Biography and Detective Fiction

By Nigel Hamilton


When I told my fellow writers in the Boston Biographers Group (BBG) that I’d stopped work on FDR and was reading detective novels, there was kind of gasp of incomprehension.

Detective fiction?”


“But why?” they asked

“I’ve got writer’s block.”

“And detective fiction solves writer’s block?”

I blushed. “It might.”

At the next meeting, held at the Lutheran Church near Harvard Square, I was asked if it had helped.

“Not yet,” I admitted. “But I’ve definitely improved the sales of Henning Mankell.”

The month after that, though, I was healed.

“No more writer’s block!” I announced with relief, as if I’d overcome planter fasciitis, or tennis elbow.

“Was it Mankell?” someone asked.

“It was!” I responded, full of gratitude. “I feel like writing to thank him.

“That’d be difficult,” someone else pointed out. “He just died.”

Mankell – creator of Detective Inspector Kurt Wallender, the overweight, flawed, workaholic policeman from Ystad, near Malmö, Sweden?

“Yep. Aged 67.”

Wow! I was shocked.

“No more Wallender tales,” someone said, elegiacally.

“Unless, like famous fictional heroes – Sherlock Holmes, James Bond – another writer resurrects him,” said someone else

People were looking at me.

“No, no, no!” I protested. “I’m 71 already!”

Too old to switch gears (all cars are automatic transmission here), let alone profession.

Not always, though, I had to admit. My friend Larry Leamer – a group biographer of the Kennedy women as well as men – had just written a one-woman biographical play about Rose, the Kennedy family matriarch, and was getting it produced on 42nd Street, New York… (More about that another time.)

To study the relationship between detective fiction and biography might be a neat project for someone, some day, however. The biographer is, after all, a real-life literary detective. He or she may not be charged with solving a crime, but the process of biography is remarkably similar, surely.

Think about it, I urged my colleagues. Assembling evidence, following a trail, interviewing witnesses, drawing up a verifiable chronology, examining forensic evidence, testing hypotheses, checking facts and records, approaching family members, deciding what will hold up in court and what won’t, dealing with the media… And the long hours! The workaholic, obsessive focus on the single investigation: on researching, eliciting, presenting the truth – or best-effort at truth – about a real human being’s actions. Meeting daily the challenge of innocence or guilt; daring to move beyond assumptions, false information, defenses, deceit, lies, posturing, even hostility on the part of those with a vested interest in preserving a well-varnished reputation…

Yes, the biographer may not wear a sidearm or holstered gun (unless from Texas!), but he or she can certainly empathize with fictional detectives. Both police detectives and private detectives.

We are, in our way, akin to private detectives, after all: employed to research and report on the behavior and character of selected individuals. One such detective I know in Boston has a further degree in psychology; she spends much of her time checking out the truthfulness of potential witnesses before trial – something I also do now almost by rote, as a biographer, after almost half a century of investigative work.

And Detective Inspector Wallender, the Swedish curmudgeon? What was so gratifying, so restorative for me in reading of his exploits in little Ystad, I was asked?

Escapism, yes – to the extent that all fiction is a mythic escape from reality into a world of make-believe, where truth doesn’t matter, and where entertainment – both high-brow (“literature”) and low-brow (“pulp fiction”) – is all. But Henning Mankell’s achievement was to me far more than the creation of a brilliantly fallible yet intuitively-inspired fictional detective, I insisted. It was Wallender’s dogged, methodical pursuit of the truth that was Mankell’s wonderful contribution to the genre, in my humble view as a blocked biographer searching for a magical elixir that would free my pen. There were very few set-piece dramatic scenes, or pyrotechnics; rather, I found myself happily following the ageing, stumbling detective as he began at zero, and so often returned to zero in terms of solving swiftly the puzzle or riddle of a murder. He was deplored by his superiors, given his contempt for the media and his refusal to rush to judgment, or hand over to others. He believed passionately in the process of detective work: that ultimately the truth, or something close to verifiable truth, will emerge, over time – and patient investigation.

I loved that conviction. I loved the simplicity of Ystad, the little town with its tough drink-driving laws and summer beaches. Reading Mankell’s tales of the Ystad detective I found myself re-centering my focus, my gaze, my concentration. Few thrills: just the patient, relentless process of investigation, in the pursuit of the truth about a human being – and a modicum of justice, even after death.

Bravo Mankell! And en avant with FDR…

Nigel Hamilton

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