One of the major developments we’ve seen in crime fiction over the years has arguably been the move from the sleuth as a third person – as someone whose thoughts we don’t always know – to the sleuth as the first person. Of course, not all modern crime novels are written in the first person. But in many of them, the reader is privy to what’s going on in the sleuth’s mind. And that makes sense, since today’s crime fiction fans want their characters, by and large, to be well-developed.
But as those who’ve read classic and Golden Age crime fiction know, that hasn’t always been the style. Here are just a few examples; I know that those of you who’ve read classic and Golden Age detective fiction will be able to provide lots more than I could.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is (at least to me) an interesting case in point. He does let us know how he deduces things. He also occasionally gives his opinion about one thing or another. For instance, we know that he’s not much of a fan of the police (with one or two exceptions). But as a rule, readers aren’t privy to what he’s really thinking. Rather, we learn about Holmes ‘from the outside,’ mostly through Dr. Watson. On the one hand, this invites the reader to get caught up in the mystery and try to get to the solution of a case. On the other hand, we can often only speculate on what Holmes really thinks about it all. He keeps the cards, as the saying goes, close to his chest.
The same might be said of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. We get a sense from things that he says that he has a philosophical side. And we also learn some of his views about religion and about what it means to be a good person. There are a few other things we learn about his thought processes too. But readers don’t really ‘get into his head.’ The Father Brown stories don’t, for instance, follow him home at night as he makes tea and thinks about whatever case he’s involved in at the moment. Readers also don’t learn what his opinions are about a given case. That’s not generally revealed until close to the end of the story, as Father Brown explains how he came to certain conclusions.
That’s also often the case with Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver. Readers follow along of course as Miss Silver meets new clients, discusses their cases and so on. We know a bit about Miss Silver’s background (former governess turned private investigator), and we know something of her methods too. But readers don’t know what she’s thinking as she puts the pieces of the puzzle together, so to speak. She has her ways of ‘saving the day,’ but we don’t know what she thinks about it all, except for what she says. In other words, readers don’t ‘get in her head.’
Several of Christianna Brand’s novels feature Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police. He’s a police detective, so in that sense, we know the way he goes about solving crimes. He talks to witnesses and suspects, observes the evidence and so on. In fact, sometimes Brand lets the reader in on the main clues that Cockrill notices. Readers are also privy to certain thoughts Cockrill has (from Green For Danger):
‘Cockrill had been waiting for something, but not for this.’
But we don’t always know what he’s thinking as he investigates. The stories are told more or less ‘from the outside.’
And then there’s John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell. We know a few things about his personal life, and we do learn how he draws the conclusions he draws. He explains himself, so that the reader can see how he came to suspect the killer. But readers aren’t really privy to what he’s thinking as the case develops. We don’t ‘get in his head’ as he looks through the clues and listens to what people say, either. In fact, we don’t always know what he thinks of the various people with whom he interacts.
Agatha Christie lets us in on a few of Hercule Poirot’s and Miss Marple’s thoughts. For instance, readers know how Miss Marple feels about being ‘looked after’ by Miss Knight in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Cracked). If you haven’t read that one, you can, I am sure, imagine how she might feel with an overzealous paid nurse/companion watching everything she does, eats, and so on. Readers are privy to Poirot’s feelings about things too. For example, we know Poirot is not fond of then-modern standards for beauty and dress. In several stories, Christie lets us in on his thinking about that topic. Poirot also often lets clues drop when he notices something. But he is notoriously close-mouthed about the theories he develops and his views about a given case. He says that it’s because he may be wrong and doesn’t want to influence anyone else’s thinking. But that strategy also serves to invite the reader to match wits with him.
One really can’t say that anything is true of all classic/Golden Age mysteries (or any other sub-genre, for the matter of that). There are well-written modern mysteries that don’t let readers in on much of the sleuth’s thinking. And there are well-written mysteries from earlier times in which we do know much of what the sleuth is thinking. That said though, as a general pattern, we see more crime fiction now where we ‘get into the sleuth’s head.’
A possible reason for that might be the larger, more general distinction between plot-driven and character-driven stories. Another might be the increasing interest over the years in psychology and psychological plot threads. There could well be other reasons too.
What do you think about all this? Do you see this pattern? If you do, do you have a preference as to whether you know what the sleuth’s thinking is? If you’re a writer, how do you decide how much to tell the reader about the sleuth’s thoughts?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Always a Woman.