Why Are So Many Detectives Addicts? A Study in 10 Books

It’s an accepted fact—in fiction, anyway—that to be a brilliant detective, you must also be broken in some fundamental way. Perhaps that brokenness is why they’re able to see the clues the rest of us miss?

What’s curious about these flawed, brilliant minds though, is how often their struggles are expressed through substance abuse and addiction—and how those traits are treated by novelists has evolved over the years. The 10 books below feature detectives who are alternatively brilliant, messy, arrogant, and tough—but they’re linked by their addictions, and the way those vices inform, enhance, or blunt their powers.

Sherlock Holmes (The Complete Sherlock Holmes Volume I, by Arthur Conan Doyle)
Any discussion of addiction in detective fiction must start with Holmes, who was conceived of and written during a period of history when the dangers of narcotics such as cocaine and morphine weren’t fully understood (and the drugs were, to a great extent, legal to use). You can’t view the original Holmes stories through the lens of modern attitudes towards drugs. You can view them through a literary lens, and ask why Doyle thought it necessary to seed clues throughout the stories regarding Holmes’ probable addiction to cocaine. It can be argued the reason was simple enough: in Holmes, Doyle had created a superhuman character, and he needed to give him a fatal flaw. That set a pattern for fictional detectives that’s been repeated ever since—the idea that the people who can spot tiny clues and piece together complex crimes need to numb their racing thoughts, to escape their fevered brains and tortured existence.

Nero Wolfe (Fer-de-Lance, by Rex Stout)
Wolfe, a character born in the 1930s, also demonstrates this idea—Wolfe is not simply a legendary gourmet and gourmand, a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of wine, prone to burning cook books that deviate from his own strong beliefs on cookery—he’s also clearly a man who compensates for his shut-in existence and overpowered intellect with food, and lots of it. In earlier books, Wolfe’s mental stress was more overt, as he was described as frequently falling into periods of inactivity during which he rarely left his bed; his obsession with food and drink would today be viewed as clearly compensatory. In the early 20th century, however, it still serves mainly to humanize a character who would otherwise be a crime-solving machine.

Jack Vincennes (L.A. Confidential, by James Ellroy)
Whereas much of the detective fiction of the mid-20th century treated alcoholism and drug addiction as a problem of morals or character—and often depicted detectives who seemed fueled by booze instead of ruined by it—Ellroy’s throwback noir classic was subversive in how it depicted Jack Vincennes’ life and career spinning out of control after he dried up and straightened out, almost as if Ellroy was subtly reinforcing the idea that messed-up people who needed chemicals just to get through the day made the most effective detectives.

Matthew Scudder (The Sins of the Fathers, by Lawrence Block)
By the mid-1970s, the idea that alcoholism was not a necessary professional hazard for a detective, coupled with a growing acceptance that recovering from alcoholism didn’t mean you were weak, was gaining traction. Matthew Scudder is a full-blown alcoholic in his debut novel, published in 1976, but his addiction isn’t depicted as part of his coping mechanism for a brilliant mind, or as being helpful to his investigative process. In fact, it inhibits him, and is evidence of a damaged man trying to find his way out of misery. By the early 1980s, Scudder showed up at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and has clung to his sobriety ever since, becoming a leading example of a detective who solves crimes and defeats the bad guys in spite of his crippling addiction, not because of it.

Harry Hole (The Bat, by Jo Nesbø)
Another example of the changing role of addiction in detective fiction, Harry Hole is a brilliant detective—when he’s sober. His alcoholism waxes and wanes, and his superiors often shield him from consequences because of his abilities. But there’s little doubt that his drinking problem is just that—a problem. Harry doesn’t solve mysteries due to hallucinatory binges, and he doesn’t quiet a spinning brain with booze. In fact, his drinking isolates him and prevents him from making meaningful connections with others, and often slows down his work.

Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (Filth, by Irvine Welsh)
Neither a mystery or a noir, this book is 110 percent Irvine Welsh, telling the story of a policeman who is superficially investigating a crime while really indulging in a ballet of awful behavior. He’s a drug addict, a sex addict, an alcoholic, and a misanthrope who spends most of his time abusing his authority and pulling mean-spirited pranks on his fellow officers. By this point in detective fiction, addiction had come full circle: instead of the indulgence of an overstressed genius, it’s depicted as not just a weakness, but a disease in every sense of the word—or at the very least, a symptom of one. There is, in fact, a solution to the mystery in this book, but it’s really the pity and resignation that Robertson’s colleagues view him with that’s most significant—as is the fact that Robertson’s addictions actually prevent him from seeing what is painfully clear to just about everyone else, including the reader.

Hayden Glass (Boulevard, by Stephen Jay Schwartz)
Hayden Glass is a great detective, and also a sex addict, demonstrating how the growing understanding of the psychology of addiction and the possible vectors it can follow is invading the formerly walled garden of detective fiction, populated for so long by boozy cops and smart-mouthed underworld figures. Glass is in a 12-step program as the first novel opens, aware of his problems and working through them, but his addiction is as much an asset, as detective fiction begins a slow full-circle move, now imagining that the fatal flaws of its detectives might give them insight into the criminals they hunt. Glass tackles a series of crimes that only a sex addict could understand, and his work getting control over his impulses is just as important as his problems.

Claire DeWitt (Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran)
Addiction is increasingly understood as a common problem, not something only degenerates or people enduring trauma get caught up in. It therefore is treated less as a unique character trait somehow mysteriously fueling genius, and more as an everyday risk. Claire DeWitt is a detective not because she’s brilliant, or even all that motivated by justice. She’s curious and restless, and also a raging drug addict. Her adventures in her first novel slowly become entwined with her downward spiral into serious cocaine abuse, an attempt to numb something that has nothing to do with her detective work. The reason for her abuse is presented as something anyone aware of how terrible the world can be might fall into. At this point, addiction is less an aspect of the detective character as it is an aspect of society in general.

Mark Mallen (Untold Damage, by Robert K. Lewis)
Another example of addiction not only being presented as a problem, but a common and unexceptional one at that, is Mark Mallen, a junkie cop falling apart fast. The first book opens with him waking up with his latest needle still in his arm—and about to get caught up in a case in a personal way. What’s remarkable about Mallen is that his progress towards the solution to the mystery is paralleled with his recovery; after a friendly superior offers to let him get off the junk “the jailhouse way,” Mallen takes his first steps on the road to getting clean and becomes a stronger, more effective detective with each step.

Pete Fernandez (Blackout, by Alex Segura)
Segura’s excellent detective series starring Pete Fernandez is both an homage to the hard-drinking detective of the past, and a superb modern update to the trope. Segura has his cake and eats it too; Fernandez starts off the series as a mess, lost in a bottle, his life falling apart around him, staggering into solving mysteries by hazy accident. Over time, Pete’s struggle towards sobriety is mirrored by his growing talent for, and professional approach to, being a private investigator, allowing him to be both the boozy clue hound of the past and a modern-day detective who definitely does his best work when sober.

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