The Sons of Theseus – The Detective Hero Archetype

The Sons of Theseus – The Detective Hero Archetype

It’s ironic that Batman’s boyhood hero was Zorro.  

The Mark of Zorro was the movie that little Bruce Wayne had talked his parents into taking him to the night of their murder.  The irony is that Zorro is an Outlaw hero whereas Batman is every inch a Detective hero.

The Detective hero is an American invention.  During his time editing various magazines, Edgar Allan Poe would publish logic puzzles that were extremely popular with his readers.  This appears to have led Poe to the creation of a man who pursues and defeats mysteries through the use of logic and deductive reasoning. 

The first fictional detective was C. Augustus Dupin in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders of the Rue Morgue.  You’ve probably heard that old saw about how there are only twenty stories in the world?  There were only nineteen of them before Poe created Dupin.  He is without precedent in literature and was so groundbreaking as a character there literally wasn’t a word for what he was. “Detective” was not a word in the English (or indeed any) language in 1841.  

Arthur Conan Doyle was quite open about the fact that he based Sherlock Holmes on Dupin. He just expanded on the archetype that Poe invented.

So, what is the Detective hero archetype?  

The Detective hero is defined by his enforcement of the boundary between the realm of Law and the Realm of Chaos.  Chaos is the opponent of the Detective.  This archetype is also defined by his intellect, reason is his primary weapon against Chaos. When agents of Chaos enter the realm of Law, the Detective hero pursues them obsessively and relentlessly until he stops them.  There is a reason that Batman’s greatest enemy is the devoted servant of Chaos for its own sake.

However, the Detective hero is also the defective hero.  Unlike his opposite number the Outlaw (who is always a man of the people), the Detective is always cut off from the human race in some way or another. 

-Holmes is as emotionless as a robot.  

-Jessica Jones is so hard-boiled and dysfunctional she can’t maintain relationships.  

-Mike Hammer is fated to lose every woman he loves, so he refuses to love to the extent that he can. 

-Batman has almost no connections to the human race apart from Alfred and Robin. Unlike Superman who maintains his secret identity to protect his loved ones, Batman is so disconnected he doesn’t really have a family.  The man in Wayne Manor is just a front, the real man dwells in the cave beneath it.  

In many ways, the Detective is a hero for autistics. He is driven by his compulsions and obsessions. A mystery is like a pebble in a shoe to him.  He can’t ignore it, it’s not possible because an unsolved mystery is intolerable to him.

The Detective hero is always popular during times of societal upheaval.  Dupin was created in an America that was gearing up for a horrendous civil war.  Holmes was created in 1890s London when the English were questioning what it was to be English.  Batman was created in the Great Depression right before America entered a world war.  

The Detective hero is sought after in times of tumult because he is the champion of the Realm of Law. When agents of Chaos wreak havoc in the realm of Law, the Detective punishes that agent and thus restores the boundary between these two realms. He doesn’t change things back to the way they were, he just sorts out the mess and creates order. 

Ultimately the Detective hero may blather on about justice, but he doesn’t really give a damn about it, his first function and primary motivation is to provide resolution for a crime, not justice.

This post would not have been possible without the invaluable resource that is Professor Geek’s Podcast. The Dark Herald Recommends it with Enthusiasm.

*I admit that Theseus wasn’t my first choice.  Unfortunately, the cursed guy who solved the Riddle of Sphinx is named Oedipus.  The Sons of Oedipus has at best distracting connotations. 

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Comments (11)

  • John E Boyle Reply

    Time for me to reread some Poe.

    Good call on the name, though.

    December 15, 2021 at 11:25 pm
  • Talos Valcoran Reply

    Mm, yes “Sons of Oedipus” would be… problematic. What would be the dividing line between a street-level crimefighter like The Punisher or Daredevil and a “detective hero”? Motive? Means?

    December 15, 2021 at 11:47 pm
    • The Dark Herald Reply

      The Punisher is an Outlaw hero which is going to require a seperate post. But boiled down, the Outlaw hero is an agent of the realm of Chaos who cares far more about justice than he does law.
      Daredevil on the other hand is simply a less extreme version of the Detective hero. Matt Murdock being primarily defined by his intellect. He serves the realm of Law by trying to bring order to Hell’s Kitchen and (duh) being a lawyer. Ask yourself what is Murdock’s driving force, is it really to bring his arch enemies to justice? Or is it to make them submit to the law?

      December 16, 2021 at 12:26 am
  • Chief_Tuscaloosa Reply

    I appreciate your piece greatly, and agree with most of it. Batman was a childhood hero, and I agree with you that he’s alone (aside from Alfred). I don’t think Batman is alone by deliberate choice, though–he’s just a messed up guy who can’t move on from feeling helpless at stopping murder of his parents, has enough money to support his unquenchable need to administer comeuppance to the bad guys, and has to sleep during the day–who has time to squeeze a girlfriend into that short a day?

    Zorro may be an Outlaw hero, but he’s still fighting the injustice of Cabal even if operating outside the legal system.
    Likewise, Batman isn’t operating within the legal system either (even if a Detective hero versus Outlaw hero).
    I thought it was intentional by Bob Kane (or whoever the original author was) to have Batman start from an admiration of Zorro–some of the cops are dirty so you have to do it on your own. Interesting parallels to today’s headlines.

    December 16, 2021 at 12:23 am
  • Chris Lopes Reply

    Sounds like Doc Savage to a certain degree. He uses his intellect as well as his fists. He’s also a bit autistic in that his whole life has been about training to be this perfect machine that can solve mysteries and deal with almost invincible foes.

    December 16, 2021 at 3:30 am
  • Wazdaka Reply

    Nice new direction
    Would The Shadow be a detective hero?

    December 16, 2021 at 10:16 am
    • Chris Lopes Reply

      He uses his powers to look into things and fights the forces of chaos, so I would say yes.

      December 16, 2021 at 10:33 am
      • Anti-Rationalist Reply

        I’d say he’s the Outlaw Hero on account of the fact that he is a living embodiment of justice, using a mirror of his prey’s villainous actions in order to bring them to justice.

        December 26, 2021 at 11:31 am
  • Robert W Reply

    I didn’t know Poe created this type. Thank you for pointing that out.

    John C Wright is an absolute delight with this character type. City of Metachronopolis, All Men Dream of Earthwomen, and A Book of Feasts and Seasons are replete with short stories of the gumshoe handling the unimaginable chaos conjured in his fiction. What Wright pulls often pulls off is a violation of this archetype though. His man gets the girl and keeps her.

    Does that change the archetype to something else, like a Paladin (Son of Gwain) or just a redemption of the SoT motiff?

    Example: Batman doesn’t work if he keeps Ivy around as a housewife and becomes enamored with gardens. It’s a fundamental change to the character.

    December 16, 2021 at 11:57 am
  • Holmes Fan Reply

    Conan Doyle based Holmes on Dr Bell, a professor he had at Med School; Bell could, apparently, do some of the “tricks” that Holmes is always pulling on Watson, like breaking into Watson’s train of thought.

    In the stories, Holmes gets quite upset when compared to Dupin and Perot. It’s pretty funny since Conan Doyle clearly was writing in the genre Poe invented.

    December 17, 2021 at 1:12 am
  • Oh look. Squirrel onnastick. Reply

    Ah thanks. I feel good now. Clearly this is why I loved the cable series “Monk” so. The archetypal defective defective in vivo.

    January 1, 2022 at 9:11 pm

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