About melancholy, dark and depressed detectives in crime fiction – Sherlock,Rebus, Wallander, Scarpetta, Shardlake

I love my dose of detective/crime thrillers more than anything else in the world right now. But as I put down my latest Scarpetta novel, I could not help but reflect on the huge preponderance of gloomy and melancholy detectives in the literary world. Is it an established condition or is it just a notion that is perceived by the highly emotional and sensitive race of literary writers?

Take Sherlock, the quintessential detective of all time. He has almost no social skills, is an addict and given to severe bouts of depression between his phases of extreme brilliance. What made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle cast a character with such intelligence but with such a dark and deeply disturbing side is a mystery in itself. Was it to balance a superhuman intellect and to make him appear more mortal or was it a commentary on true genius, who must be removed from the petty human emotions of love, jealousy  etc. that only tend to addle the mental facilities and consume precious time and energy. But for the presence of Dr. Watson, I think Sherlock’s life would have been singularly drab and grey. Although I loved the new movies on Sherlock, with the quirky, almost comedic, twist to the character given by Robert Downing Jr., I do think they loose a lot of the grimness of the original which was an essential part of the plot.

Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus comes next in my list of dark and depressed detectives simply because he is second best after Sherlock. He too is a loner and an alcoholic to boot. As I moved progressively along the novels, its was almost like watching a real human being disintegrate in front of your eyes as he gives in to his addictions. Rebus doesnot seem to have a ‘Watson’ in his life to make it lighter and bring some sanity into it. As he works a case he becomes so involved and so affected that it almost seems that he is about to fall off the edge. Somehow, he manages to totter back at the last possible moment every time. I had hoped for a bit of romance or maybe even a deeper comradeship between him and DS Siobhan Clarke but Rebus just won’t let anybody into his comfort zone. Nor would Siobhan for that matter.

Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander is another well of despair. As I probably mentioned in a  previous post about the Wallander novels, as you read Mankell’s works you begin to realize that they are written either by an older gentleman or an extremely idealistic young one. The amount of outrage that Wallander feels as he watches the crime in his city and country is something that is usually felt by an older generation trying to come to grips with the fast changing realities of the modern world. And the character is definitely the quintessential ‘older man’ in the entire story. He too struggles alone, with his insecurities and uncertainties in life, unable to connect to his grown daughter as much as he would like and being disparaged by his now almost senile father. I feel such sorrow for him when he returns to his flat and falls asleep over a bottle of wine.

I just don’t like Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta at all. Cromwell’s novels are a huge success and everyone is all praises for her but I have never been able to empathize with the lead heroine or her niece in the any of the books I have read. Again, there are echoes of the troubled and damaged quality of the other similarly melancholy detectives of crime fiction in Scarpetta, which only becomes more pronounced in deference to her sex. It is almost as if she wallows in the atmosphere of tragedy that she creates around herself, as does her darling niece.  Also, her tendency to string along the obviously ‘madly-in-love’, Pete Marino is just too self serving and selfish. If you don’t reciprocate someone’s love then it is only kind to maintain a distance from them instead of calling them up everytime there is a serial killer outside your door or you want to take a trip to Paris.

I love this illustration of Mathew Shardlake I found on the internet. Shardlake’s depression and melancholy is a direct result of his being a hunchback in an era where to make a joke of a man’s physical debilities was not considered an insult or an affront to his dignity. He is thankfully not an addict but is still so trapped in the catacombs of his own mind that he tends to perceive everything around him as an injury to his pride or person. He does have his moments of peace when he is painting or travelling on his horse Genesis but these are few and far between.


Almost, the only happy detectives would be Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple. Though when you think about it, Poirot is a single man with a severe obsessive compulsive disorder. However, his huge ego seems to keep him quite happy as he scrutinizes the failings of lesser mortals.

Miss Marple is also a spinster, only she has a very high moral standard that seems to serve as her rock and also she is extremely social with a knowledge ‘of village life’ which translates loosly into ‘gossip’ and is therefore an adequate time pass.


11 thoughts on “About melancholy, dark and depressed detectives in crime fiction – Sherlock,Rebus, Wallander, Scarpetta, Shardlake

  1. …. THANK YOU for posting this. These are old friends of mine for a very long time ago. I would only add to the list Inspector Morse of the Thames Valley Police Constabulatory. Well presented and paint-shopped.


  2. Just found your blog from a comment you left on 101books.net. Just started reading your reviews and enjoying your take.

    I love Sherlock Holmes, and I think his character was unusual at the time he was written. I totally agree with you about Scarpetta and her niece Lucy, they are very annoying and they are unnecessarily written so dark and depressing.


  3. I don’t know nearly as much as you do about these characters, but I have seen brilliance of mind often coupled with some form of inner torment or struggle. It seems that the mind is so overwhelmed by its gifts that other parts can easily remain weaker or even underdeveloped (such as emotional maturity, sensitivity, ability to resist the initial lure of addictions). For example, and this is a loose example, when my husband was training to become a physician, the endless hours of working (treating patients and performing surgeries) gave him virtually no time to nourish himself physically, emotionally, or spiritually (we are Christian). He became something of a different person for those years, and without my prayers and without that stage of life ending, I wonder what he would be like now. That level of intellectual intensity requires a certain singlemindedness.

    Needless to say, I enjoyed reading your thoughts! Keep writing!


    1. With a family of eccentric geniuses I know exactly what you are talking about… unfortunately for me I seem to have inherited only the eccentric part without the genius so I am a bit better socially.. 🙂 thank you for taking the time to visit my blog…


  4. Another character who fits into this mold is Detective Erlendur, the creation of the Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason. This series is brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

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