How Reading A Detective Novel Could Change Your Life

The Detective As The Restoring Force

As school winds down and winter break quickly approaches, many of us have already begun to ask ourselves what we want to do with the two empty weeks that lay ahead of us. Unlike Thanksgiving Break, we won’t have the exhilarating and unpredictable games of the World Cup in Qatar to keep us entertained. If you find that you have a lot of time and nothing in particular to do, consider picking up a detective novel. They offer excitement and unpredictability that (almost) rivals World Cup games, and can be appreciated virtually anywhere and at any time.

One of the most famous fictional detectives of all time was the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes. When the first set of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes was released, the eccentric detective quickly enchanted his audience and rose to unanticipated prominence. The reason why the character of Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories is captivating is because his actions appeared to affect London in real time, causing audiences to truly believe that he was an active part of the city. He stood in sharp contrast to the rather passive flaneurs who were commonplace in the fiction of the time because his actions seemingly changed the dynamic of the city as a whole. In a sense, he also acted as the restoring force in the city because his actions allowed the city to return to its equilibrium position. He restored balance.

 This idea of the detective as the restoring force is a recurring one that is seen in all kinds of detective fiction. Consider the classic murder story. When a murder is committed, the community that it occurred in is displaced from its equilibrium position, as it is filled with newfound danger, fear, and anguish. By solving this murder, a detective can restore this community to its equilibrium position by eliminating the danger, and fear by extension, and providing closure to alleviate the effects of the anguish. 

This theory is also present in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” one of Doyle’s first and most famous short stories that features the great detective Sherlock Holmes. In this story, the equilibrium position of the city is one in which those of higher social classes have more power than their proletariat counterparts. By extension, they have the ability to choose what aspects of their lives should be displayed and what aspects should get buried. The narrative opens with the hereditary king of Bohemia approaching Sherlock and requesting his help with a rather sensitive matter. The king is betrothed to a Scandinavian princess and seeks to marry her, but is worried that her family will cancel the engagement should they find out about an old affair. His old flame, Irene Adler, a young American opera singer, has kept photos of the two of them together, and refused to relinquish them to the king. The king has attempted to bribe her, and even steal the photographs, but to no avail, and he is worried that she will make those photos public. 

This situation could be represented by an unbalanced scale that becomes more unbalanced every minute that Irene has the photos. Should she release the photos to the public, the higher social classes will yield some of their power to the proletariat, the heavier side of the scale will crash towards the floor, the lighter side will fly up into the air, and the city’s equilibrium position will be lost for good. Sherlock, having his own history with Irene, agrees to help the king, but his plan fails as well. However, despite his failure to retrieve the photos, Sherlock’s intervention convinces Irene to not release the photos. Sherlock has restored the situation, and the city by extension, its equilibrium position. Before his intervention, there was the looming threat that the scale would continue to become more and more unbalanced. Now, since Irene has promised not to release the photos, the threat is gone and the scale has righted itself back into a state of equilibrium. 

I have found that much of the detective fiction I’ve read, and even some other genres of fiction, contain this idea of an equilibrium position that’s been disrupted at the inception of the novel and must be restored.