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Fictional Detectives, Real Hobbies: Appreciating the Leisure Activities of Fiction’s Greatest Sleuths


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In rounding out the detective T. R. Softly in my first mystery novel, Everything Is Jake, I followed convention and endowed him with a hobby. That he has an after-hours pursuit is unremarkable; many well-known fictional detectives do, though Softly’s is unique, I believe, to crime fiction: he is a devotee of letterpress printing and lives with a six-ton Heidelberg SBG cylinder press in his Georgetown basement. His singular passion, which he developed during his college years, does not play a large role in the story that introduces him. But Softly’s a newbie, as am I, and I’m hoping the hobby will contribute in future outings not merely to his character but also to the plot. That distinction, I feel, points to a missed opportunity in many of the tales that keep us reading.

Examples of fictional detectives’ leisure-time activities are familiar: Sherlock Holmes played violin in his rooms at his Baker Street flat in London, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe raised orchids in his west side townhouse in New York City. A now obscure but wildly popular mid-20th century detective, Shell Scott, the creation of Richard S. Prather, raised tropical fish. Several investigators are sporadic chefs, cooking mostly for themselves or family: Robert Parker’s Spenser, Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, even the pseudonymous Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew. Others are foodies: their authors relished providing recurring repasts of various sorts for their leading characters, among them Nero Wolfe, Donna Leon’s Inspector Montalbano, and Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret. Many others are partial to music, sometimes faintly described: Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is a jazz afficionado, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse was an opera buff, James Patterson’s Alex Cross plays the piano, as did Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey. Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple knitted, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone runs (when she’s not too tired), P.D. James’s Adam Dalgleish wrote poetry, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe played chess (mostly against himself).

Pursuits of these sorts, and many others that pepper the detective canon, are incidental to the stories even as they add spice to the characters. Not every interest, skill, idiosyncracy, inclination, or even a habit, an enjoyment, or a passion is necessarily a hobby. Most, indeed, are not, and we would not turn away if we had fewer recipes or descriptions of songs, though the detectives, inspectors, medical examiners, and other investigators are generally more endearing for their solo diversions and quirks.

Would it matter to the story if their interests matured into full-scale hobbies of the sort that more commonly define the term, activities such as collecting, performing, building, and similar sustained projects that require amassing knowledge about the art or craft to hone the skill? I think so, if properly understood and deployed. Lord Peter Wimsey, for example, collected incunabula—printed books and pamphlets from the dawn of printing in the 1450s to 1500. This hobby established him as an expert with a discerning eye and a taste for writing learned monographs on aspects of collecting and typography. It’s a hobby, to be sure, and it echoed his creator’s own scholarly pursuits and attainments. However, his historical interests did not, as far as I am aware, contribute to his prowess or help solve a case, though of course a detective needs a sharp intellect, and Wimsey’s learning is a sign of a honed mind. But detectives’ leisure-time activities are often wrongly characterized and serve only a faint purpose.

Arthur Conan Doyle, misdescribes, I think, Holmes’s central skills as hobbies. In “The Gloria Scott” (Holmes’s first case), the detective refers to his early “habits of observation and inference” as “the merest hobby.” I think he is having us on here; by “merest hobby” Holmes, to use a modern idiom, is really humblebragging: “Oh, it’s a mere thing I learned to do.” Holmes concedes it’s only because he developed such skills as a schoolboy that he came to realize their centrality to his future profession. His burgeoning capacity to closely observe was less a hobby than a growing power to define and engage in his life’s project. By contrast, Spenser’s cooking may enrich his character and endear him more to the reader, but it does nothing for his professional acumen.

Let me offer an example of an incidental pursuit in the life of an investigator that works not merely at the character level but more deeply in the stories’ themes. Perhaps I am taking liberties here, since my example is of a television investigator, not a book detective: Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (aha! you say) of the Navy Criminal Investigative Service, the principal character in CBS’s “NCIS,” now starting its nineteenth season and still one of the top-rated network dramas. Gibbs (played by Mark Harmon) is boss of a group of sprightly characters who constitute a unit of the headquarters branch of NCIS in Washington. He and his team are charged with investigating crimes involving the Navy and Marine Corps, both forensically and in the field.

Outwardly and superficially, NCIS is a show about preventing mayhem and tracking down criminals—usually those who rob and kill or threaten, but often more specifically in the context of military crimes that jeopardize national and even international security. Inwardly, and more deeply and throughout most episodes and across the seasons, it’s a program about sorrow and loss as the human condition, and it reflects on the ambiguities of patriotism, the uncertain duties of those who take oaths, the difficulties of doing right when the law says otherwise, and the possibility of hope, renewal, and meaning in a vastly uncertain world. Gibbs himself, we come to understand, is a battered man, his first wife and only child murdered, thereafter thrice married and quickly divorced, all before the series began. His gifted team are beset by eccentricities that while outwardly humorous are actually buffers for their own disappointments and sorrows. His teammates have been consistently beleaguered by trauma and death:  season in and season out, NCIS directors, secretaries of the Navy, special agents, and other significant characters are killed or otherwise suffer untimely deaths or major deprivations. The response is persistence, patience, intelligence, self-reliance, and hope.

And refuge. The recurring shelter is Gibbs’s home basement, which he has turned into a woodshop in which the most striking activity is boat building (and, more than occasionally, bourbon drinking). In many episodes, we encounter Gibbs late in the evening in his messy cellar, accessible only down a flight of bare wooden stairs, where he is depicted standing over a half-built boat, inspecting the blueprints, measuring, attaching the keel, taking a chisel to some aspect of the gunwale, or planing and sanding the lower hull. The camera never lingers long, but viewers are assured of his acumen and tenacity. He does not undertake his carpentry casually; this is a man obsessed by a need to create, craft, and continue. The link between his steadiness in construction and the step-by-step pursuit of a case is manifest. But the basement is not simply a workshop: it is also a base, a gathering place, a solace. His crew and others visit him there to talk through their troubles and even occasionally to trick or trace a villain. We come to expect a trip to the basement, so it is a touchpoint for the stories themselves, a repetitive element, the action cooling down or heating up as needed. Gibbs occasionally unbends, lets loose the demons, offers resolve and conviction to those who come seeking succor. And every once in a while—and we wait for it—someone remarks on the ultimate mystery of this most resolute of diversions: how does he manage to get his finished boat out of the subterranean interior? The enigmatic smile has so far never revealed the secret. That’s okay: we look forward to the joke. This is a full-throated hobby in service of the character, the plot, and the overarching theme.

My detective, T. R. Softly, is competent in letterpress printing. A printer who touches metal requires a firm back, a steady hand, and a disposition to put all but the task at hand out of mind. Whether his performance elucidates the mystery is for the reader to say, but it seems clear, as I now reflect on the connection between the act of ratiocination and its physical expression, that in Softly’s future adventures, printing as an art and a physical discipline cannot be just a thing he does, but rather a robust hobby that informs the solution to the mysteries he is charged with uncovering. That’s a tall order for both Softly and me.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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