commissaire inspector dottore

academic and personal thoughts on detective-inspector novels

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No, not immunity to disease, and not immunity from prosection either. I am thinking here of "immunity" in the sense used by Tzetan Todorov in "The Typology of Detective Fiction":

A rule of the genre postulates the detective's immunity. We cannot imagine Hercule Poirot or Philo Vance threatened by some danger, attacked, wounded, even killed. (44-45)
Todorov is speaking here, of course, of the "Golden Age" whodunit, where the investigators "do not act, they learn" (44). The traditional consulting detective is entirely impersonal, their role in the story limited to a game of wits with the criminal – who is likely, in the final revelation scene, to doff his cap and say something like "well done, old chap." The criminal bears the detective no malice; to take action against the detective him- or herself would be pointless, since the detective has no personal interest in the case, and functions for the most part as a logical calculator.

By contrast, in the genres that Todorov calls "thriller" and "suspense," private eyes like Spade, Marlowe, and Archer get regularly beaten up, drugged, kidnapped, left for dead. They develop strong attachments to characters they encounter during investigations; things get personal from both sides. Fortunately, the private eye rarely has a family for the bad guys to threaten. But when they do have some semblance of a domestic life – Thomas Black in Earl Emerson's novels has his housemate and sidekick Kathy Birchfield, for instance – the best way to get at the PI is to get at his nearest and dearest, and such characters are under continual threat.

Of course, exceptions present themselves at the very start of the whodunit genre – it seems that the detective novel must have the strongest generic rules only so that it can constantly break them. In "The Purloined Letter," Dupin, who has been a mere reasoning device for almost three Poe stories, suddenly reveals of the story's villain that "D___ at Vienna once, did me an evil turn, which I told him, quite good-humoredly, that I should remember." He does D___ an evil turn in reply, one that puts Dupin's disinterestedness into retrospective question. Sherlock Holmes has Irene Adler and Moriarty (characters who loom much larger in adaptations and fan fiction than in Conan Doyle). Jessica Fletcher has her impossible array of cousins and nephews.

And the police procedural, in particular, walks a very tense boundary between involvement and immunity. This boundary becomes most electrified in detective-inspector series novels.

The professional status of police investigators would seem to buy them immunity. A cop is just doing his job; there's no reason for a murderer to take a cop's attentions any more personally than he'd take Miss Marple's. Still less should a professional criminal be likely to contemplate revenge against a police detective. (In fiction, at least.) Cops and robbers are rival fraternities, of sorts. Fictional cops often have their informers, even their pals, of a sort, among the professionals of the demimonde. Respect between the two sides springs up, much as between sports rivals.

The fictional police detective can be further immunized by his or her status as an agent of a large, permanent institution. Harm or kill one cop, and not only will another one take his place, but many cops will be especially angry at you. There is no percentage in fighting a war of attrition against the State.

Such professional immunity is on display in several archetypal detective-inspector series. Maigret has to pull his revolver on occasion, but rarely has to deal with any antagonist who is out to get him personally. I don't remember Mme. Maigret ever getting kidnapped. Montalbano deals continually with the mafia, who could have him killed any day of the week, without compunction – yet they seem relatively forbearing in their dealings with the commissario, largely it seems on the theory mentioned above, that there would just be another commissario to take his place.

Yet many, many procedurals feature detectives scarcely more detached from their opponents than Marlowe or Archer. The non-immune police investigator features very early in the development of the procedural. Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series kicks off with Cop Hater, about a serial killer who targets policemen. Later in the series, Frank Carella, the continuing character we're most interested in, is attacked and kidnapped, his wife menaced – the violence directed against Carella is continual and extreme, and if I were him I'd have quit the force after the first incident, but he always comes back for more.

Threats against family are a staple of the detective-inspector genre. Fabian Risk's son is kidnapped and tortured in Offer utan ansikte. Teodor Szacki's daughter is subjected to similar treatment in Gniew. A key turning point in the first season of the Danish/Swedish procedural series Bron/Broen (The Bridge) comes when the detective Saga Norén calls her partner Martin Rohde late at night and asks "Maybe he [the serial killer they're chasing] needs you?" You personally, she means, not you as the functional representative of the police in general.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Purloined Letter." (1844)

Todorov, Tzvetan. "The Typology of Detective Fiction." Translated by Richard Howard. In The Poetics of Prose (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977). 42-52.

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