Honest Detectives

One of the curious subjects that comes up in detective stories is the honesty of the detective. Specifically, that they’re often not honest. Their dishonesty is typically curtailed to what is in service of the investigation, of course, but this forms a very curious problem with the theory that the detective is a Christ figure who uses reason to undo the evil caused through the misuse of reason. Christ did not sin.

It should be noted that I’m taking the requirement for honesty for granted, and it is generally accepted that there are exceptions to the general rule of “let your yes mean yes, your no mean no, any more than this comes from the evil one”. The overview of the exceptions is that there are times and places where a man will misunderstand the truth but understand a lie such that he will end up being more correct about the world if he’s lied to than if he’s told the truth. In such a case the lie is to the benefit of the one being lied to, and acts somewhat like the lenses in a pair of corrective glasses—by falsifying the image to the eye in an exactly counter way to how the eye itself falsifies the image to the brain, the image presented to the brain is accurate to the real world. In like way, telling the gestapo agent that the Jew he is seeking is far away when he’s actually hiding in the cupboard is communicating to him the truth that there is no one he should kill nearby. And one can draw analogies here to detectives, but such a thing is a very slippery slope. It’s extraordinarily easy to convince oneself that helping one is in the other person’s best interests and thus mis-informing them to that end is justified. The ease of mis-using this principle should caution against its frequent use.

Probably the most extreme example I can think of is Poirot, who in the book Five Little Pigs was described as preferring to get the truth by a lie even if he could get it honestly. But even when not that extreme, it’s quite common for detectives to lie about why they’re present, why they’re asking their questions, what use the information they’re given will be put to, and so on. (The only two exceptions which come to mind are Cadfael and Scooby Doo.)

I’m not sure what to make of this trend. Some possible explanations are:

  1. An attempt at realism—people don’t give out information to just anyone who asks
  2. Making the detective’s life harder—as the protagonist, the detective must face obstacles
  3. Showing the detective off as clever—it takes greater art to lie convincingly than it does to tell simple truth
  4. Making the detective more special—the detective must be someone special and not merely an everyman; being a good actor is more special
  5. To create excitement—the detective might get caught!

I think that all of these can be described as taking the easy way out. They’re analogous—though not as bad—as making the story mysterious by having the detective not share clues with the reader (see commandment #8).

That said, I think that some detectives do this merely out of tradition—it has been done so often that some people take deception to be one of the integral skills of the detective, like how getting beaten up and not needing to go to the hospital is one of the skills of the hard boiled detective. (I didn’t put this on the list above because the in-story reason is one of the above; this is a meta-reason.)

I think that this is a very unfortunate tradition. I prefer detectives who are also heroes. They will have their faults, but I prefer when they don’t simply approve of doing what they know that they shouldn’t.

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