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Q&A

Why aren't detective stories written in the protagonist's POV?

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I've noticed that successful detective stories are, nearly always, not written in the point of view of the detective himself. The protagonist (i.e. the ingenious detective at the heart of the story) is usually referred to by his sidekick or one of his closest friends. Does it have anything to do with spoiling the suspense gradually building up? Or is it that revealing the detective's thoughts would give us a deeper insight into the mystery? Most probably, this makes for a better and a more tension-packed climax. Is this why we always get to know the fascinating details of the mystery at the very end?

Just why exactly aren't more detective stories written in the point of view of the protagonist?

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My suggestion is you should read more detective stories! There are plenty that are done from the viewpoint of the protagonist.

Probably the purest form of this is the private eye monologue, which is the signature style of noir (especially film noir), and almost always means the novel or film is from the viewpoint of the protagonist in the first person. Other answers have already pointed to a few examples from Raymond Chandler, who was a master of this style, and Dashiell Hammett.

There are many as well that don't have the monologue, but are done only showing the viewpoint of the protagonist. Polanski's Chinatown is a classic example: since there is no monologue, you only see what he sees, go where he goes, and know what he knows when he tells someone. This was a clever way of dealing avoiding issues with the monologue, but still keeping with the protagonist's viewpoint.

Contrary to what others have said, I personally think the viewpoint works very well and is an excellent way of building suspense: since the reader only knows what the character knows, it allows you to keep readers in the dark, follow red herrings, reveal things only once the detective becomes aware, and so on.

Especially with the monologue style, one of the reasons you don't see it much anymore is because it's an exceptionally difficult thing to pull off. It's also been done so much from the noir era, that you might find a lot of people avoid it because it's such a recognised trope. It's one of the reasons that The Naked Gun parodied it. (As a side note: the first Blade Runner film had a monologue over it, that was later removed in later versions.)

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One reason is to maintain suspense. A big part of the attraction of the detective genre is for the reader to try to work out for themselves what is happening with varying degrees of assistance from the writer.

If written from the perspective of the detective then the reader has access to all their observations, theories, intuitions and suspicions. Having a third party perspective allows the writer to control the flow of this information. Equally the detective is the readers window on the mystery and often the thought process of the detective is as much a mystery as the crime itself.

A clear example of this is the Sherlock Holmes stories where it is often hinted that Holmes has some pretty clear ideas of what it is going on from an early stage but by using Watson as the narrative perspective the pacing at which the real story unfolds can be controlled. Indeed this is directly mentioned in many of the stories. This certainly tends to be the case for the more cerebral style of detective.

As mentioned in another answer the 'noir' style where the protagonists tend to be more men of action caught up in events generally are written in 1st person. As an aside some of the Diskworld books based around the Sam Vimes character (especially Night Watch) provide an interesting dissection of this style.

There is also a recurring thing in Agatha Christie books where the detective is privy to some piece of obscure but highly pertinent piece of information and the 'clues' are more character based than factual, at least for the reader.

Conversely the author may want the reader to have information that the detective can't have especially in the 'thriller' style were the plot is driven by the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist eg Silence of the Lambs.

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Saw your name on Mathematics Meta, and this question as a top network post.

The Reacher novels by Lee Child are typically from Reacher's point of view. He may or may not narrate (first person), usually not.

What is interesting is that someone followed Child around for months while Make Me was written. The resulting book is Reacher Said Nothing by Andy Martin. Quite revealing on the types of decisions Child makes. Sometimes Martin invokes theories of literary criticism or philosophy that are unfamiliar to me. I just read through those, i did not look them up for more detail.

An amusing bit: in Make Me there are several occurrences of the sentence Reacher said nothing. There is also, at least, one occurrence of Reacher said, "Nothing."

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These are examples of mystery stories where things are told from the protagonist's point of view. See this link for more, I've cut pasted the pertinent information below.

1st person, narrator is the detective Philip Marlowe books by Raymond Chandler

The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

Dave Robicheaux novels by James Lee Burke

Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker

Eric Carter novels by Stephen Blackwood

Cal MacDonald novels by Steve Niles

Dresden Files by Jim Butcher Kinsey Millhone “Alphabet” books by Sue Grafton (though apparently late in the series multiple POVs are used)

Alex Cross novels by James Patterson

Easy Rawlins novels by Walter Mosley

Not Sherlock Holmes and others like, because we must be wowed by his prowess and that's harder to achieve when we are in his head.

This link explains why!

A few observations:

  1. The (very few) female detectives are mostly third person stories.

  2. The first-person narrator who is not the detective seems to have been a contained trend, in that Stout and Christie both copied Doyle (who copied Edgar Allan Poe).

  3. Seriously, where are the ladies?

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No one can know the writer's reasons but themselves, but I would point out a couple of things:

  • If the detective is the star of of the show, you want them in frame. When you see a scene from a character's POV, you see what they see, you don't see them.

  • The natural way in which you get to know someone is not from inside their head, but from the outside. The omniscient POV is the normal and natural POV of western literature because it allows the reader to see the character both from the outside and from the inside. Both the cinematic POV and the close POV close one of those windows. Thus the both tell you less, not more, about the character.

  • As you point out, any story which follows the trope of the big reveal depends on the detective knowing things that the reader does not know. That is hard to do if the detective is the POV character.

An interesting example of when the Detective is not only the POV character but the first person narrator are the Longmire mysteries. What is interesting in this case is that Longmire is a taciturn and unknowable man. Using him as narrator allows the author, Craig Johnson, to limit what the reader can see or know of Longmire. It also allows him to frame the secondary characters, and the Wyoming setting, which is very much a star of the books.

It is worth pointing out in this connection that the detective is not always the focus of a mystery. A mystery can also focus on the character of the criminal.

POV is a camera angle, and where you place the camera determines where the focus lies. But you don't place the camera on the thing you want to focus on, you place it opposite to it.

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