There Are Secrets I’ll Never Tell*

PersonalLivesOr are there? An interesting comment exchange with Bernadette at Reactions to Reading has got me thinking about the amount of detail readers learn about sleuths’ personal lives. Do readers really want sub-plots, story arcs and other plot points that share what’s going on in the sleuth’s home?

On the one hand, I’d guess that most of us would say that we don’t want ‘cardboard characters. We want characters who feel authentic and ‘fleshed out.’ That said though, many of us would also say that when we read crime fiction, we want a plot – a mystery/crime that’s at the heart of the story. Too much ‘home life’ information takes away from the pace of that plot and can actually get tiresome.

It’s tricky to decide just how much information to include, really. And that choice has very likely changed over time as readers’ tastes have changed. There’s a strong argument that, while classic/Golden Age crime fiction certainly includes information about sleuths’ home lives, that’s often not the focus of the mystery. Today’s crime fiction is arguably quite different.

I thought it might be interesting to look at this question of personal lives in crime fiction just a bit more deeply. So the first question I asked myself was this: is there really as much ‘home life’ detail as it seems in crime fiction? To address that question, I chose 148 books that I’ve read. All of the books feature a police or PI professional sleuth. I didn’t consider amateur sleuths because, very often, their personal lives are the reason they get involved in detection. I thought it might skew my data.

Given that, here is what I found:


Cops' and PIs' Personal Lives


As you can see, of those 148 crime novels, 123 of them (83%) include ‘home life’ scenes and other information about the sleuth’s personal life. By ‘other information,’ I mean more than such things as a passing reference to ‘my wife/husband.’  Fans of series such as Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache novels or Henning Mankell’s Inspector Van Veeteren series probably won’t be surprised at this finding.

Going on the assumption that publishers are more likely to release books that readers want to read, there’s an argument here, I think, that we want that sort of ‘home life’ detail, at least to an extent. In fact, lots of readers actually follow story arcs in series precisely because they involve sleuths’ home and personal lives. In other words, books and series have this sort of information because readers want it. And that’s logical, given that most readers want believable characters.

The next question I asked myself was: has it always been this way? There’s a general perception that classic/Golden Age crime fiction doesn’t really give a lot of ‘home life’ information about sleuths. It’s been said that’s because those books tend to be more plot-driven. But is that really true? I decided to have another look at my data to see what it might show.


Percent of Books With Personal Life Details

As you can see, era really does make a difference when it comes to personal information and story arcs in crime novels. Only 38% of the pre-1950 crime novels in my data set include ‘home life’ scenes or other personal information. That number jumps to 85% in the years between 1950 and1980. And in the last thirty-five years, the percentage has risen to 92%.

Now, there are some important limitations to these findings. There are only 24 books in my pre-1950 data set. My guess is that that percentage would change if a lot more books were added. Would it go up to 92%? I personally doubt it, but it’s important to note the small size of the set. The same is true of the 1950-1980 set. There are 21 books in that set. If there were more, would the percentage be higher? Very possibly it would. But that, to me, would lend support to the argument that our interest in sleuths’ personal lives has increased over the years.

If this data reflects what’s really going on, why is it happening? Why do readers want to know, more than ever, about fictional cops’ and PIs’ personal lives? One answer is that we increasingly want our characters to be realistic, and that includes the fact that they have home lives. Another, related, possibility is that readers increasingly want story arcs in their series. If that’s the case, then it makes sense that story arcs would focus, at least some of the time, on personal lives. And in turn, it makes sense that we’d see more of sleuths’ personal lives in our crime fiction. Yet another explanation is that in general, people are sharing more of their lives (e.g. on social media). Whether or not that’s a good thing, we may be getting used to finding out others’ ‘home life’ information.

What do you think about all this? Obviously there’s such a thing as too much ‘home life’ in a crime novel. And I think most of us would agree that there’s definitely such a thing as too much dysfunctional ‘home life’ in a crime novel. But that aside, do you prefer books with ‘home life’ and other personal information about sleuths? If so, why? If you’re a writer, how do you balance that information with that all-important focus on the mystery at hand?

Thanks, Bernadette, for the inspiration. Folks, please give yourselves a treat and visit Reactions to Reading, simply one of the finest book review blogs there is. G’wan, you really want that blog on your blog roll!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Careless Talk.


Filed under Henning Mankell, Louise Penny

35 responses to “There Are Secrets I’ll Never Tell*

  1. I do like books that feature the detectives life outside the job and it is precisely why I’m hooked on so many series. Is this partly why the percentage has increased so dramatically as a series has to be a better marketing proposition for a publisher, and therefore the author. I know AC featured the same detectives but the books don’t need to be read in strict order so in my mind they aren’t a series in the way Camilla Lackberg’s books or Peter James’ Roy Grace series etc are. As you say we need less dysfunctional cops but I like to have an easy way of differentiating my investigators and the home life is a great way of doing so.

    • Cleo – Now that’s a very good point. When one reads a lot of crime fiction, it’s very easy for sleuths to all blend together after a while. And you’re right that there’s nothing quite like home life and personal things to differentiate characters. Interesting point too that if there’s a distinctive character – with a home life, etc. – it’s easier to market that character. It may mean a little more need to follow a series in order, but it can pay off in terms of reader loyalty. Interesting ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks!

  2. Fascinating data. You had me worried at the beginning of the post because I always include the home life. The key, I think, is relating it to the plot in some way.

    • Sue – I couldn’t have put it better myself! Personal life and home life aspects that relate to the plot are more logical and more welcome than are those that don’t. And honestly, I’m convinced that readers want to see that side of the main character, at least to an extent. And thanks for the kind words 🙂

  3. I also enjoy reading about the character’s home life, but not at the expense of the mystery itself. I’ve been watching Rizzoli & Isles for the past few seasons, without having read the books by Tess Gerritsen. Not sure how closely the episodes follow the books, but I find there is way too much emphasis on the personal life of the two main characters. If the books are similar to the TV show, then I’m glad that I did not spend the time reading the series.

    • Anne – Your comment is such an important reminder that each of us has a different sense of how much ‘home life’ information is the right amount. As you say, too much is distracting and tiresome. Not enough and the characters seem ‘flat.’ I’ll confess that I’ve not seen the Rizzoli and Isles TV show, so I can’t say how closely it keeps to the novels. If you ever do try one of the novels, I’d be interested in knowing what you think of the amount of ‘home life’ information in them.

  4. I actually could live quite happily without the home life aspect. I loved books like the Flaxborough novels where the detectives were developed well within the workplace but we rarely got to see them outside. We knew Inspector Purbright was happily married but didn’t ever (as far as I remember) meet his wife, nor were we subjected to interminable chapters about the state of their marriage (or his affairs, health problems, addictions etc). Did he have children? I don’t know, and I don’t care.

    Although I do enjoy some series where we do learn about the detective’s home life – the Jane Casey books, Camilla Lackberg etc – I really enjoy them on the whole despite that aspect, rather than because of it. I note that most of Casey’s readers seem to prefer her work-based relationship with her colleague to her love affair with her boyfriend. Even in my beloved Dalziel and Pascoe books, I was only really interested in the Peter/Ellie relationship in the books where she was specifically involved in the plot. (ditto Wieldy and his boyfriend.) Otherwise give me Poirot, or Nero Wolfe, or Miss Marple – and then give me a decent plot with clues…and leave out the padding. But I guess it must be me whose out of touch…

    • FictionFan – That’s one of the key challenges when it comes to adding in the domestic aspect of a sleuth’s life. Some people, such as yourself, really aren’t that interested. They want the focus to be on the mystery at hand. And there is something to that. Too much domestic detail can pull the reader right out of a story, and it can get tiresome. On the other hand, there are readers who do like ‘home life’ scenes, and there’s something to be said for showing that a character is fully fleshed out. Even in the case of Poirot, for instance, we know his his staff (George, Miss Lemon) and a few things about them. We know something of his history too.
      I think you hit on something important in mentioning the relationship between personal life and the case at hand. When home life is involved in the major plot, that can add to its value in a story. How to do that without overdoing it is a bit tricky, but that tie-in can really work.

  5. Kathy D.

    Very interesting point that you and Bernadette, blogger at the terrific Reactions to Reading blog. And I’m pondering this. Yes. I do want a balance of information on the mystery and the sleuth’s home life. I think Guido Brunetti’s stories are just right — with a good case, investigation, views of his home life and also interactions with Questura staff. His thinking about all of this and the people close to him matter in this series.
    And who could enjoy these books without the ever-present Paola
    Falier, Brunetti’s smart, verbally quick spouse.
    We also see much of Salvo Montalbano’s personal life, and his “indiscretions,” which increase as he ages. And his friendships are
    also in the books. They add a lot , along with humor, to the Sicilian series.
    And then there is V.I. Warshawski, who is one of my favorite characters.
    She lives in Chicago, where I grew up, has dogs, a wonderful neighbor, a physician best friend and mentor, and also romantic liaisons. She is
    a well-rounded character. I think we want to see all of this along
    with a good plot, social justice, character development and wit here.
    When I began reading mysteries in high school back in the Middle Ages,
    I read Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, and a few miscellaneous books by Sayers and Tey. Sherlock’s books are
    mainly on the investigations, with a bit of person life thrown in. Perry Mason’s were mostly about the cases. And Nero Wolfe’s delightfully
    included his crazy household and habits. We knew a lot about his
    “brownstone” life and about Archie Goodwin’s, well, enough to
    make us laugh. These books have stood the test of time.
    Hercule Poirot: not much personal life, mostly a focus on the cases.
    I’d also say Angela Savage’s Thailand-based Jayne Keeney’s books are a mix of cases and personal life, as her friendship with her male work partner develops.
    And I like Irene Huss’ home life elements, along with the investigation. It makes her more interesting.

    • Kathy – There are definitely series (and you’ve named some great ones) where learning about the sleuth’s home life really does add to a plot. As you say, Paola plays a role in some of Donna Leon’s mystery plots that goes beyond her status as Brunetti’s wife. The same is true of Sara Paretsky’s Lotty Herschel, who plays a more important role than just Warshawski’s friend in several novels. There are lots of other examples too. In those cases, we really see tie-ins between the main plot and the sleuth’s personal life. And I think that can add to the importance of the detective’s home life. As you point out, the amount we learn varies by sleuth/series. It’s really interesting to see how the author works that in in a way that doesn’t take away from the plot.

  6. Re the tv V book of Rizzoli and Isles – I watched the tv series first – it is very domestic in it portrayal but slowly I became enamoured with the characters – enough that I sought the books – the books are so different – however I now have a picture in my mind of the leads characters as I read but that is about where the similarities end – sure some of the plots in the show loosely follow the books but the books – so much tension/drama/action/murders….the books are fantastic! Best to read in order.

  7. Margot: You will not be surprised that I am at the extreme end of the spectrum in wanting lots of information on the life of the characters. One of the themes of Saskatchewan mysteries I have written about is that several Saskatchewan authors all included the families of their sleuths. I find it so artificial when sleuths have no families and no private life.

    With regard to historic crime fiction I would wager far more readers (and bloggers), if asked about Sherlock Holmes, will recall immediately his residence and habits on Baker Street rather than the plots of the stories and novels

    • Bill – No, I’m not at all surprised that you like your crime fiction to include a lot of ‘home life’ information. And you’re right; the Saskatchewan authors that come most quickly to my mind (Gail Bowen, Anthony Bidulka and Nelson Brunanski) do weave that element into their stories. You have a point, too, that sleuths with little or no apparent home life somehow don’t seem quite as authentic as those who do. Interesting (and well-taken!) point about the Sherlock Holmes stories, too.

  8. I have been trying hard to think of sleuths who’s personal lives I don’t know much about and the only one that I can think of is Poirot (and even in his case, we know he is a fussy bachelor who came to England from Belgium and lives with his faithful George). Though I don’t read anywhere as much as you do, I can think of literally dozens of sleuths who have a family life (Holmes, Miss Marple, Martin Beck from the older period- most of the rest new), but I can’t think of anyone who is detailed in isolation.
    Not drawing any conclusions from it, except the obvious one that I obviously care to know the back story, and only those books linger where there is one.
    Great topic, and fantastic analysis. But that’s what one expects from you 🙂

    • Thank you, Natasha 🙂 – That’s an interesting point, too, that we tend to remember longer those sleuths who have some sort of home life. Interesting, too, that even authors such as Christie, whose focus has been more on the mystery plot, still let us know about their sleuths’ backstories.

  9. I don’t write mysteries, but I read them, and as others have siad, I do like ‘home life’, but mostly only if related to the story.
    I understand the need and will to have a fully flashed out main character, but I think if we try to do this in spite of the plot (and this is particularly true for genre fiction) then we’re distracting the reader rather than involving them.

    I think the balance can be found trying to have the story (the case, in mystery stories) relate in some way to the sleuth’s life. Touching some of his/her nerves. You know. Forcing them not only to solve the case but also to consider their own believes and attitude. Then the sleuth’s personal life becomes relevant to the case and vice versa.

    Well, at least, this are the kind of stories I enjoy the most 🙂

    • Jazzfeathers – You put that very well, I think. Once the writer stops involving the reader in the story, this immediately starts taking away from the story itself. Readers want to be absorbed in a story, and that often means they want to care about the characters involved. And that in turn means they want fully fleshed-out characters. But at the same time, readers don’t want to get sidetracked by too much detail, especially if it’s irrelevant to the story. So I think you’re onto something in saying that the key really is to make those ‘home life’ details relevant to the story. If it serves the story, it adds to it.

  10. I think in police procedurals I like it as a running subplot in a series. If it’s a standalone, I don’t want as much of it…just enough to create tension or to develop the sleuths. In the cozy genre, of course, there’s quite a bit of this…and my editor always wants more than what I give.

    • Elizabeth – Interesting distinction you make between sub-genres and between series and standalones. Unless you’ve got a doorstop-sized standalone, it can be a challenge to include all of the ‘home life’ details that you can if you create story arcs across the novels in a series. So I see your point about a bit less focus on home life in standalones. And as you say, part of the decision about how much ‘home life’ to put into a story really does depend on whether it’s a police procudural, a thriller, a cosy, or something else.

  11. Kay

    This was quite the interesting question. I’m not sure I had ever thought about whether I liked this particular aspect of a crime novel or not. But, after considering, I know that I do. I like the sleuths and team to be what I would call real people, ones that I can see in my mind. Especially in a series, if I were unable to really see the characters with all their faults and good points, they wouldn’t resonate with me and I’d stop reading. And a real person has a life outside of their work or if they don’t, there is a reason for that as well.

    I’m thinking of two series that I have recently read – Camilla Lackberg’s and also Susan Hill’s. The Serrailler family is a big part of the Hill series. I’m only on book #2, but I love the detail of setting, family, interaction with the family and Simon Serrailler. I think that will help me know why is the way he is. Same with Camilla Lackberg’s characters. I’ve just started A DYING FALL by Elly Griffiths. Love Ruth Galloway and her personal life is a big part of this series. I just laughed a minute ago when her 18-month-old daughter, Kate, picked up the phone before she did and said, “Piss!”, to the caller. She meant “peace”, but there you are. For me, it makes Ruth’s life relate to mine in a way, having had a toddler daughter of my own at one time. So, I think I find books that have no detail outside of the mystery itself to be somewhat dry or maybe what I mean is not well-rounded.

    And the Rizzoli and Isles TV show situations are different from the books and so are the characters, mostly. Both good. Both with a different feel.

    • Kay – I know exactly what you mean. Readers want their characters to feel like real people. Even readers who aren’t particularly fond of a lot of ‘home life’ detail want their characters to be authentic. And that means those characters have some sort of life outside work. Or, as you say, there’s a possibly interesting reason they don’t.
      You mention some good examples, too, of series where home life is woven into the stories. I laughed out loud, by the way, at your example from A Dying Fall. That’s a great moment in that story, isn’t it? I think too that readers can connect with characters over things like that (e.g. ‘When my ___ was a toddler, she once said___’). It’s entirely possible to connect with a character even without that kind of common experience, but those things can give us a way to invest ourselves in a story.

  12. I’ll admit I’m a fickle reader: sometimes I’m in the mood for drama in the character’s personal lives and sometimes I cannot stand it. If the crime-solving plot is strong, I tend not to mind the personal storyline, I think. Also, overall, I favor a little less personal life-stuff in my crime novels.

    • Rebecca – I know what you mean. There are some stories aren’t there where the ‘home life’ scenes fit in and add to the story. Then there are others where it’s just cumbersome and drags the story down. I think you have a point in saying that part of it depends on how solid and strong the plot is. I’ll have to think on that one. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  13. Margot – Great analysis. I find especially interesting the question of why mystery readers these days want more home life detail. As for me, I’m with FictionFan and not a big fan of home life in mysteries, whether in fiction or the movies. I tend to tune out during the domestic patches.
    My tastes may be too regressive 🙂 I prefer the Old School formula, where the sleuth – male or female – lives alone, with the home life stuff limited to the psychological ramifications (loneliness, philosophic introspection, etc.) of living alone, with maybe an occasional boyfriend/girlfriend. Once again my favorite PI Philip Marlowe would be the model, though as I recall even he relented and was married, or planning to get married, by the last novel.

    • Thank you, Bryan. And as you see, you’re not alone. There really are plenty of readers who prefer stories where we don’t learn a lot about the sleuth’s home life. Not that the sleuth should be a ‘cardboard cutout,’ but there are plenty of readers who’d rather focus on the mystery at hand, and perhaps on the characters mixed up in it, rather than on the sleuth. And Philip Marlowe is a great example of that kind of sleuth. We know some things about him and yes, he does have romance in his life, and we do ‘go home’ with him, so to speak. But domestic plots don’t figure much into the story.

  14. I guess I can take the more personal info or leave it. I don’t like too much intertwining of home life with the cases, but nowadays that is more common so I would miss a lot of series if I did not accept that approach.

    • Tracy – It’s really true that that approach seem to be more and more common now than ever. I think it can work very, very well so long as the ‘home life’ parts really serve the story and are woven into it.

  15. Great topic. My immediate reaction was ‘give me homelife every time’, but when I thought about it more, I realized that I was picky – I enjoy some sleuths’ private lives, but others I get tired of. So in my case it really is a case of personal taste, and not predictable.

    • Moira – I’d guess that’s probably true of a lot of people. The amount and kind of ‘home life’ information we want, I think, often depends on mood, taste and simply whether we find the sleuth’s home life interesting enough to want to know more about it. And I think it’s got something to do with the kind of story it is, too. You can’t always find an algorithm for that.

  16. Col

    I would prefer “more” than “none”, as long as there’s a limit. I don’t need to have the main character cooking a chicken dish and sitting through the preparation (John Connolly’s first book), but I do like some background and depth.

    • Col – I think most people would agree that there needs to be a balance. On the one hand, we want to know something about the main characters’ lives. We want them to feel real. On the other,we don’t need to follow along as they do every load of laundry.

  17. I think we want a certain amount of personal details. I just don’t like excessive focus on the domestic. As other people have said, a balance is key.

    • Well said, Sarah. Readers want a certain amount of ‘home life’ detail, as those things flesh out characters. But they don’t want so much of the focus on the home that the mystery gets ‘lost in the shuffle.’

  18. Kathy D.

    Yes, balance of home life and detective work is important. But, I admit that I could read an entire Guido Brunetti book focused on his relationship with his spouse, Paola Falier and their children, with lots of her verbal jousting and intellectual contributions.

    • Kathy – I think Donna Leon does an excellent job of portraying Brunetti’s home life, so that it’s not tedious or tiresome. I think it helps that the ‘home life’ characters are interesting. But as a rule, you’re absolutely right: there needs to be a balance in a mystery between ‘home life’ scenes and ‘work life’ scenes.

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