Off the Page: Creating Detective Duckworth
When I was a kid, I was addicted to television. (Not much has changed. I still love a great series, like The Night Of or Happy Valley or Wallander, but already, I digress.) While I enjoyed Star Trek and Irwin Allen’s sci-fi shows, I loved mysteries and spy shows the most.
There were a few solid detective shows that didn’t really offer much more than strong characterization and good stories. There were my heroes Joe Mannix and Harry O and Jim Rockford.
But a great many of the series at the time relied on a gimmick. The detective had to have a quirk, a defining characteristic. He could be a New Mexico lawman transferred to New York (McCloud), or blind (Longstreet), or fat (Cannon), or old (Barnaby Jones), or in a wheelchair (Ironside), or bald (Kojak), or hot (Charlie’s Angels).
Or, in perhaps the best example of all, a guy in a raincoat, chewing on an unlit cigar, who liked to say, “Uh, there’s just one more thing.” I don’t even have to tell you who that was.
But what if the gimmick was that there was no gimmick?
That was my thinking in creating Detective Barry Duckworth of the Promise Falls police. Duckworth first turns up in my 2008 novel Too Close to Home, reappears in Never Look Away and, briefly, in Trust Your Eyes. But it’s in my recent trilogy about Promise Falls—a much-troubled town in upstate New York—where good ol’ Barry really shows his stuff.
He plods away, somewhat in the background, in Broken Promise and Fear the Worst, trying to solve a couple of grisly murders, and figure out what all the incidents related to the number “23” mean. But in the final book in the trilogy, THE TWENTY-THREE, Duckworth takes center stage.
Yeah, he’s a bit overweight and likes a thick slice of buttered banana bread, but other than that, Duckworth is remarkable for being unremarkable. Unlike so many modern literary cops, he is not tormented by a dark past. He is not a heavy drinker. He didn’t kill someone by mistake in the line of duty. He is—you’d better sit down—happily married and he doesn’t fool around. He doesn’t engage in racist banter or fail to bathe (I’m thinking of you, Fat Ollie Weeks from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels; one of my all-time favorite characters, by the way.)
Duckworth is drawn, in large part I think, from someone I knew back in those years when I was watching Mannix and Columbo. During that time, I was working at a family-owned cottage resort and trailer park in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario. My father had died when I was 16 , so while my mother was manager, I was effectively running the joint. Some of the men who regularly vacationed there took me under their collective wing to guide and mentor me. And they became my best friends.
One of them was a man in his fifties from the Buffalo area named Lou, and he happened to look a great deal like the Lou Grant character from The Mary Tyler Moore Show of that time. However, Lou was not a newsman, but an honest-to-God private detective. I would pump him for stories about his cases and how he did his job. (Biggest tip: when you’re on surveillance, bring a jug to pee in.) I would force on him the detective stories I was writing at the time to get his reaction.
Lou would not have made an outstanding TV detective of the 1970s. He didn’t wear a cowboy hat, or use a walking stick, or have a pet cockatoo, or have a wacky wife who always got involved in his cases. He was just a happily married guy with two kids who liked to fish.
He did his job.
That’s Detective Duckworth, and that’s why I like him so much. He’s not flashy, he’s not tortured. He’s just doing his job.
Like the rest of us.
Off the Page is a recurring column going in-depth on how an author creates a character.
Linwood Barclay is the author of more than 15 novels, including the international bestseller No Time for Goodbye and the recent Promise Falls trilogy: Broken Promise, Far From True, and THE TWENTY-THREE. Before turning to writing books full-time, he spent 30 years in newspapers. His novel The Accident has just been made into a TV series in France. He lives near Toronto with his wife, Neetha.
To learn more about Linwood, please visit his website.
Photography credit: Bill Taylor