Detectives: The Anti-Hero?

It strikes me somewhere after the 300th time I've read the synopsis for an upcoming detective novel, that almost every one of the blurbs starts off by describing our main protagonist as retiring or withdrawing from the line of duty.

Off they go to some remote, seaside or rural area to get away from it all, to relax, to leave the stress and horror of their jobs far behind. Or, they’ve often been forcibly and quietly retired from duty after unorthodox or unprofessional conduct.

Of course, they have but to arrive in said rural/briny region for a body to turn up or a person to go missing, and so begins the standard detective-killer runaround until all is revealed at the end and we pat ourselves on the back for having known who it was all along.

But why is it that we should be so keen to have our heroes be unwilling ones? We seem to be uncomfortable with the idea of a detective straightforwardly doing their job. When normally working, our detective is sanctioned by the institution to which they are attached – usually in some way an official representative of society engaged to solve crimes. Indeed, the detective might be said to fulfill a crucially ordering function, restoring truth to society’s narrative and eliminating its threatening elements.

Why, then, do we insist on them not wanting to fulfill this function? Rather to fall into it, unwillingly, if inevitably?

One of our earlier detectives in fiction was Dickens’ Mr. Bucket from Bleak House, and critics credit him with playing a reformist role that restores justice to English society in the way lawyers (like the dread Tulkinghorn) cannot. In this sense then, the detective emerges as a anti-hero figure who we trust in a position of power precisely because he does not seek it.

Of course, there must be many, notable exceptions to the phenomenon I am describing, and what’s more, this popular tendency to ‘anti’ our heroes before they become them could merely be the result of the exigencies of a better plot. Still, I know I prefer my politicians un-power-hungry (utopian as that may seem), why not my detectives too?

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Going To Stop

Last Monday was my driving test. I won’t pretend I wasn’t absolutely terrified of failing, because I have quite the history with not passing my driving tests, but I duly took myself down there with enough sleep and enough coffee balanced with fennel tea for calmness.

My wonderfully characterfull driving teacher took me round the test route a few times, telling me repeatedly to ‘slow down’ until I was going at about 15km per hour. As we reach a stop sign I begin to slow down but don’t quite come to a complete stop. In slight panic, he begins to exclaim with increasing volume, “go to stop…go to stop!’

I will not dwell on my confusion at the seeming oxymoron of going to stop, nor on the actual driving test and my panic as the examiner exited the car without a word, and I was left flapping in confusion as to my status like a fish on dry land (in Israel there are laws against telling you whether you passed or not immediately after the test after an instructor was shot by a dissatisfied customer).

No, instead, I will focus on the phrase ‘go to stop,’ which seems to me to be a typically Israeli expression. This country is a land steeped in contradiction and paradox, of which this sentence is only one example. In practical terms, on the road, I can see this principle at work when Israelis barrel ahead at top speed heading toward a red light where they will only have to decelerate massively (no judgment I do this too).

But perhaps more suggestively we go forward with the idea of a religious-nation state only to have to stop at the limits of trying to combine synagogue and state in the modern world. We fight like mad to have a Jewish state and then find ourselves caught up in defining exactly which kind of Jews we mean. It is, perhaps, a paradox to hold on to a religious identity at all in today’s world.

But I would like to think that (especially in today’s world where its difficult to legitimately stand up for something) it’s an admirable quality to retain one’s enthusiasm and forward motion. It’s no accident this country has been called ‘Start-Up Nation,’ and perhaps hurtling towards a red light can sometimes decrease road safety, but at least we make the effort to hurtle towards something at all.

Judging A Book By Its Cover

In the midst of updating favorite book covers on my website, I stumbled across a great site called bookcoverarchive.com. Browsing through their collection of incredible covers made me wish repeatedly that I’d read (at least some of) these books. Every cover was a perfect balance of visual pleasure, narrative cleverness and just enough of an edge of sophistication. Basically – almost exactly what I’d want in a book.

Here are a few of my favorites

And then my personal top pick – grabbing that spot for its cruel relevance and perfect irony…

The problem was, the more the magic of the covers worked on me and the more I longed to read these books, the more I worried about my judgement. Surely we all know not to judge a book by its cover?

Except that actually, it’s the only way we do. Marketing books and visiting book stores on a daily basis has, for the first time, put me on the front line of how books get bought, and unfortunately it’s not my fabulously written copy or my persuasive presence that sells a book – it’s the work of the graphic designer in the studio who may or may not have even read it.

This seems a little crazy, and feel free to disagree, but I can’t help feeling that in the age of Facebook profiles and digital cameras we can’t really be surprised that the first and last lines of defense are appearances.

[all covers are the copyright of their respective publishers]