The Problem of Reason: When Being a Detective is a Mental Health Hazard

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad, but chess players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.”  

Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton

Ever since Friday’s post on Poe’s detective, I have been troubled by something I couldn’t quite identify. It was then that Chesterton’s quote about imagination and reason came back to me. Chesterton knew quite well the mind of a detective. He was himself a very brilliant man and such a prolific writer his works cannot ever be properly catalogued. He is also the creator of Father Brown, of The Father Brown Mysteries, a set of which sit on one of my many bookshelves. 

But why did I think of this quote in particular? That question took a good deal of thought. I had a vague idea as to whybut it was still only the germ of an idea. It was then that I remembered reading about Jeremy Brett, the actor who played Sherlock Holmes in the 1980w and early 1990s—over twenty years before Robert Downey Jr or Benedict Cumberbatch played the role and a good thirty years before Henry Cavil’s more recent depiction in Enola Holmes on Netflix. Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock is, in many ways, the definitive. But to read one article at least, you’d think the role eventually killed off the actor. 

The eccentricity with which Holmes is depicted varies from actor to actor and from production to production. By far, the sanest are Basil Rathbone and Henry Cavil. Downey Jr. depicts Holmes as a savant slob with some serious martial arts skills, Cumberbatch takes the character into a very believable 21st century depiction of a “high-functioning sociopath,” and Brett’s suave and genteel gentleman, in addition to being a genius, is a moody—almost manic depressive—drug addict. 

It was the last which stuck with me the most when re-reading Poe’s Dupin stories. Brett developed bipolar disorder very late in life—just a short decade before his 1995 death and two years after he started playing what would become one of his more recognizable roles and a role which it was said he embodied more completely than anyone ever had before. He himself often admitted the dangers in playing Holmes for extended lengths of time. The sharpness of mind involved in playing Holmes would be wearying on even the most capable of human minds, let alone the artistic mind of an actor. 

It was Brett’s depiction and the way he succumbed in real life to some of Holmes’ worse qualities which made me think of Dupin and connected it to Chesterton’s quote on reason causing lunacy. This begs the question of if detective work is largely based on logic and reason, then when does detective work become hazardous? 

Poe knew something of madness. He was morose himself and suffered from severe bouts of depression which were only made worse by his wife’s death, his continual poverty, and his own addictions which were used to keep him in some form of productivity.

Moreover it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical but because he was specially analytical.

Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton

All the reason and logic in the world, and all the reality in the world cannot possibly predict or prevent bad things from happening or bad people from behaving badly. 

Laws are made and broken because laws only work if the people who live under them abide by laws in the first place. Criminals generally don’t. 

Logic and reason can only go as far as the facts or evidence will allow. Reason and logic cannot prevent suffering and they certainly cannot, as Poirot would later say in many of his adventures, prevent murder.

Could reason and logic have prevented the murders in Rue Morgue? 

Well, reason and logic would say that the sailor ought not to have brought back such a ferocious beast in the first place. But it was a curiosity for him—a fascination—and an opportunity to make more money than a single voyage could have given him. To the sailor who brought back the murderous ape, his own actions were perfectly reasonable. He could make a profit off selling the ape—a larger profit than wages from a year or more of sailing could have given him. 

The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable.

Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton

To a criminal, reason and logic justify what they do—it’s twisted logic to be sure and twisted reason, but if you listen to any major villain of any major movie franchise and their explanations for why they commit atrocities, while offensive, are reasonable from a certain point of view. 

For that matter, look at any of the modern police dramas involving serial murders and almost to the person, each serial killer had a perfectly logical and reasonable explanation for their actions. They were in a business deal which went wrong, they felt they had no other choice, they were trying to protect someone else, they were teaching someone a lesson, etc. 

The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman.

Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton

While the great detectives like Dupin, Holmes, and Poirot show us the very things which make them great—their ability to reason—are a double-edged sword. Holmes and Poirot at least show us too how the detective can stay in health. 

Holmes and Poirot, unlike Dupin have an interest in their fellow human beings and they recognize the mystery in the world around them. Moreover, both freely admit when they have made mistakes in their reasoning. In other words, they admit their own humanity.

Holmes employs some of the street urchins of Baker Street, the “Baker Street regulars,” because, as he points out, they can go anywhere without being noted and are remarkably observant. He takes notice of the world around him and it fascinates him. He prefers mysteries with interesting people—even if the people themselves are humble and lowly. Yet, when he miscalculate in The Hound of the Baskervilles, he is the first to admit it.

Poirot has a knack for balancing the pursuit of justice with the pursuit of human happiness—in his very first mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he purposefully allows suspicion to fall on one particular person just so reconcilement could happen between this person and their spouse. Conveniently enough, of course, the real murderer could therefore think he’d been successful in his endeavors to cover up the crime. Yet, when Poirot himself makes a few false assumptions, he is usually the first to upbraid himself for his foolishness.

Ultimately, both Holmes and Poirot see beauty in the world in spite of the evil. Holmes sees dignity in the street urchins he employs. Poirot sees the faithfulness of the housemaid. Small trifles in the grand scheme of the world—but they are important parts of the world which offset the horrors of murder. 

The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie show that in an evil world where bad things happen to good people, the detective is the one who can bring light into the darkness. When it’s a man and not a ghost, or vampire, or ancient curse that’s caused suffering the in the world, it’s a man that’s needed to bring him to justice. Van Helsing will not do us any good here. Yet, they also serve to warn us the dangers of seeing everything solely through the lens of logical syllogisms, analysis, and cold reason.

Therein lies the warning: the modern and post-modern worlds delude into thinking that realism is the only thing that matters. It’s not. Mystery and imagination matter more. Without the mystery, there is nothing more to wonder at, nothing more to try to solve, and nothing more to express. 

The reason why the detective genre is, in part, so very popular still is because the human animal is so very unpredictable. We’ve tossed out the supernatural of the Gothic world as being “silly” and “superstitious”—unrealistic. What is left for mystery except crime? 

Unless, of course, you start going into fantasy and science fiction but that’s a genre for a different month.

For we who, like our predecessors, are in the business of creativity, the dangers inherent in the craft of the detective should be both a warning and a comfort. It should be a warning lest we too become so wrapped in our own heads we forget to be human and see the world. On that same token, it should be a comfort simply because the craft of the detective is what makes it possible for us to create worlds. 

So long as we are able to keep our heads.

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