The Crime Writers’ Association

The Detective’s Journey by Luke Deckard

Joseph Campbell’s seminal book The Hero With A Thousand Faces explores the uncanny similarities between the world’s myths and religions and what they mean in a real-world context. Campbell’s book is rich in psychology and insight into the human condition. While many are aware of the book, you’d be surprised how often writers and students tell me they’ve never heard of it! And if you ask me, no writer (of any genre) should be without a copy. I’ll tell you why!

At the core of Campbell’s book is the Hero’s Journey diagram. This is the pattern by which all myths seem to follow. In crime fiction, the detective is on his or her own journey, something I like to call The Detective’s Journey.

In classical myths, first, the hero is called to action, but their apprehension refuses the call to adventure. Think Luke Skywalker. However, an internal or external motivator will cause the hero to accept their call. On the quest, the hero experiences trials and tribulations, faces the dragon/goes into the belly of the whale, and returns (or not) enlightened and enriched (or ruined) by the journey.

The Detective’s Journey does the above. You’ll find these patterns in stories from Holmes to Marlowe and V. I. Warshawski to Sigrid Ødegård. Whether the writers do this subconsciously or not is another matter, but the patters are, indeed, there.

Across the sub-genres, the private, amateur, or professional detective when given a case is often apprehensive. This is because any job our hero gets needs to test them and push them beyond their comfort levels. The reason for apprehension may be the job looks too easy or boring or too tricky and or dangerous. Nevertheless, our detective heroes will experience some level of uncertainty before they accept a job.

Like the classical hero, the search for the Golden Fleece or the healing elixir, i.e. the truth, cannot be done without experiencing trials and tribulation. The detectives encounter monsters and elemental forces which aim to stop them. This is anything from being pulled off a case, stopped by bureaucratic red-tape, physical obstacles and or critical character deaths and the list goes on!

Not all myths have happy endings, neither do detective stories. The detective’s journey for the ‘fleece’ might destroy them mentally or physically. All detectives face the risk of being an Icarus. And the journey for the truth may not result in obtaining a healing elixir, even if justice is done. But like myths, crime fiction has a spectrum of endings from the darkest tragedies to the happiest of conclusions.

The Hero With A Thousand Faces explores this spectrum through myths and legends. Myths are designed to explore the human condition and psyche and crime fiction is a modern method to do the same, which is why the Hero’s Journey is the Detective’s Journey! And why I believe every writer should have a copy of Campbell’s book on their desk.

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