The Problem With “Everyman”/ “Everywoman” Detectives – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Ordinary detectives article sketch

Although I’m sure that I’ve talked about this subject before, I thought that I’d talk briefly about one interesting issue with the detective genre.

A couple of days before writing this article, I was talking to someone about the “Taken” films. I’ve only seen the first one but, from the description of the second one, it seems to be a “an ordinary person investigates a crime” kind of film. This is one of the most common tropes in the detective genre and there are lots of good reasons why it’s still a major part of the genre.

For starters, making your detective an ordinary person means that you can add some extra suspense to your story since the main character doesn’t have the resources, authority or knowledge that an “official” detective might have. It also means that you can make your detective character a lot more unique too (since they aren’t a member of an official group). It also makes the audience feel happier by allowing them to fantasise about becoming detectives themselves.

In fact, virtually all of the detective characters that I’ve ever created have been “ordinary person” detectives. This is, in part, because they’re also easier to write (since you don’t have to do detailed research into police ranks, procedures etc…). In addition to this, these types of characters also go well with virtually any choice of setting.

However, when set in the modern day, these stories can be somewhat unrealistic. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out why..

These days, someone investigating a crime on their own would probably be considered a vigilante than a detective. I’m guessing that most police forces probably take a very dim view of vigilanteism, and with good reason. This is probably because an untrained person investigating a crime is likely to make mistakes and possibly break several laws in the process.

Even if the vigilante doesn’t break any laws whilst investigating, it’s possible that the evidence that they collect will either be considered unreliable or inadmissible by a court. That, of course, is assuming that they haven’t inadvertently altered or contaminated the evidence (eg: crime scenes etc…) that the police were already looking at by “investigating” it on their own.

Given the vast advances in communications and transport since the heyday of the “ordinary person” detective story in the late 19th century- mid 20th century, the chances that the criminal they are trying to catch will still be in the immediate vicinity of the detective is significantly lower than it may have been in the past. Likewise, thanks to advances in things like forensics, the evidence is probably a lot more complex than it used to be.

So, in modern settings, “ordinary person” detectives are usually wildly unrealistic. But, nonetheless, this is one of those things that most audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief about for the simple reason that it makes detective stories/ comics/ movies/ TV shows a lot more thrilling and unique.

Still, I’d argue that these types of detectives usually work best in the historical fiction/drama genre, the fantasy genre, the comedy genre and/or the science fiction genre. If a lot of other elements of your story or comic are unrealistic, then the audience is probably less likely to notice any “unrealistic” elements of the story – such as the fact that an ordinary person is investigating a crime.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂


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