Sherlock Holmes was a virgin. Hercule Poirot was a prude. And, I don’t know Miss Marple all that well, but she was hardly Aphrodite. One thing is for sure: The great private detectives of the English whodunit weren’t doing it.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian-era superman, with his Freudian appetite for cocaine, did not otherwise abstain according to his epoch’s mores, but lust was as foreign to Holmes as frivolity. His acute powers of deduction left him cold and indifferent to the powers of seduction. “He” famously “never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer,” wrote his dutifully Boswellian Watson. “They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results.” This a-romantic remove set him apart, both from the corruptible creatures he studied as if through a microscope, and from the community of literary characters at large. Aside from perhaps Tom Jones, Holmes was our first and — along with Poirot’s contemporaries in the pages of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forester — our most significant asexual character in fiction.
It is a tricky thing, making of an abstemious protagonist a vivid personality. It is usually in the so-called base passions, the Tolstoyian temperaments, that a character reveals himself. So it is rather a unique accomplishment that Doyle’s and Agatha Christie’s famously rigid, um, dicks read as anything but robotic. (It is interesting to note that neither Christie nor Doyle was particularly celibate or anhedonic, as far as we can tell: She wrote out-and-out romance novels under a pen name, and they each married more than once and had children.)
But in a procedural, a hound with scent only for the case is of course a compelling plot engine. There are no softer passions to distract, no veil to be drawn on their motives. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s noir creations hardly ever sleep and, confusingly, never seem to take the money they work for. But Holmes and Poirot never even fall for the femme fatale, never get duped by the dame.
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