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Dark Passages: Dissecting the Detectives, Part 1

Fans of mystery series often think they know certain characters better than the authors who created them.

December 06, 2009|By Sarah Weinman

Carol O'Connell admits right away that her main character, Mallory, is a sociopath, and if her traits are too uncomfortable, the author gleans insight from comments by the most deranged: "In my view, madness is a place. You go. You come back. And I think we all take turns being the mental patient. Without a touch of crazy, literature can be a desolate place." And Lee Child, after cluing readers into the long gestation and nascent calculation required for hatching Jack Reacher, zeros in on the key psychological transaction between author and reader: " 'I'm the main character,' the main character announces. The reader asks: 'Am I going to like you?' "

Child's answer, on behalf of Reacher, is dead-on: " 'You might or might not, and either way is fine with me.' Because, as an author, I believe that kind of insouciant self-confidence builds a more enduring bond." It goes back to what McCall Smith said about the enduring popularity of Tom Ripley, the sociopath featured in five novels by Patricia Highsmith: "Perhaps we merely want his story to continue because we are enjoying it so much."

Ultimately, whether the reader or writer has the last word, "The Lineup" delineates the need for narrative investment to expand crime fiction's entertainment-based capital into something that will endure for posterity.

Next time: In Part 2, P.D. James talks about detective fiction in a short book originally commissioned by the Bodleian Library.

Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at Dark Passages appears monthly at

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