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February 21, 2010

In which Guest Bloggers, by Chance, Choose a Theme

HANK: Its just as much as surprise to me as it is coincidence to you. When I invited Kate Carlisle to come visit yesterday and Robin today, I was only wanting you to meet these two wonderful women. But somehow, they're thinking on a similar wavelength. Because Kate is Kate and Robin is Robin (part of their individual charm) the "theme" is portrayed in a different way.


Yesterday, if you remember, Kate's post was titled: It's all about the drinking. Today, Robin Burcell presents:


Robin Burcell .2008.small photo  THE CASE OF THE ALCOHOLIC LONER SLEUTH



Would somebody please tell me why an alcoholic and troubled loner sleuth is considered more interesting and relevant than an ordinary, likeable person trying to see that justice is done?”

Rhys Bowen asked this relevant question on her recent post at the Sisters in Crime blog.


At the time, I was going to post a pithy one-liner response, such as: because that loner has far more obstacles to overcome to even walk out his front door (like sobering up, so he doesn’t trip down the steps and break his friggin’ neck).  But besides the fact that my pithy one-liner fell a bit flat, I couldn’t shake this question.  Is the alcoholic loner sleuth more interesting and relevant?  Or are we reading too much into this mystery/thriller trope in hopes of explaining why thriller authors seem to be paid more, or why some of our favorite authors don’t make certain award shortlists?


My firm belief has always been that a good book is a good book is a good book, and that if an author pens a great novel, readers will find it, read it, and pass the word.


Books are subjective.  Reader’s tastes are subjective.  So what the hell is this about the alcoholic, troubled loner sleuth? 

Here’s my hypothesis. Say you have two characters.  On one side of the street, in a pert yellow house with Little yellow house a picket fence, you have Mrs. Applebaum, a sweet, white-haired woman who likes to garden, cook, and gossip about the rising crime rate, especially to her niece, who is engaged to the local beat cop.  On the other side of the street in a gray house with peeling paint, the dilapidation having set in ever since his wife left him ten years ago (just before she was murdered), you have Sam Devlin, cop-turned-PI, who hates life, loves alcohol, and blames himself for his ex-wife’s murder that he hasn’t yet solved.


We already like Mrs. Applebaum. Sam Devlin’s a different story altogether. It’s going to take a lot more for us to even want to get to know him, much less get close enough to smell the alcohol on his breath.  Sure, we know he has a haunted past, that he’d like nothing more than to solve his wife’s murder, and that more than likely, somewhere along the way, he is going to run into a case that links her murder to something he is working on.  But there is a certain amount of intrigue in this flawed character, perhaps because he guards his past, and now his present, so closely.  Our curiosity gets the better of us, and, like the temptation borne from thinking about what could possibly be contained in Pandora’s box, we want to take a peek, certain we can slam it closed in time.


Or is it more than simple curiosity? 


Perhaps it is a way to safely explore the dark underbelly of a world in which we live, coupled with the feeling of elation that we narrowly escaped death after taking that glimpse.  When Mrs. Applebaum digs up a dead body from her garden, it will have been neat and tidy and there will be no mention of the maggots partaking of fleshly parts, and she will solve the case with a nifty confession from the suspect moments before her niece’s fiancé arrives on scene to take the suspect into custody. 


 Sam Devlin, however, is bound to have a few car chases that lead to bullets flying and gory body parts being strewn about the story with abandon, all while he is beat to a pulp, barely escapes, only to be caught in the end, just before the bad guy tells Devlin how he tortured his wife when he killed her, and how he plans on torturing Devlin just before he kills him—only to have Devlin turn the tables at the last second, Burcell 2 killing the bad guy in a bloody battle and then walking off into the dark night, still a tortured soul.  Both novels talk of murder, but when we finish the latter story, we are very grateful that it is just that. A story.


It’s the difference between the PG Snow White ride and the PG 13 Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. We know and love both rides, but the lines are much longer at Indiana Jones.  The more tame ride, you can take young children to, because other than that brief glimpse when the wicked witch holds out the poisoned apple, the malevolent Burcell 3 nature is well hidden.  But with the other ride, the evil is there at every turn.  It is not hidden. It’s designed to scare you. On purpose.  It has bumps and wild turns, and snakes and the fear of possible death. And more importantly, the kids have to be so tall before they can even step onto that ride. 


There’s something to be said for putting an age (or height) limit on an attraction. All audiences can ride the former, not all can ride the latter. Both rides are fun, but it’s a perceived difference. It must be better, because you have to be more grown-up to ride it.


And maybe that’s what it is about those loner PIs and operatives in the bigger, darker books.  The perception is that you gotta be more grown up to read a thriller, but you can let your kids read a mystery.

Or not.  But that’s just my opinion.  What is yours?


Robin Burcell, an FBI-trained forensic artist, has worked as a police officer, detective and hostage negotiator. Burcell cover The Bone Chamber is her latest international thriller about an FBI forensic artist.  The book video trailer for The Bone Chamber can be seen here: www.robinburcell.com/


(Hi from Hank: Yes, I know this cover is big. I fought Mr. Typepad,  and Mr. Typepad won. I'm in New York today, and hope you're having a wonderful weekend!)


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Hmm. Interesting question. I read a lot, and across the spectrum of mystery, from cozies to forensics to procedurals. I'm not sure that I *prefer* the tortured souls over the regular guys, though. For example, Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series is just as you described above, the alcoholic (and recovering alcoholic) divorced ex-cop PI. I've read every single story, once. Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr series, about his funny burglar, I've read every single story, multiple times. Both series are very well written, both with Block's wonderful dialogue, but Bernie is the one I'll re-read.

Let’s view the “Drunken Loner” through the gender prism. I won’t presume to speak for all men, but this guy finds the “tortured souls” with an estranged wife and kids who won’t speak to him to be an annoying loser. My first question is always, why would anyone let this goon walk around on the streets with a loaded gun? If gun control laws can’t keep a firearm out of the hands of a violent, abusive clown with relationship issues then why bother? Unless he is on the way to redemption by making amends for past sins (Joe Morelli) and not just marking time with Jack Daniels and loose women (all of Morelli’s brothers and cousins), I have no time for him as the viewpoint protagonist.

I really don’t care what brought him to that point. Life is unfair. Boohoo. Man up and get over it.

Ah! But the ladies seem to go for the “bad boy” not only in fiction but in real life. What the feminine sees as dark and deep, the masculine sees as dangerous and stupid. The kind of guy the ladies can’t keep their eyes off when they’re wearing their “beer goggles” in a dark bar is the exact same person a normal man will cross the street to avoid.

If the world had a few less “Alcoholic Loners”, we would also need a lot fewer battered women’s shelters. If an author can make a few bucks showing “the gritty underbelly” of a world we would all prefer didn’t exist, that’s fine. If readers chose to be passive enablers by glorifying anti-social behavior and live vicariously in that world for a few hours, that’s fine too. Personally I get my fill from the evening news where guys who were, “quiet and kept to himself” are being lead away in handcuffs as the Coroner is wheeling out the body bags.

For me; I’ll pour Archie Goodwin a glass of milk as he gets ready to go dancing with Lily Rowan.

Ah, Rod, not all ladies go for the loner/loser dude. Some of us like the strong, silent type who will be there for us forever.

Like me and Jan.

I gotta go with Sam. I am much more immediately engaged by a character that I discover in the "emotional extremis" that Elizabeth George describes in her how-to book WRITE AWAY. Although I will enjoy reading about a cozy protagonist as long as she (and let's face it, she's nearly always a she unless she's a dog) lives in an interesting world.

But I will also say that if Sam's "drug of choice" is alcohol, I'm more likely not to buy the book. I think we've read enough about alcohol, and it's time to turn to other issues. Which, full disclosure, I've done with my new series, and so far the early cozy readers hate it. Hm.

Thanks for posing an interesting discussion question, Robin!

Great post. I read to meet the characters. Sam interests me more than his neighbor. He has issues. Who doesn't? I would read to see him work through some of them.

In all well-constructed mysteries, suspense, and thrillers, the reader's payoff is vicariously cheating death. Disneyland rides yield a similar payoff to participants. The grittier and darker the "ride," the more intense this death-cheating becomes. And when people seek entertainment, they definitely have preferences as to the level of intensity.

Obviously not all protagonists of non-cozy crime novels are alcoholic-loner types. So is creating that type of protagonist one way to signal up-front to readers that they can expect more intense cheating of death in the novel?

I'm a mystery fan who does not like thrillers. When I read for pleasure, I want to be entertained. I don't want to be anxious. I have enough of that in real life.

I don't like scary or unpleasant movies, either, for the same reason.

Have to say that as someone who grew up with alcoholism, I don't find it charming or interesting. I think they call that projecting.

Thanks for visiting TLC, Robin!

Interesting discussion so far! I'm running off to breakfast at the moment, but I have some points I just have to make when I get back!

Robin, Hank and Kate - so many of my favorite people here! Sorry I missed yesterday's discussion; I'm not making it to all my favorite blogs this month. I'm living at B&N's Month of Romantic Suspense instead. Next month I'll be back to see what I missed.

Robin, I'm so glad you posted this link. What a FANTASTIC blog! I do love the tortured hero, although I'm always nervous when the hero is a true alcoholic. My uncle hasn't had a drink in 20+ years but he tells me that once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic and he can never forget that.

Are mysteries for grown ups? I first read a mystery (a Weekly Reader Scholastic book) at age 8 and soon after that discovered Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and became hooked for life. The only mysteries around the house were my dad's John D. MacDonald's and I never got into them.

A friend lent me an Agatha Christie, Funerals Are Fatal, shortly after my 15th birthday and by the time I was out of high school I'd read everything she'd written up to then. I'd also added Doris Miles Disney, Charlotte Armstrong, Mary Stewart, Dorothy Eden, Helen MacInnes and Alistair McLain to my book list.

I don't remember ever having my reading censored by my parents. I'm the oldest of 5 - I doubt they even noticed what I was reading; they had their hands full.

I never censored my kids' reading, though. My daughter is a mystery lover and Harry Potter hooked my son -- I'd call those mysteries, too.

But you raise a good point about perception - maybe mysteries do "feel" like grown up books. I remember being thrilled to read books where a kid outwitted the grown-ups and solved the mystery. Maybe because, back in the day, it made me feel more grown-up, too? Not something I worry about anymore!

Many interesting comments so far. Like Kathy, I find real life anxiety-producing enough, so I am only occasionally in the right mood to read or watch thrillers.

I think I read mysteries more for the puzzle-solving than the vicarious death-cheating.

Agreed with Karen in Ohio - there are plenty of us women who prefer nice guys to the loner/loser, both in fiction and in real life.

Interesting contrasts, Robin. I'm inclined to fall for the loner, the emotionally damaged character with all the problems to overcome. Maybe it's because there's always a hope of saving him (usually a male, but not always), or maybe it's the thrill of (vicarious) danger.

Interesting characters are not always drunks, but they're always complicated. Crais' Joe Pike and Slaughter's Will Trent, to name two. Neither drinks, one is a vegetarian, but they have pasts that have molded them into characters definitely out of the mainstream. I'll take the house with the peeling paint every time to the white picket fence. It's the difference between knowing what you're going to get and getting what you don't know.

In fiction, what I am not attracted to is the "over-burdened" character. It seems like authors feel their characters need to have some kind of gimmick to make them interesting. "oh and let's add THAT problem and THAT situation, and not only THAT but also THIS, etc., etc." It is not only obvious to readers it is also boring because everybody does it.
To me, it is the situation of the crime solving that is interesting. Look at Law and Order -- it is telling the story without having to even know much about the personal lives of the cops and lawyers who've set about to bring justice (or as close as they can get it and move on to the next one).

"Which, full disclosure, I've done with my new series, and so far the early cozy readers hate it. Hm."

So you're addressing a new audience, Nancy. 'Oh, Pioneers!'

I suppose it's a question of realism. Remember that for a long time, being a boozer couldn't be discussed in American society.

The acceleration of the the alcoholic PI theme in mystery lit, especially the School Of Noir, looks to me to have been simultaneous with that of Alcoholics Anonymous and the notion of recovery. Redemption is an important theme all through the more realistic mystery lit of the 20th century.

A great many writers know this struggle. Speaking of projection, as Kathy did, it's not too big a stretch to think people write their own truths into their fictions.

John Rogers (of 'Blue Beetle' and 'LEVERAGE') says all character arcs in successful writing come down to "What do they want? Why can't they get it? Why do we care?"

Many many good points. Now that I'm back from breakfast...

First, I have never had a loner PI alcoholic sleuth as one of my protagonists. Or even an alcoholic cop sleuth. Just thought I should mention that.

Second, I used the alcoholic as sort of a catch all trope example (and because it was in Rhys's original quote). You may insert your own trope and I think it still holds true. I think what it is about is the damaged psyche. But I agree. It shouldn't be so overdone or it begins to tread in the cliched haven't-we-read-this-in-the-last-dozen-series territory.

Hello Robin! Welcome to our little corner of the world!
I have to confess...I LOVE the bad boys! I call them toxic men. I am drawn to them. Even at an early age (13) I was told not to associate with one of the boys in junior high school labeled a "Hood". Don't go to the Rustic Roller Rink in Hialeah because that's where the "Hoods" hang out. Their parents were of questionable reputation and their houses were the peeling paint variety and those boys (gasp) rode motorcycles.
Ever try to cover up a blister the size of a coconut on your calf? Or a plum size hickie? Turtle necks 'r' us.
Oh yes I can see how people want to escape to that rough and tumble existence instead of the apple pie cooling on the window sill life.
Still you never know what you'll find in the basement. Arsenic & old lace anyone? We don't have basements in Miami Springs unless they are indoor swimming pools. See? More mystery.
Plus I always thought I could change those toxic men's evil ways.
Like gay or Bi men. Yeah...right.

Cozies are great for putting your feet up when "the world is too much with us." Then there is nothing more soothing. However, I do like my heroes with a little texture, and an interesting back story. After all it often explains why they are doing what they do. I like your books, Robin, and I look forward to "The Bone Chamber." And your book, Nancy-we have to be open to change.

Everyone here who is surprised that Xena likes the bad boys, please raise their hands. Someone? Anyone?

Yeah, me neither.

I agree. Cozies are like comfort food and sometimes you gotta have that Calgon-take-me-away read. But there are times when you gotta have that heart-thumping dare-to-turn-the-page read.

But I am intrigued by the gender preferences in reading. For women is it the thought of taming the bad boy? Or saving the boy on the brink of no return?

For men what is it? Redemption? The thought that there but for the grace of God go I? (Or for women, there but for the grace of God goes my SO?)

I do like my protagonists with texture. A little bit of a haunted past at the least to make them think twice about what they're doing and why they're doing it. I just think it makes fora more interesting read.

Which is not to say that cozy characters can't be textured. They can. Their texture is simply different.

I think the thriller vs cozy discussion is an important one, but equating action hero with alcoholic loner is misleading. Of course, as an alcoholism treatment professional who writes mysteries about characters in recovery, I have my own take on it. I find characters who are drinking or temporarily dry and hating it pretty boring--in literature and in life. Well, okay, Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor isn't boring, but I'd like to give him a good shake and take him to an AA meeting, preferably one filled with cooler-than-thou guys with long term sobriety, which might cut through his resistance. Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder got interesting when he got sober, but 20 years later, he's still awfully dark. There's plenty of new ground to be covered with characters in recovery. BTW, an alcoholic who's been drinking heavily may not appear drunk (increased tolerance is a hallmark symptom of addiction), but his judgment and coordination are pickled so in real life he might not be effective enough as an action hero to turn the tables on the bad guys.

Intriguing discussion. Just saw "Crazy Heart" last night, and was drawn in from the opening scenes, not least because of the superb performance of Jeff Bridges, who just may deserve that Oscar!! Got me to thinking about my own history of a brilliant childhood musician friend who has turned out to be a troubled alcoholic adult still trying to get that second album out, 35 years later, and the deep love I have for a few Texan musicians who have had their own dance with the bottle. I'm not drawn to be CLOSE to them, or to endure the problems that come with alcohol or drugs--I think it is more that I love their potential and their gifts, and feel sad at their obstacles (self-made or otherwise), and root for them to recover the way we all root for loved ones to overcome illnesses.
SJ Rozan's Bill Smith is an example of a complex, deeply intriguing man who doesn't necessarily live in the bottle. Another commenter or two already mentioned the drawing power of having a character who is deeper and has more to discover than someone who is all 'what you see is what you get.' I agree.
I read some of the lighter 'cozies' occasionally as a distraction, but I have to say if you ask me to rate 1-5 a frothy indulgence (no TLC authors write 'froth', by the way!!) vs. a deeper, more complex story, or classic literature (Tolstoy), the froth gets a 2 or 3, the deeper or classic gets 5+.

Fictional characters are not my responsibility, and, so, I feel free to invite them into my life, knowing I can shut them right back out again when I choose. It's a great way to broaden horizons without living the chaos.

Good point, Bea. Surely that is part of why we enjoy fiction? The invitation is only temporary? If we don't like them, we don't have to ask them in again.

Welcome, Robin, and thanks for an intriguing blog.
I've encountered drunks in my personal and professional life. They are a turnoff. To me, drunks are boring. I dislike the self-pity and the self-indulgence. Reading about them is dull and romanticizing their alcoholism is a sure way to have me put the book down.
Now if sweet old Mrs. Applebaum is poisoning trusting souls with her Black Forest cake, then you have my attention.

I'm not much for substance abusing tortured heroes in novels (or movies), mostly because I know enough current and ex junkies and drunks to not be able to suspend my disbelief about them being able to pull off what they do. Ok, I'll make an exception for Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but only because he was funny.

Personally, I prefer my spies, detectives, cops and other heroes to be smart, tough and ready to kick ass...even if they end up getting their ass kicked a few times along the way. (I'm looking at you, Harry Dresden)

Oh, and just because it needs to be asked: Is vampirism/lycanthropy the new alcoholism in literature? Me, I prefer my vampire as repellent and evil undead and my werewolves as mindless killing machines. I'm just old school, I guess.

After years of reading the Romance Genre where most of the men were troubled or desperately trying to escape commitment I finally fell into the most refreshing pool of cool, clear literature. I am talking about Carl Hiassen's portrayal of ex-cop Mick Stranahan in "Skin Tight."
I was mesmerized by the dichotomy of his toughness and caring. Everything that he defended made sense to me and the fact that he had a history of falling for and marrying his female encounters somehow endeared him to me. I have not found a hero since that compares to Mick...sigh!

It seems a better hypothesis statement would have been: Can someone tell me why the scarred loner sleuth is more appealing. This might cover the gamut, because I don't think the majority of writers out there even write about the alcoholic sleuth (unless it is recovering.) (And clearly the majority of TLC readers don't care to read about this sleuth.)

I believe the scarred sleuth is popular, and still fits the statement for the reasons I have outlined.

Hi all..and haven't you been having a great discussion while I've been on the road!

(Hi Becke, Hi Suzanne, how wonderful to see you here. Liz! Congrats on your Agatha nom! Many smooches to all of you..)

Weighing in, if I may. I love thrillers. Love. Suspense, tension, the clever scheme, the BIG problem. A good thriller is unputdownable.

Having a drinking problem is--ah, maybe, like drugs or pain meds--a way to give a character an obstacle. It can be a cliche, but like all things, if it works, it works, you know? (Brilliant, I know, but I'm so tired!)

Which is why there are always exceptions. Which is what makes it interesting!

Fine. I'll just go take a nap.

Love having you here, Robin! Cna;t wait to read TBC!

Coming late to the discussion because of Rod's _Gathering Darkness_ (sooooo worth it!)
. . . and Rod, you are so correct here, "If the world had a few less “Alcoholic Loners”, we would also need a lot fewer battered women’s shelters." Words of wisdom to live by (though the comma placement still bothers me).
Mama used to say that no one should ever have a second chance to hit. Her advice was to leave . . . but we did have a relative who used a cast iron skillet to retrain her abusive alcoholic (not behavior I would recommend).
Also, conversation with a drunk is so unrewarding. . .

Rod, my best friend while teaching posted in her gifted classroom, "Deadlines amuse me." you could try it . . .
I loved this, too. Wonderful!!!
"An audible gasp went up when we all heard, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind".
For the next two hours all differences were put aside. We were all Americans and damn proud of it. "

One more (I'm baaaaack) -- someone explain how you are doing the photos . . . please?

Laraine, I love your poetic pub story. . . and Rod, what an adorable pal you have!!

I just came from seeing the Princess and the Frog. They six-year-old sitting next to me was enjoying her first movie at a theater, and we enjoyed each other's company! She shared her popcorn with me, I gave her a Frog and Friends CD . . .

The hero of one of my series, Sam Acquillo, started out as a lonely alcoholic, and now in the fourth book is a not-so-lonely semi-alcoholic. I didn't conceive of him to be a mystery archetype, but rather a guy who'd blown up his life and was hiding in a bottle, which the mystery solving helped pull him out of. I don't think alcoholics are more inherently interesting than the sober, quite the contrary in real life, but we all can relate to someone who is tormented and self-destructive in whatever way, including substance abuse. But I also don't see it as a zero sum game. To me, cozy protagonists are every bit as intriguing if they're well drawn. BTW I was on the "Alcohol in Mystery" panel at Bouchercon last year and caught a big raft of crap over noting that a disproportionate number of famous 20th American writers, including the top mystery writers, were alcoholics. This is a simple fact, but it engendered much passionate (frankly brainless) controversy. It was a lesson in the irrationality of closely held emotional issues.

Something to note: I would say that a good percentage of the domestic violence cases I responded to and made arrests for did not involve alcohol. The majority of bar fights, however, did.

After reading Ms. Bowen's blog about Noir Vs Cozy I came away with the conclusion that people seem to be drawn to the familiar when they chose their novels at airports or local box stores out of lack of awarness to vaious genres. Marketing of course plays a big part in these choices. If readers knew the joys of speaking with others for reading recommendations they might have a whole new world opened to them. Coming to TLC has introduced me to so many good authors. Loner sleuths have been mentioned..Robert B Parket's Jesse Stone is a prime example.
In the end readers can feed their comfort zone according to their own choices. Some people like spicy food choices..some prefer mild. Some are drawn to complex dishes or simple just as in the books they devour. Tastes make the world go 'round. Enjoy!

Storyteller Mary - You of all people should know I consider good grammar a sign of personal weakness.

Full Disclosure - Mary just did a copy edit of my next novel and only found 8,432 typos in 85,000 words. Which, sadly, is a major improvement over my norm.

For the picture just set up a Typepad account. My only complaint is if you get the picture, it links you to Typepad and not your homepage.

LOL on the major improvement.

Gee, it felt so much shorter . . . and I don't believe you really counted typos . . . ;-)
I may forego the little picture if it takes away the web link -- if you all want to see pictures (and more pictures), just go to storytellermary.com

. . . and we're counting departures from grammar as signs of creativity now . . .

Robin, this is a great blog! I posted a pithy comment, but as I was on the road -- in fact, on a bus -- it didn't seem to take.

Anyhow, welcome. And put me down for Mrs. Applebaum when I'm sick, homesick, lovesick, etc., but the peeling paint guy when I'm feeling chipper.

And I love alcoholics, but the really interesting, sexy ones are the sober ones.

Yah, I'm not sure the thesis is true. All the way back to Holmes (who seems rather cozy now), and I'm pretty sure farther back than *that*, it takes an alienated character to shed light on a culture or society or set of norms that troubles the writer. So characters like that are more interesting to readers *who are interested in that kind of thing,* which is not all or even, I would imagine, most readers.

Alcoholic is just an easy way of externalizing alienation -- but cozies do it too. Poirot, Nero Wolfe, even Sayer's characters are out of step with their surroundings, meaning that the writer is interestedin shining a light on the culture where s/he sets the stories. Rhy's Molly is wildly out of step with the NY she emigrated to, and out of step with the role society would assign her if she let them (which is why we love Rhys' characters!)...

Since alienation is kind of my thing, I don't know what non-alienated cozy characters bring to the page -- perhaps reassurance that order does exist after all, which is a feeling to be valued, not dismissed as less than.

Everyone here seems okay with the "alcoholic" tortured sleuth. Would acceptance be there for the stoner loner dude or the meth-head detective? How about the pill-popping PI or heroin junkie hero?

I have a problem with alcoholism being acceptable in protagonists. Time to take another look.

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