The Sons of Theseus – The Detective Hero ArchetypeThe Dark Herald
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.
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*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.