricities, but needing enough sleep isn’t one of them.
We could say much the same thing about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Like Poirot, Wolfe absolutely has his quirks. Fans will know about his unwillingness to leave his home, his rigid schedule for seeing clients (or not being disturbed) and so on. And yet, he has what doctors would probably call a very healthy attitude towards sleep. He doesn’t want to be disturbed at night, and he doesn’t see clients in the morning until he’s had enough rest. And then there are of course his famous yellow silk pyjamas… In the novels and stories where his sleep’s interrupted, Wolfe gets even crankier than usual, and that’s a very realistic reaction. Not having enough sleep really does affect one’s disposition. And yet, Stout doesn’t go on and on about Wolfe’s sleeping habits. They’re woven into the stories as a part of his personality.
That’s also true of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman stories. Chapman is a Melbourne baker whose weekday begins early. Very early. In order to get her bread ready to open the story on time, she gets up at four o’clock, and she’s not happy about it:
‘Four am contains, in my experience, many things. Darkness, cold, solitude, gloom, despair, madness.’
Because she gets up that early, Chapman also tends to go to bed earlier than she would if she woke later. Except on some weekends, she doesn’t tend to stay up until the ‘wee hours.’ Greenwood doesn’t belabour the point, but Chapman has a sensible attitude towards her sleeping schedule. She’s by no means lazy, but she wakes up early, so she doesn’t stay up excessively late. And those occasional naps are most welcome.
Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve places a very high priority on her family life. Besides being a political scientist and academic, she’s the mother of three grown children and a daughter Taylor who’s now a teenager. She’s got plenty to keep her life full, and that doesn’t include the times when she investigates a murder or other mystery. And yet, she has what doctors would probably agree is a healthy attitude towards getting enough rest. Sometimes she stays up late or gets up early, but in general, she understands how important it is to sleep enough. And while Bowen doesn’t go on and on about it, we see that balance evident throughout the novels.
Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges also has what most of us would call a sensible attitude towards getting enough sleep. Certainly he works hard on his cases, and sometimes they do come back to haunt him, if I can put it that way. He has his own sadness and ‘baggage’ too, as we all do. But Bruno doesn’t generally stay awake all night trying to follow up leads. He doesn’t as a rule spend nights at the police station either. In part that’s because he knows that that’s not going to be a productive way to spend his time. But it’s also because he has what a lot of people would say is a healthy attitude towards the work/life balance. Enough sleep is essential to doing one’s work well and having any kind of a positive life.
And then there’s Frankie Y. Bailey’s Detective Hannah McCabe. When we meet her in The Red Queen Dies, she and her police partner Mike Baxter investigate the murder of Broadway superstar Vivian Jessup. This murder turns out to be connected with two other murders, and the case is complex and difficult. Leads don’t always pan out and sometimes the case demands extra hours and so on. But McCabe makes time as a rule to get her sleep. She doesn’t generally go to sleep at three o’clock only to get up again two hours later.
It can be challenging for an author to create an interesting story that moves at a solid pace without losing sight of the things that make characters human. And one of those things is getting enough rest and the very real effects when we don’t. Do you notice this kind of thing when you read? If you’re a writer, do your characters get enough sleep? I’m serious. If not, how do you show the effects? Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s been a long day. Time I turned in…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ritche Adams and Malou Rene’s Tossin’ and Turnin’.