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Case Book: Ron Miller on MYSTERY!

Detectives You Wouldn't Want for Roommates
By Ron Miller


By now -- the third season of Touching Evil on Mystery! -- viewers surely realize that lead detective Dave Creegan (Robson Green) has some serious personal problems. In fact, some might suggest he needs psychiatric counseling.

Actually, he's already been there and done that -- and he's still not exactly what you might call a stable personality.

When we first met him in the fall of 1998, Creegan was only recently recovered from a gunshot wound to the head. As if that weren't enough, the life he resumed was pretty much in shambles. His wife left him for another man and took the kids. Lonely and severely stressed out, he went back to work as chief investigator for London's Organized and Serial Crime (OSC) unit, trying to catch some of the most sadistic killers on the face of the earth. As actor Green once observed, "The only thing keeping him from being completely unstable is saving lives...."

Three seasons later, things haven't exactly been looking up for Creegan. This year we find him trying to convince his superiors he's recovered from a near nervous breakdown. But his obsessive behavior and reckless style have made him so controversial that even his bosses don't fully trust him. In fact, one of his associates is keeping a file on him, charting his mental stability. Even his partner, Susan Taylor (Nicola Walker), is growing wary of Creegan's grip on reality. For instance, when Creegan tells her he thinks the killer they're hunting probably "hates everyone, including himself," she wryly observes, "It takes one to know one." Later, Taylor rudely tells Creegan, "Go home, go to bed, and at least pretend to be a normal person."

As manic as Creegan may appear, he's still a brilliant detective in spite of the nightmares and phobias. He may bust the wrong suspect now and then, but invariably gets things right before the final credits. He's still a hero, though surely not a traditional one.

Some might suspect Creegan's dark persona is just the quirkiness of writer Paul Abbott showing through. Abbott also dreamed up Fitz, the hard-drinking, overweight, philandering forensic psychologist of the Cracker mystery series. But neither Fitz nor Creegan are that off the track when you look at the long, twisted history of the mystery genre. In fact, they have roots that reach all the way back to the 19th century.

Edgar Allan Poe's sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin -- generally considered the first detective character in literature -- wasn't exactly a role model for the mentally stable. Poe described him as an impoverished young man, so psychologically shaken by the loss of his inherited wealth that "he ceased to bestir himself in the world," living like a hermit in a gloomy old house where no light was permitted to enter. It was his habit to go out only at night to indulge his "wild whims." In other words, Dupin sounds about as conventionally heroic as the creeps Creegan brings in for questioning in Touching Evil.

For that matter, the most famous detective in all literature, Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, clearly wasn't a man you'd want for a roommate. He was addicted to cocaine. He stayed up all hours pacing the floor or playing his violin, conducted foul-smelling chemical experiments and even fired off his gun in his rooms at 221b Baker St. Holmes never had a romantic partner nor any sort of sex life, which may account for his generally bad temperament.

Among Creegan's colleagues in the Mystery! family of detectives, a great many seem to be men and women sorely in need of counseling, if not medication. A prime example might be Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, whose persistent crankiness, intolerance of others' feelings, and self-destructive drinking habits make him a rather unpleasant man to be around. Though Dexter says he doesn't share Morse's "needlessly wanton, profligate lifestyle," he told this writer that novelists generally tend toward the autobiographical when creating their characters, and "it's the same for anybody who writes a work of fiction." That could explain why the morose Poe might create such a dark hero as Dupin and why the eccentric Doyle, an avid believer in spiritualism, made Sherlock Holmes so eccentric, too.

But a more credible reason why there are now so many dark, angst-ridden, and somewhat unsavory detectives in the mystery genre is probably the growing atmosphere of paranoia in the modern world and the desire of writers to make their characters fit into it.

Lynda La Plante's Jane Tennison, the troubled heroine of the Prime Suspect TV series, works in an urban environment that would unsettle anyone, dealing with serial killers, child molesters, and various brutal criminals while coping with sex discrimination, racism, homophobia, and most other contemporary social problems within her own office. La Plante insisted that her detective character be presented realistically, even if it meant Tennison might come off as an unpleasant woman at times, someone not all viewers would warm up to easily. "For the first time in my life, I dug in my heels," La Plante told this writer. Her instincts turned out to be right as Prime Suspect went on to become a worldwide hit and Jane Tennison a role model for future female detective characters.

Mystery writer Sue Grafton, whose private eye, Kinsey Milhone, has a personal life as fractured as Tennison's, believes the mythology of the mystery has been undergoing an overhaul ever since the emergence of America's "hard-boiled" detectives in the late 1920s. In The Crown Crime Companion, Grafton wrote, "We live in darker times where the nightmare has been made manifest," suggesting that today's detective character "represents a clarity and vigor, the immediacy of a justice no longer evident in the courts..."

Perhaps that's why we still root for Dave Creegan, even when he gets a little rough with that murder suspect who somehow has evaded conviction. It also may be why we're glad he's so obsessed with the pursuit of justice, even if he doesn't play by all the rules.

And it may explain why he fascinates us so much, even if he doesn't seem like somebody we'd want to hang out with between cases.

Ron Miller is the author of MYSTERY!: A Celebration, and a regular contributor to this web site.

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