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An enduring debate among writers, teachers and readers of crime fiction is how much character development should a detective undergo, not only within one novel but from one novel to the next?
Some are adamant that no character development is allowed. The detective is seen as a ‘catalyst hero’ who affects others but is unaffected by them or by their experiences, no matter how fraught. Traditional examples would be Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe and Miss Marple while more recent examples include Detective Colombo and Phryne Fisher.
The detective, while possessing a fine moral compass that leads them to fight evil, remains untouched by even the hardest of villains or the roughest of deals, and never changes from one story to the next.
Yet this is perhaps a false perception. Even Sherlock Holmes was moved and disturbed by Irene Adler. Philip Marlowe, the quintessential hard-boiled private eye, was deeply and negatively affected by the events in The Big Sleep (See http://www.shmoop.com/big-sleep/quest-plot.html).
I recently read an article in which the author claims that Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s best known character, becomes worn-down over time by the horrors he witnesses, the writer says of David Suchet, the epitome of Poirot on TV:
Suchet has subtly aged the investigator, with greying moustaches and increasing stiffness in the skippy little walk he gave the detective. More importantly, there is an increasing sense of the accumulated weight of the cases on him. Although the plots are generally preposterous, the actor provides a centre of gravity, never letting go of the fact that, from the war to his work, Poirot has had too much connection with death. (See http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2013/oct/23/david-suchet-poirot-tv-great-casting ).
While there are plenty of examples of unchanging detectives in modern times, there are also others who have a definite character arc involving change and personal development.
In Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series, Lynley is tortured by the murder of his wife Helen, to the point where he is incapable of working and takes off on a long walk by himself. His sidekick Barbra Havers undergoes character development when, after initially succumbing, she is refuses to be pressured into changing her image and dress code by her superior officer.
The underlying personality of these characters does not change but, like all of us, they have experiences which affect them and lead to personal growth and development.
Which is why I am tiring of Phryne Fisher and her faithful detective Jack Robinson – one more longing gaze and I’m switching off! Just get on with it.