Top Ten Investigators with Dark Pasts

If you read or watch much crime drama, you know a dark past haunts many famous fictional detectives and FBI agents. What isn’t always apparent is that some of the writers behind these damaged characters have equally disturbing backstories. It’s questionable whether James Ellroy would have gone into crime-fiction writing if his mother hadn’t been raped and murdered when Ellroy was ten. From that point on, his mother’s unsolved crime permeated his life and his writing. Crime-fiction writer Ann Perry’s story is equally fascinating. Perry was convicted of murder as a teen (under her given name of Juliet Hulme). The movie Heavenly Creatures is based on that murder. I don’t have a murder in my past, but I’ve had a dark life, “raised” by a woman who wouldn’t be allowed to raise children today. In looking back, I’ve come to realize that people who grow up with an alcoholic or mentally ill caretaker often suffer from something similar to Stockholm syndrome.

Looking for refuge, I immediately stepped from that dark childhood into another kind of darkness, related in my memoir, The Orchard (Theresa Weir). In my latest crime thriller, The Body Reader, I drew on both dark pasts to shape the story and create the damaged female lead, Jude Fontaine. After three years of horrifying captivity, Jude escapes to discover that she’s a different person. She’s mentally crippled, almost autistic in her interactions with the world and the people in it.

Regardless of how characters come to be, there’s no denying that we love those flawed and damaged investigators. Here are some favorite broken heroes and heroines:

Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs)he Silence Of The Lambs

When she was ten, Clarice’s father was shot and died a month later. Her mother couldn’t support the entire family and sent Clarice to live with an uncle in Montana where she witnessed the slaughtering of lambs, a sight so traumatic she ran away. Because of her behavior she was sent to live in an orphanage where she spent the rest of her childhood.

Jessica Jones (Jessica Jones, Marvel, Netflix)

As a Marvel superheroine, her superior strength was used against her when she fell under the mind control of Zebediah Killgrave. Jessica was abused and forced to kill people, but eventually escaped. After that ordeal, she suffered crippling PTSD, but managed to open her own detective agency.

Fox Mulder (X-Files)

His sister was mysteriously abducted by aliens when she was eight. Twelve-year-old Mulder witnessed the abduction that began his search for his sister and the truth behind her disappearance. Mulder is a reluctant hero, an FBI agent with his own agenda, and I’m a sucker for reluctant heroes. We see this loveable type of detective everywhere, even in Robert Altman’s version of Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye.

Temperance Brennan (Bones)

Forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan’s parents disappeared when she was fifteen and Temperance ended up in foster care where she suffered from abuse. She was once locked in the trunk of a car for two days because she broke a plate. To add to her childhood trauma, a visit to an elderly neighbor resulted in the discovery of the woman’s dead body. Temperance is clinical in her dealings with others, and “almost has Asperger syndrome.” Watching her learn to interact with coworkers and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth is part of the charm of the series.

Bones isn’t alone in her dark past. Booth is dealing with his own demons. He was tortured during his days as an Army Ranger sniper and he struggles with guilt over the cold murders he committed. And then there’s his home life. His alcoholic father was abusive, and his mother abandoned the family, leaving Booth and his brother behind to be raised by their grandfather.

Dexter Morgan (Dexter)

One of the sickest of investigators is Dexter Morgan. He was orphaned at age three when he witnessed his mother’s violent murder. As an adult forensic technician, he lives a secret parallel life as a vigilante, mimicking the brutal and horrific cTop Ten Investigators with Dark Pastsrimes of the killers he stalks and murders.

Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

She was abused and violated in the worst way possible and, similar to Dexter Morgan, comes back from that darkness to expose men who abuse women. As an aside, after author Stieg Larsson’s death, friends said the teenage Larsson witnessed friends gang-raping an acquaintance of his named Lisbeth, but he did nothing to intervene and lived with the overwhelming guilt of his inaction. This is another example of how writers self-medicate through writing.

Robin Griffin (Top of the Lake)

A police inspector from Sydney is forced to return to the hometown where she was gang-raped at age fifteen. This TV drama about a twelve-year-old pregnant girl who goes missing was created and written by Jane Campion and stars the luminous Elizabeth Moss. Add a strange and enigmatic Holly Hunter to the magic mix and it’s every bit as good as you think it will be.

Lt. Olivia Benson (Law and Order, Special Victims Unit)

Olivia Benson is the product of rape. Her father committed suicide and her mother, an alcoholic, died during a fall. In addition, Olivia has been assaulted, stalked and kidnapped on several occasions. A champion for victims of sexual crimes, Olivia herself was nearly raped while undercover in a jail, which left her with PTSD.

Adrian Monk (Monk)

Adrian Monk is a former police detective with OCPD and numerous phobias. When his wife was murdered in a car bombing Monk suspected was meant for him, his disorder became such a hindrance that he was put on psychiatric leave from the San Francisco Police Department and didn’t step outside for over three years. With the help of his nurse, he was finally able to leave his house to work as a private detective and consultant for the homicide unit. As with Temperance Brennan, part of the show’s charm is seeing him interact with the world despite his handicap.

Sherlock Holmes (A Study in Scarlet, et al.) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes is arguably the most well-known detective in all of literature, but he paid a price for his genius. He was addicted to cocaine (and possibly morphine, although the latter drug is only mentioned once in Doyle’s original writing).  Holmes described cocaine as “transcendentally stimulating and clarifying to the mind” and used it to alleviate “the dull routine of existence.” And just in case drug addiction wasn’t enough of a crutch, in the modern BBC adaptation, Dr. John Watson mentions that Holmes might have Asperger’s syndrome as well.

Author bio:

Anne Frasier is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the crime thriller The Body Reader, published by Thomas & Mercer. She’s written over thirty books and numerous short stories that have spanned the genres of suspense, mystery, thriller, romantic suspense, paranormal, and memoir. Her thrillers have hit the USA Today list and have been featured in Mystery Guild, Literary Guild, and Book of the Month Club. Her dark memoir, The Orchard, was a 2011 O, The Oprah Magazine Fall Pick, One Book, One Community read, a B+ review in Entertainment Weekly, and a Librarians’ Best Books of 2011. Visit her website to sign up for book release announcements at