Detective Henry Palace, the hero of my three Last Policeman books, is definitely a geek. It’s actually one of the things I like best about him.
I hope it’s obvious that I don’t mean geek in the old-fashioned meaning, the insult that was pretty common when I was a kid, meaning something like “dweeb” or “spaz” or even “loser.” I mean geek in what I feel like has become its “salvaged” or “reclaimed” definition, a meaning that is wholly positive—someone who is happily and unapologetically obsessed with something(s), often but not always pop-cultural, to the point of knowing or trying to know tons of very small details about it.
(That’s my definition; I feel like my hosts here at the GeekyLibrary know better—how’d I do?)
Anyway, in any definition, my hero is a geek, big time. Detective Palace is a detection geek, just for starters! He’s got a police academy textbook (Farley & Leonard, Criminal Investigation) that he literally knows word for word, just as he does the New Hampshire criminal code and the United States Constitution.
He’s also a comic book geek; in The Last Policeman, on a first date with Naomi, we find out that his favorite book is The Watchmen, and later the same woman compares him to Batman, giving him basically the thrill of his life.
Palace is also a Bob Dylan geek, a geek category that maybe some people don’t recognize enough, but which is limned in delightful detail in David Kinney’s new book The Dylanologists.
He is always quoting Dylan lyrics in his head, and (as I reveal in World of Trouble) When he was in high school, Detective Palace kept a notebook where he listed all his fave Bob songs in order—his much hipper sister found it and laughed her head off. It will come as no surprise that Dylan obsession is one of the traits that my hero and I share, and I listened to the Master nonstop while writing these novels. (Oh, and if you come see me on my real human in-the-flesh book tour, you will see me play a ukulele medley of every Dylan song mentioned in the books).
By the way, If you like music geekery in mystery fiction, by the way, you gotta read George Pelecanos’ first novel, A Firing Offense, which among many other delightful qualities is basically a book-length homage to 1980s punk and alternative rock music.
But, look, it’s always been this way— mysteries have always been comfortable territory for geeks and obsessives and detail-nerds. Oh, sure, Sherlock Holmes can deduce, but he also cracks clues with his incredible (meaning ridiculous) knowledge of esoterica. In Scandal in Bohemia he identifies the origin of a mysterious letter, first by noting the initials woven into the paper’s texture, and then pulling down his Continental Gazetteer (he knows right where it is on the shelf) to identify the stamp as being from Egria, a city “remarkable as being the scene of the death of Wallenstein, and for its numerous glass-factories and paper mills.”
Holmes, as is his wont, crows gleefully to Watson (“Ha, ha, my boy, what do you make of that!”), while “his eyes sparkled, and he sent up a great blue triumphant cloud from his cigarette.”
I mean, what a geek! What a beautiful, beautiful geek!
There’s actually a pretty clear correlation, when you think about it, between on the one hand the hallmark of geekery—that obsession with small details, the almost physical need to totally understand this particular cultural object, be it a band or a book or a TV show—and on the other hand the imperative of good fiction writing, which is to illustrate a story with sufficient detail to allow the reader to access it. A real writer, like a real geek, is obsessed with details, with knowing every little tiny thing.
This is why I try not to get rankled when someone sends me a three-paragraph email, nitpicking over small factual or consistency errors in the books. Because that correspondent, that insane geek, is right.Details matter. Details are the bricks that build the world.