You Take Your Pension in Loneliness and Alcohol*

Dysfunctional DetectivesWe’ve all read and talked about them: fictional sleuths who can’t seem to get (or keep) their lives together. Because of trauma or something else, they don’t seem to be able to manage their lives.

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.

Functional vs Dysfunctional Detectives

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.

Functional vs Dysfunctional Protagonists Over Time

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.


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49 responses to “You Take Your Pension in Loneliness and Alcohol*

  1. Maremma Gee

    Interesting study…thank you.

  2. I love the research you do for your fans, Margot!

    I’ve always thought dysfunction in crime fiction protagonists was a sign of the times. So in the post-war 1940s & 50s, you started seeing a crisis in masculinity play out in the PIs of noir fiction. In the 1960s-70s, it was – at least for those countries involved in Vietnam – a crisis of national confidence that played out.

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I’d be curious to see to what extent specific types of dysfunction reflect the zeitgeist.

    • Oh, that’s a fascinating question, Angela!! I’m convinced that those crises probably do play out in crime fiction. Why wouldn’t they? The crises you mentioned are excellent examples, too. And there are plenty of other, such as the crisis in the sense of safety that’s happened as a result of the terrorism of the last decades. It’s a really fruitful area for exploration, for which thanks. I’ll have to think about how to go about that.

      Thanks for the inspiration, and for the kind words.

  3. As always I found your results fascinating. I do think the dysfunctional protagonist is decreasing. From personal experience I can tell you that agents frown upon a detective who drinks to much or does drugs. Often I read in submission details that they are sick and tired of reading these stories. Does that mean the public is too, because after all, they should know the market? I’m not sure. I’ve read both and as long is the story is well-done, I don’t have a problem with either one. Though I do tend to write functional protagonists, so maybe subconsciously I do. Interesting subject!

    • Thank you, Sue. I’m glad you found this all to be of interest. I also appreciate your letting us all know what agents are saying about this whole issue. I wonder if you are right that this is a hint that the public is getting tired of a slew of dysfunctional protagonists. It’ll certainly be worth paying attention to as time goes on. I hope it’s true, because my protagonists are functional people. So yes, a bit of self-interest there, I admit.

  4. Aw, thank you for the kind words, Margot! The porpentine is thrilled to get a mention – he knows Hallowe’en is coming up and is even more fretful than usual… 😀

    Well, those statistics are very interesting, and do tend to confirm both that there has been a huge rise in dysfunctional detectives over the last few decades, and possibly also that it has finally peaked and may be on a slight decline – which, as you know only too well, would make me one very happy crime reader! It’s like every other trope (a word I hate, but never mind) – in small quantities it adds interest, but when it becomes a bandwagon it gets tired quite quickly.

    I read a collection of re-published Rebus short stories last year, which was laid out in chronological order and mainly related to Rebus earlier years. The thing that leapt out at me was that, when Rebus was new, I thought of him as the ultimate dysfunctional detective and loved him because it was pretty original. For the last few years I’ve thought each new book was toning the dysfunction down a bit, and have indeed said so in my reviews. But now, re-reading the early Rebus many years later, he seems remarkably functional even back then, and I realise that it’s not Rebus who has moved towards functionality, but that there are now so many much more dysfunctional detectives around, making him seem quite restrained in comparison. And, as with any trend, there is a tendency for some authors to try to outdo the last one by stretching the limits even further till we end up with detectives who would never be allowed to keep their posts, thus destroying any credibility before the plot even begins…

    Another very interesting post, Margot – thanks! My hobby-horse has been getting a good workout over here this week… 😉

    • You are welcome to rid your hobby-horse any time you wish, FictionFan! In this case, I think you make a very important point. I’ve seen it with the whole serial killer motif too. When one author finds success with a certain kind of character, or a certain plot structure, other authors naturally learn this and it becomes popular. I think that’s what happened with the severely dysfunctional detective.

      It’s very interesting what you’ve said about the early Rebus stories, too. In fact, when I was doing my research, I wondered whether to consider him as ‘dysfunctional.’ Of course in many ways, he is. But as you point out so claerly, compared to some fictional sleuths, he’s downright mellow, stable and perfectly happy (he probably wouldn’t be too keen on that, I’d suppose). Perhaps in some ways he’s become a bit more functional, but I do wonder whether it’s also a matter of perspective. Really fascinating to think of, and something that couldn’t quite be captured in what I have here.

      Oh, and please give my best to the porpentine. It’s nice to see him come out of hibernation. 🙂

      • I wondered if you’d noticed any correlation with the rise of Nordic/Scandi crime? Again we do tend to think of them as being filled with dysfunctional ‘tecs and some of them really are, but I’ve also read several with ‘normal’ protagonists too – probably about 50/50. But it’s not an area I’m at all well read in.

        • Oh, interesting question, FictionFan! In the interest of honesty, I must say I didn’t make special notes to track that trend (i.e. Scandi books with dysfunctional sleuths vs books from other cultures with same). But if forced to answer, I’d say there may be a correlation. As you say (and you’re right!), lots of Scandi protagonists are functional and happy (Tursten’s Irene Huss, Horst’s William Wisting, and so on). But there are certainly plenty who aren’t. Perhaps another area to explore with this whole thing is whether we see such protagonists in one country/culture’s stories more than another. Hmmmm….lots of food for thought, and something I may have to plan out. Thanks!

  5. I think for the ‘legitimately dysfunctional’ detectives there’s a lot of truth to the idea that Angela and FictionFan are both teasing out in their way – that crime as a genre reflects the society from which it is being published and that difficult teams tend to produce troubled souls (Jack Taylor is a great example of someone who is a product of some very troubled waters) – what has bugged me has always been the bandwagon jumpers – i.e. publishers/authors who see one or two books of a particular kind then commission/write dozens more almost exactly the same – I suspect it is this kind of dysfunctional detective that is disappearing – for now at least – because the new fad seems to be domestic suspense / unreliable narrator type novels (ia la Gone Girl). But unlike you Margot I have zero evidence to back up my speculation.

    • You make a really well-taken point, Bernadette. So do Angela and FictionFan. Books do reflect society, because their authors are products of that society. So it makes sense that troubled times would result in troubled protagonists (like Taylor). That makes total sense, and it’s borne out by a lot of examples. There is a difference, I think, between those kinds of protagonists and the ‘bandwagon’ protagonists (you nailed it there, I think!) who are not products of their times, but rather, products of the desire to have a best-seller. I think you’re quite right there. And as different types of books start getting interest, then attention goes to those books. What a fickle market it is! If we are seeing a waning interest in the severely dysfunctional sleuth, that may be one reason why. Once interest in the unreliable narrator/domestic noir sort of book fades, I wonder what’ll be next…

  6. Kathy D.

    Quick look at the statistics. Because I proofread (everything; it’s a curse), I notice the math here. The bottom figure is for functional sleuths, the top one for the dysfunctional. So the fraction should be the dysfunctional number of the total number of sleuths: Thus, it’s 13 dysfunctional of 54 sleuths, which is about 25% in 1950-1990; 11 of 33 or 1/3 or 33 1/3% in 1990-2000, and 42 of 152 sleuths from 2000 until today which is nearly 1/3.
    Anyway, I seem to run into more sleuths who have problems with alcohol than anything else. But there are some like Adamsberg in Fred Vargas’ books who can’t deal with person relationships. And then there’s Annika Bengtzon who can work and take care of her family but has deep personal problems and anxiety attacks due to past traumas.
    The alcoholism I find to be frustrating — the reader wants to take the liquor away and throw it out. The other problems are social and psychological so they are different.

    • You’re right, Kathy. Alcoholism is by no means the only problem that makes sleuths dysfunctional; there’s no doubt about that. And you’ve pointed out a lot of examples of protagonists who have other kinds of dysfunction. As for the arithmetic, those numbers have been changed.

  7. If all PIs were fully functional human beings then what fun would it be to read about them.

  8. Margot: I am going to take a look at the question from the perspective of Canadian sleuths I have read. To start the Saskatchewan sleuths of Joanne Kilbourn, Russell Quant and Bart Bartkowski are all functional. I will look more broadly among the rest of Canada tomorrow.

    I find the definition of “dysfunctional” to be a challenge. Everyone is dysfunctional to a degree. When does a sleuth become effectively dysfunctional.

    • Now that, Bill, is a really interesting question. I actually ran into that when I was looking into this. As you say, each of has some dysfunction. It’s part of what makes us human. When does a person ‘cross the line?’ Experts disagree on that, and I am not an expert on psychological dysfunction. I think there are some cases (at least among fictional protagonists) that are fairly clear. Others are perhaps less so. That said, I do agree that Joanne Kilbourn, Russell Quant and Bart Bartowski are functional protagonists; it’s part of what I like about them.

  9. Fascinating – I assumed the level of dysfunction would increase over time but that is a mighty leap – great detective work Margot 🙂

  10. I honestly think your findings would indicate that writers don’t shy away from some characters faults anymore. In an attempt to make them more human?
    Once, it was always the antagonist who had the faults, almost to prove they fell short. Now we love our character faults, warts and all.

    • I think you bring up something essential, Jenanita01. Writers are certainly more willing to create characters with faults – sometimes serious faults – in modern times. No longer is there this sense that the protagonist has to be perfect. In fact, I think that a completely perfect character would be annoying.

      • a sad reflection on modern life really, that we identify more with these characters. But they are more interesting!

        • Interesting point, Jenanita01! There are many readers who do identify with these dysfunctional characters, and it’s interesting (if, as you say, sad) to think about what that says about modern life.

  11. Kathy D.

    I don’t like full-fledged alcoholics really, no slurred speech. A few drinks here and there OK. Social anxieties, even panic attacks, OK, makes one interesting. Social phobias, problems dealing with people, understandable.
    Fear of heights, bridges, spiders, cats, etc., can deal with that. It’s the alcohol and heavy drug abuse I can skip in my reading for pleasure.
    Harry Hole is a great dectective, but how many benders can we tolerate?
    And drugs I can’t go there, don’t want to read about drug-addicted detectives. Maybe Holmes had his laudanum, but that’s it.

    • I know what you mean, Kathy. Too much alcoholism, heavy drug use and the link gets to be tiresome. As you say, how many benders can one character really go on? It’s much more interesting, anyway, to have characters who have different sorts of weaknesses like the ones you mention.

  12. Margot, quite an intriguing study. Sometimes I want to think that dysfunctional investigators can only be found in stories, but way too often they show up in real life. Maybe that’s why we’re drawn to them when reading. In stories, we know that no matter the problems the investigator is having, they’ll solve the case and find the killer in the end.

    • That’s an interesting point, Mason. There are certainly dysfunctional sleuths in real life. And in fiction, we can push that quality a little, and let disbelief aside, for those who don’t mind doing that. And as you say, I think we do like to see the killer caught, or at the very least identified.

  13. Great discussion and research Margot once again 🙂 I think a lot of our reaction has to do with the volume of books we read, a little of the dysfunctional protagonist now and then is ok but like anything else it can become hum drum if that is all that is on the menu. Hint publishers – take a risk, different is good.

    • Absolutely, Carol! Different can be very good indeed. You’re right, too, I think, about volume of books with a certain theme or main character. Reading about a very dysfunctional protagonist here and there is one thing. Reading about nothing but dysfunction is quite another.

      • Exactly Margot. Books/themes/styles/characters seem to trend or what publishers think will sell and thus embrace a trend… When I worked in the film industry you can look at what is happening in UK or US and know Aust TV will feature that “trend” in 18 months (or maybe sooner) the decision makers look at what is selling and seem to stick to that as criteria – it is not because that is all they are being offered – it is because of a perception of what is commercial viable … not many want risk something different. More the shame…maybe some publisher take bigger risks?

        • I think you’re quite right, Carol. When publishers, TV/film production people, etc., see that something is of interest, they get onto that proverbial bandwagon, and before you know it there are lots of films, books and TV series that feature the same thing. It really is following what’s trending, and in my opinion, it’s not particularly original. I like it when publishers have a broader perspective than that.

  14. Like many of other crime fiction readers, I sigh when I come across an alcoholic detective but on reflection it is how much the ‘dysfunction’ is bought into the storyline – like any of these ‘back-stories’, functional or not, I think too much can detract from the storyline. I stopped reading an otherwise excellent series because the lead character suffered with anxiety and her weight and although a refreshing type of dysfunction, it all became far too much for me.

    • Now, that’s a well-taken point, Cleo. When the sleuth’s story starts to take over the rest of the story, that can be overwhelming, especially in crime fiction, where the central plot is about a crime and its detection. I suppose it’s the same with any aspect of a crime novel. Too much of anything takes away from the story.

  15. Col

    I’ll echo Scott’s comments. I need a decent amount of dysfunctional in my reading!

  16. Keishon

    As you know Margot, I prefer dysfunctional protagonists as it makes the story a bit messy and complex but there has to be a balance. For me, if the author chooses to use a well put together protagonist, then he/she better have something interesting about them to make them stand out or keep my interest. I mean, how can I state this, imperfections are what make us all unique. Do I want every protagonist to be an alcoholic? No, and I wish they would do away with those. Frex: Karin Slaughter writes about her protagonist having dyslexia. That to me is very interesting especially in how she shows how he compensates for it on the job. I do agree in part with Bernadette in that some of the best dysfunctional heroes come from the society from which they are born. The me-too publishers jumping on trends are the problem in part. TL:DR version: boring people are boring.

    • That’s just it exactly, Keishon! Exactly! Boring characters are boring. They may be functional, dysfunctional, or anything else. The key is that they need to keep the reader’s interest. Some of the really fine dysfunctional characters are that way because that’s how they introduced themselves to their creators. The ‘me too’ dysfunctional characters aren’t nearly as interesting because they aren’t as dynamic or organic. You really put all of this very well.

  17. Kathy D.

    A character that comes to mind belatedly is Fiona Griffiths, Welsh police detective written by Harry Bingham. She is extremely smart and courageous, but suffers from a rare form of mental illness. She also has trouble working with a team and tends to take risks and go out on her own.
    She’s also physically fit and can fend off physical attacks.
    I like the two books I have read about her, but I sometimes find too much discussion about her distorted thinking or ruminating about death can get tedious — and a little creepy — and the violence on the page can be overwhelming.
    I will keep reading the series as it’s fascinating, but it’s not without its glitches.

    • That’s exactly the sort of thing I had in mind as I was thinking about dysfunctional sleuths, Kathy. Sometimes that dysfunction gets to be too much, and then it takes away from the story. Fiona Griffiths has redeeming qualities, and she gets cases solved. But she does have issues that limit her.

  18. Great piece of research there Margot, with fascinating results. That timeline is very telling! And I was actually surprised that they dysfunctional representation wasn’t higher.
    And I love the way Scott and Col made their points!

    • I do, too, Moira. Scott and Col really make some well-taken points. I wondered, too, when I saw the representation of dysfunctional protagonists wasn’t higher. Partly I think that it’s the fact that my data is limited to books I have read. There are lots of dysfunctional characters out there that I haven’t ‘met.’ In any case, I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  19. This post and all of the comments are very interesting. That is the benefit of coming late to the party. I did find the comments about fictional detectives and their problems being a reflection of society… although maybe it was just less acceptable to read or write about such dysfunctional in earlier years. I hope I am not just repeating what someone else said…

    Anyway, I do think this is why I like to read from every decade, although I have not read much written before 1930. And current fiction is my least favorite; I like to let books sit five to ten years and come back to them. That is why it is a thrill for me to find newer fiction that I enjoy. I wish I could read twice as many books a year and try more authors.

    • I wish I could, too, Tracy. And I think you make a really interesting point about changes in people’s attitudes towards reading about dysfunctional detectives. It might have been less acceptable in earlier years. Reading from all sorts of different eras does, I think, give a person a solid perspective on the genre. And it gives the reader the opportunity to see how way the genre has evolved over time. So I can see why you enjoy exploring different eras of crime fiction.

  20. Confession: I thought the initial breakdown would be higher in the direction of dysfunctionality. It may be an illusion: the dysfunctional sleuths are perhaps the ones we remember more. On the other hand, my own anecdotal evidence suggests there’s something to the idea that PI’s were more functional in the golden Age. For instance, three classic American GA PI’s – Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer – all have their issues but are eminently functional. Then again Mike Hammer may be another matter!
    Bill’s comment led me into a direction: it might be interesting to further break down the dysfuctionality geopolitically, i.e. are Northern private eyes more dysfunctional; American more than British(?), etc.
    And I’ll echo Scott’s comments: I need a certain amount of dysfunction in my characters to make them interesting, which reminds me, how about the villains? It occurs to me that, the clichéd brilliant mad criminal plotting to take over the world aside, most of the antagonists are actually pretty functional 🙂

    • Now, that’s an interesting point. Bryan. It would be really interesting to see the pattern of dysfunction as it’s reflected in ‘villains.’ As far as PIs go, I have the feeling, too, that characters such as Philip Marlowe would be regarded as more functional than Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor. Of course, there are exceptions as you point out, and it’s really important to consider how we even define ‘dysfunction.’

      You also make an interesting point about patterns of dysfunction as related to geographic areas. I didn’t make note of that information, but it would certainly be interesting to find out, wouldn’t it? I may have to do that at some point. In the meantime, as Bill points out, we’re all dysfunction to one extent or another. We aren’t perfect. So it makes sense that the best characters have their ‘warts,’ too.

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