Dysfunctional sleuths may show that dysfunction in any number of ways (e.g. drugs/alcohol, a series of ruined relationships, psychological instability). None of this means that these characters can’t solve crimes; some are brilliant. And many (I’m looking at you, Inspector Morse!) are beloved. But they have blind spots, if you want to put it that way, that they just can’t seem to overcome.
Some people don’t mind severe dysfunction in their sleuths. Others dislike such sleuths, or are at the very least tired of them. It all got me to wondering just how prevalent this dysfunction is. So I decided to take a look at this question.
I chose 278 books from among those I have read. For each book, I noted whether the protagonist was or wasn’t functional. People define functionality in different ways, so I admit that my thinking may be different from yours on some cases. But I also think there are enough clear cases (I’m thinking of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor, for instance, who is dysfunctional; and of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache, who is functional) that I might get some meaning from this data.
Here’s what I found.
Overall, 68 of the books I looked at (25%) feature dysfunctional protagonists. Overall, 210 (75%) feature functional protagonists. So on the surface, it looks as though most of the protagonists have their lives together.
If that’s true, then why does it seem that so many protagonists aren’t functional? I decided to look at my data a little more closely to get at that question. I divided the books in the data set into four categories based on year of publication: Classic/Golden Age; 1950-1990; 1990-2000; 2000-Present. In doing this I was hoping to see whether the proportion of dysfunctional protagonists has increased over time. Here’s what I found.
As you can see, the proportion of dysfunctional protagonists in the Classic/Golden Age books in the data set is very small (2 of 38, or 5%). Things change quite a lot in the period between 1950 and 1990. Here, we have 13 of the 54 books (24%) featuring dysfunctional protagonists. Why the change? I’m no psychology expert, but there was a great deal of increasing knowledge about and interest in psychology and psychopathology during these years. There’s no reason that shouldn’t be reflected in the books of the time.
Now, let’s consider the period between 1990 and 2000. I chose this decade deliberately, because I had the feeling that that’s when the rise of the modern dysfunctional detective became more marked. As you see, 11 of the 34 books in that data set (34%) feature dysfunctional protagonists. It’s important to note here that this doesn’t prove a whole lot; there aren’t enough books in this set to make that much of a leap. But I did think it markedly interesting that this is when we see a lot of such detectives making their entrances.
Finally, there’s the last fifteen years (2000-present). Of the 142 books in this category, 42 (30%) feature dysfunctional protagonists. It’s interesting that there are still plenty of unhealthy protagonists out there. But if you notice, the proportion seems to be dropping, at least among the books that are in my data set.
Admittedly, as ever, this set is limited. By no means have I read all of the crime fiction out there. The books in this set don’t include every book I’ve read, either. So in those important ways, we don’t see the whole scope of what’s happening on the crime fiction scene.
But I think this data may suggest a few things. One is that the mentally stable, functional protagonist is still alive and well, thank you very much. Such protagonists certainly have their share of trouble – even tragedy. Once in a while they drink more than is wise; or, they may stray in their relationships. No-one is perfect. But overall, they have their lives in healthy places. I wonder if this data also suggests that the dysfunctional protagonist, who cannot make a wise decision, or who never stays sober, is becoming less popular. This is a tentative conclusion, of course. I haven’t researched people’s opinions. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the definition of what ‘counts’ as functionaal or not varies. But I do wonder whether that is a trend we’re seeing.
What do you think? Do you think we’re seeing fewer dysfunctional detectives? Do you see that as a positive trend?
ps. A special thanks to FictionFan, who blogs at FictionFan’s Book Reviews. You definitely want this excellent blog on your roll if you enjoy crime fiction. Top-notch reviews, wit, porpentines and little green men await you there. And Mr. Darcy. It’s a must-visit for me. It was an interesting comment exchange with FictionFan that got me thinking about this whole question.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Squier’s Everybody Wants You.