By Tami Winfrey Harris
I’m a sucker for a good mystery. It doesn’t matter whether the detective sports a deer stalker cap, a rumpled raincoat, a string of tasteful pearls, or my name (sistah detective Tamara Hayle. Check her out!); whether the action takes place in London, L.A., the English countryside, Maine, or Newark—give me a suspicious death, a handful of clues and red herrings, and an intrepid sleuth, and I’m in.
My long love affair with the mystery genre (love you, Quinn Martin!) has taught me many life lessons: for instance, no one—no matter how benign the questions—wants to give up information to the po-po; professors, waitresses, street toughs—all resolutely anti-snitching. I have learned to avoid both the University of Oxford (Inspector Lewis) and fictional Hudson University (Law & Order), as they are hot beds of murder and mayhem. I have also learned that my invisibility as an aging woman will make detective work a perfect career in my dotage. (Can’t wait for the little old lady detective parties, where Jessica Fletcher and Miss Marple explain how being unassuming lets one uncover all the dirt.) And I have learned that race and gender matter, even in the fictional detective world, thanks to a currently quite popular mystery genre type: The White Dude Super-Detective.
White Dude Super Detective (WDSD) isn’t a police officer, but he is so much smarter than the official (and legal) keepers of law and order, that authorities follow his lead. But unlike, say, Jessica Fletcher or Jane Marple, he is no picture of propriety. WDSD is given power over criminal investigations despite traits that usually result in marginalization: Drug addiction (Sherlock Holmes), mental illness (Monk*, Monk; Dr. Daniel Pierce, Perception; possibly Holmes again), a criminal history (Patrick Jane, The Mentalist); general immaturity (Richard Castle, Castle).
As unbelievable as WDSD characters are, they would become infinitely more so if their race or gender were changed. In The Mentalist, WDSD Patrick Jane once grifted clients as a fake psychic, but now works as a hard-to-control resource for the California Bureau of Investigations. What if the Jane character were a Latino ex-grifter? Would his arrogance and propensity for sneaking into suspect’s homes and accusing wealthy businessmen of impropriety read as quirky and charming? Would anyone believe that a police force would allow such behavior? Could the Scotland Yard of fantasy be down with a coke-addicted black Sherlock—no matter how clever? The San Francisco police department abides Adrian Monk’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, as the FBI allows Perception’s Dr. Daniel Pierce to assist on cases, despite his unmedicated schizophrenia and paranoia, which results in hallucinations. Could a black woman be cast in those roles to the same effect? I submit, that even in the fictional worlds of literature and television, race and gender matter. Belief can only be suspended so far. And this archetype is reliant on power that comes with white maleness in American society.
Arthur Conan Doyle may have created the granddaddy of all WDSD in the late 19th century, but modern-day Sherlocks are popping up all over, of late. See them almost 24/7 on the US cable channel, TNT, home of Perception, The Mentalist, and Castle. Indeed, it’s my habit of leaving the TV on this channel while surfing the ‘net at night that crystallized the archetype for me. It seems the WDSD archetype is having a heyday, and it’s worth asking why. Art is often the conduit for backlash against societal change. For instance, author Ariel Levy argues that the rise of “raunch culture,” including sexualized female images in television and film, is a response to feminist gains. Is the prevalence of white dude super detectives in American pop culture simply a continuation of the way race and gender have always been portrayed in art or a backlash against changing racial demographics and female success–an opportunity to elevate white maleness, which isn’t as universally and unquestionably elevated as it once was?
*Though Tony Shalhoub — who not only starred in Monk but became an executive producer — is a Lebanese-American, his character’s ethnicity was never explicitly addressed, making him written to embody “mainstream” white, male American culture.