THE CAPE AND THE COWL: The Ultimate Costumed Detective

Murder at Mystery Castle has everything you could desire in a Golden Age detective story. Take one exotic setting: an ancient medieval castle that has been taken apart and reassembled, brick by brick, on island cliffs overlooking a modern American city. Add a powerful victim, one James Barham, munitions manufacturer, who has invited four guests to his palatial home. Give each of these guests a motive, build up the tension amongst the group, and then invite one of them to murder Barham by exotic means, turning one of the primitive weapons the victim collected against the collector!

It only takes a moment for the local sheriff to declare, “It’s too much for me . . . “ Whereupon he sends for the city’s greatest private detective, who brings his trusted Watson along. After interviewing suspects, examining the scene for physical evidence, and nearly getting killed twice, the detective gathers his suspects together, springs a trap and unmasks the murderer, who happens to be the only suspect with an alibi!

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Oh, and he does it all . . . in full costume!

The Tuesday Night Bloggers have designated Costume in Crime as their October theme. So far, I’ve talked about the many ways Agatha Christie’s villains employed costume as a tool to commit the perfect murder, and I discussed a half dozen or so examples of costumed characters found in film mysteries. Today, I’d like to raise an example that had a profound influence on my life before Christie, before I began to seriously study film, heck, before my voice even started to change. I’m talking about the costumed crime fighters found in comic books. And more than any other, I’m talking about . . . Batman.

Now before you scoff, you scoffers, hear me out!

Costumed heroes feature prominently in literature. The first to usher in the 20th century was probably The Scarlet Pimpernel, created in 1905 by the Baroness Orczy, whose ties to the Golden Age are irrefutable, as she also invented two more traditional detectives, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard and The Old Man in the Corner. The Pimpernel was in reality an English gentleman, Sir Percy Blakeney, who used disguise in order to help the revolutionaries in France. Blakeney shares a similar background with Zorro, who first came to life in the 1919 story The Curse of Capistrano. In this origin story, a California nobleman, Don Diego de la Vega, dons a cape and a mask in order to fight crooked politicians and all others who would prey upon the weak and defenseless. Nobody suspects either of these men of being heroes because the personalities they effect as members of society’s elite are so contrary to the stalwart and strong heroes they become once they don a mask.

At its height, American radio got into the act with a vengeance. In 1933, Texas Ranger John Reid put on a mask to battle crooks as The Lone Ranger. Like Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Lone Ranger’s career spawned multiple iterations in movies and on TV. Beginning in 1948, a comic book version of The Lone Ranger ran for 145 issues and then appeared again periodically over the years. Even Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s faithful companion, got his own spinoff. In 1936, Britt Reid, a newspaper publisher by day, transformed himself into the Green Hornet and, with the help of his masked assistant/chauffeur Kato, became a powerful vigilante. He, too, appeared in film serials, comic books and a TV series.

I watched all the exploits of all these masked heroes on TV when I was growing up. I enjoyed all of them, but their adventures paled in comparison to the exploits of the invulnerable guy in the blue tights and red cape and, above all others, the figure in the dark cowl whose bat-like appearance struck fear in the hearts of all ill-doers.

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Created in 1933 by two high school students named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Kal-El of Krypton was blasted to Earth in a rocket when his home planet exploded. Exposure to our yellow sun gave him the amazing powers that earned him the moniker Superman, the archetype of the modern hero. Superman subsequently appeared on the radio, in early movie serials, on television in many different series starting with George Reeves’ portrayal from 1952 to 1958, in films that continue to this day, and even in a musical comedy called It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman.

Superman is pure science fiction, but along with his many heroic exploits, his was the tale of an outsider trying to fit in with the rest of humanity. How lucky that the blankets he was wrapped in were red and blue because when he turned them into a costume, he became emblematic of his adopted nation. When I read Superman in the 1960’s, his exploits were more tongue in cheek, with our hero dashing madly around trying to hide his secret identity from snoopy Lois Lane or cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. His villains were almost played for laughs, like the Toymaker, who looked like comic actor Ed Wynn, or Mr. Mxyzptlk, the sprite from another dimension with a bad case of hero worship/envy. Even Lex Luthor, Superman’s nemesis, was reduced to a man who sought vengeance on the Man of Steel for causing . . . the loss of his hair!?!

Superman’s secret identity, a staple of the costumed hero, was also rather ridiculous. He became Clark Kent so that he could hang out with common mortals and befriend them without risking their safety. But in terms of disguise, who was he really fooling? This beefy guy, who is perhaps the world’s most famous living figure, puts on a suit and a pair of glasses . . . and nobody recognizes him?? Don’t ask me why I could believe all the Krypton stuff but always found Clark Kent almost impossible to swallow.

 

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But I want to talk about Batman. And the reason I want to talk about Batman – beside the fact that he is in every way the bomb – is that more than any other comic book hero, I think Batman deserves a niche in the Golden Age of Detective fiction. He was created by Bob Kane in 1939, and although he was also a member of the privileged class (like the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro), his reasons for becoming a hero were personal, grounded as they were in the world of a city mired by crime. As a boy, Bruce Wayne was walking home with his wealthy father and mother one night when they were attacked by a mugger, and Bruce witnessed the death of both his parents. He would brood about this event for years and ultimately train himself to take on all criminals with the added incentive that one day, he would find and catch the man who made him an orphan. (There have been many versions of this story. The one I like the best is the first, where Batman ultimately tracks down, stalks and captures the man responsible for his crime-fighting career, only to discover that his parents’ killer was a sniveling nobody.) Thus, while Superman fights crime because he wants to be useful to his adopted planet, Batman’s career provides the foundation for a psychoanalyst’s dream. And while the Man of Steel is literally steel-like with invulnerability and super-strength, the Caped Crusader is non-super, an uncommonly good athlete and martial arts expert who uses his brain as much as his body to bring down the bad guys. I mean, come on, he literally carried a forensic lab around with him!

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Superman is surrounded by colleagues and friends, but he essentially works alone so that he can protect those he loves from harm. While the persona of Batman is that of a loner, he is aided by a team, including his trusted butler/mentor Alfred, and, for the longest time, his partner/protégé, Robin, the Boy Wonder. Robin sprang into being literally because the writers were tired of having Batman think aloud to himself all the time and wanted to give him somebody to talk to. It turned out to be a very savvy move. Most of us young guys who read Batman knew we could never be him. But what boy didn’t want to be Robin and fight crime alongside the Caped Crusader? In the same sense, I put myself into Watson’s shoes when reading the Holmes canon, and I felt vastly superior to Hastings as we both accompanied Poirot around from case to case. (Frankly, I was relieved when Christie dropped Hastings altogether. Poirot and I were beginning to tire of having this third wheel tagging along!)

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Most important to my embracing the chronicles of Batman was the emphasis placed on solving crimes. His first appearance was n Detective Comics #27, and even as he began to amass what is arguably the best rogues gallery of villains of any comics hero, Batman also focused on solving murders in the Golden Age tradition. And while Superman wore a costume as a symbol of heroism (and because if he fought bad guys in regular Earth clothes, his duds would burn up quickly), “The World’s Greatest Detective” had put a lot of thought into wearing a costume that would strike fear in the hearts of the criminal element that had claimed Gotham City as their own. There is a moodiness about this character that dwells in the shadows, reminiscent of film noir, that you didn’t find in other comic books until the revolutionary rethinking in the 1980’s that had every hero moving in on Batman’s psychologically dark territory.

The air of mystery that surrounded Batman fit right in with the occasional whodunits, with suspects and clues, that he often solved. The Murder at Mystery Castle even includes a “challenge to the reader” before the culprit is revealed. Granted, the whodunit tales don’t display Batman at his best. The clues tend to be quite simple in order to play to the mostly teenaged audience, and the culprits have none of the complexity of Batman’s great adversaries. In a typical story, The Danger Club, Batman joins an exclusive club of danger seekers when a young man, trying to impress the members enough so that they will allow him to join, crashes his car and dies. The boy’s brother threatens the members with revenge . . . and then they start dying. Why, it’s Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men all over again! Bob Kane’s version is rather light on clues and, because it is Batman, much heavier on action. Still, it features a gathering of the club members at the end, and it will come as no surprise to true mystery lovers to hear the revelation that the killer was actually one of their own.

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Later on, when Frank Miller took over the fading Batman franchise, many of the best villains, especially the Joker, figured in some fine tales that incorporated all the elements of detective fiction. Comic books have undergone a similar transition to the one taken by Golden Age mysteries from the 1930’s to the present: they have become more focused on the psychology of the characters. Batman has become even darker, a truly dangerous, perhaps unbalanced, vigilante, and the villains have become richer characters, their evil natures balanced by pathos or by a strong sense of identification between hero and villain. It is a tribute to the metamorphosis of the comic book into the modern graphic novel that people of all ages have taken seriously the conflicts generated by a bunch of men and women in tights. And for those of us who most revel in the elements of detective fiction, Batman deserves some attention. In his employment of forensic evidence and his rational sifting of clues, he lays claim, at least in part, to a place in the pantheon of traditional detectives.

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11 thoughts on “THE CAPE AND THE COWL: The Ultimate Costumed Detective

  1. I don’t scoff at all, Brad. Those costumed superheroes have played a big role in our society, and not just from saving Gotham City or stopping a train. And there’s just enough that’s mysterious about some of their backgrounds that it piques interest.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s more the everyman sort of thing with Spidey. Believable personal life, tragedy that isn’t conveniently forgotten about, his stories belonging to a cohesive whole. Plus he really does have the best villains – nary a Kiteman or a Calendar Man in sight…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Kiteman?? That’s a tail I have not read yet . . .

    And I do get what you mean about believability. Spiderman was always more accessible to readers because, in essence, he was just like them, only different . . .

    FYI, Entertainment Weekly magazine just came out with their rating of the top fifty superheroes of all time. Spidey was number two and Batman was number three, largely due to personality issues. But Batman’s rogues gallery of villains was rated highest of all the heroes! Doc Ock ain’t no Joker . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Doc Ock is barely even a Killer Moth…never understood the love poured on Spider-Man or his villains. They’re pretty universally awful, really, let’s be honest 🙂

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  3. Batman is, no question, my favourite fictional character of all time, and I’m still hoping for a cinematic version to play up to the actual “detective” part of World’s Greatest Detective — and don’t give me any of that nonsense about the bullet in the wall in The Dark Knight. 1939 makes him a contemporary of Poirot and Gideon Fell, y’know, just in case anyone reading wants to write that doubtless terrible novel…

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  4. Good to find your blog after you mentioned the Ellery Queen plug on Facebook.

    Another good Batman mystery story is “The Order of Beasts” by Eddie Campbell. This story, set in England early in Bruce Wayne’s career as Batman, involves detection and a lot of resonance with G. K. Chesterton’s stories.

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