About six weeks ago, I invited the blogosphere to suggest GAD topics for a mammoth group discussion between my blogging buddies Noah, JJ and me. The response was staggering. Okay, three people replied, but they were great suggestions, and I thank you! One of them came from my online friend rkottery:
“How about the role of the detective in detective fiction? That is, things like how does the detective affect your enjoyment of the novel or the personality of the case itself? Could you swap over detectives in certain novels and improve or not affect them (or create a car crash – how would Nero Wolfe deal with The Nine Tailors? Or Lord Peter Wimsey with The Maltese Falcon?) How many novels don’t have detectives at all and are they the better for it? Would love to hear your thoughts.”
Well, I don’t know about you, but suddenly I imagine myself a guest on one of those morning shows. You know, the ones where everybody sits around with a cup of coffee and discusses the important issues of the day. Let’s face it: compared to the terror wrought by certain world leaders with bad hair, the dramas unfolding in Europe and the Middle East, or the momentous time we’re in where women are calling men on their behavior, this isn’t one of those issues.
But what the heck! I know two or three of you might be interested, so here I go, a self-delusional, -described expert, allowing rkottery to interview me. Feel free to chime in below with additional questions or comments, but if you take real issue with my answers, get your own imaginary show!
How does the detective affect your enjoyment of the novel?
Great question, rk! For me, the personality of the detective, plus his/her methods of solving a case, play a substantial part in the amount of pleasure I derive while reading a mystery. That’s why I imagine most mystery writers give a great deal of thought to the sort of person the want to stand at the investigatory helm of the crimes they invent. Would it be a member of the force, a private detective, or a rank amateur?
For modern day writers, the police detective has gained the most traction and respect in the evolution of the genre, probably because of the increased reliance on modern technology used to solve even a fictional crime. As a result, more and more these women and men in of the force have been provided with messy personal lives that mirror or interfere with the cases they are trying to solve. Some of them are even given their own Moriarty, whose battles with the law over several titles become a crusade for the hero.
It’s a personal thing, but I have always preferred private detectives and amateur sleuths to policemen. Perhaps this is one reason I gravitate toward GAD crime stories, for the amateur has largely disappeared from A-list modern detective fiction and has been relegated to cozy mysteries. (The private eye/inquiry agent is timeless and still going strong, especially the female detective, but the actual mysteries found in the work of Grafton, Paretsky and their ilk have not, as yet, grabbed me.) When faced with physical clues, the amateur sleuth is often at a disadvantage due to no access to lab equipment (unless, like Holmes, he has something set up in the parlor). Thus, when the amateur figures out the meaning of such clues, it is through a reliance on his/her use of logic. I like the amateur’s focus on human nature, on the things people say and do, and on eccentric facts that seem trivial and then play a huge and surprising part in the reveal. This seems to be the purview of the amateur, who slides in amongst the suspects, often unobtrusively, and observes people talk and act and prevaricate . . . until one or more of them hang themselves! (It may also be the reason why GAD haters disapprove of classic mysteries, since these types of clues strike the lover of modern police technology as utter nonsense.)
Another issue taken by the naysayers is that classic detectives tend to possess a list of quirks and qualities that render them less realistic (if more memorable). The lists resemble something connected to characters in those RPG adventures that nobody every invited me to play I was far too cool to play. You know: Intuition – +4. Logic – +8, Alibi breaking – +6, and so on. The creation of actual legendary figures like Sherlock Holmes inspired hundreds of writers to take their shot, endowing their detective heroes with fabulous eccentricities to help them stand out in the crowd.
Nobody expressed the arbitrariness or the pitfalls of this process better than Agatha Christie through her fictional creation, mystery writer Ariadne Oliver. As early as Cards on the Table, Mrs. Oliver is complaining about Sven Hjerson, the detective she created:
“I only regret one thing, making my detective a Finn. I don’t really know anything about Finns and I’m always getting letters from Finland pointing out something impossible that he’s said or done. They seem to read detective stories a good deal in Finland. I suppose it’s the long winters with no daylight. In Bulgaria and Romania they don’t seem to read at all. I’d have done better to have made him a Bulgarian.”
And yet when it comes down to it, Mrs. Oliver defends the integrity of her character, just as Christie did for Poirot, whom she may have grown to detest but whom she understood was her bread and butter. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Mrs. Oliver collaborates on a dramatization of one of her novels with a modern young playwright.
- “What I feel is, here’s that wonderful young man, parachuted down–“
- “Mrs. Oliver interrupted: “He’s 60.”
- “Oh no!”
- “He is.”
- “I don’t see him like that. Thirty five – not a day older.”
- “But I’ve been writing books about him for thirty years and he was at least thirty five in the first one.”
- “But, darling, if he’s sixty, you can’t have the tension between him and the girl– what’s her name? Ingrid. I mean, it would make him just a nasty old man!”
- “It certainly would.”
- “So you see he must be thirty five” said Robin triumphantly.
- “Then he can’t be Sven Hjerson. Just make him a Norwegian young man who’s in the Resistance movement.”
- “But darling Ariadne, the whole point of the play is Sven Hjerson. You’ve got an enormous public who simply adore Sven Hjerson, and who’ll flock to see Sven Hjerson. He’s box office, darling!”
Certainly a mystery writer can only attain longevity if her plots are varied and excellent, but let’s face it – readers flock to a great detective like fans to a rock concert. I’m working on this post a few days after having gotten involved in yet another discussion with Christie fans over who played the best Poirot and the best Miss Marple. I mean, does it really matter? The answer is: of course it does!* The memorable detective is just like any memorable literary figure, perhaps even more so! A whole lot of fine actresses have played Elizabeth Bennett well (and quite differently!) Ditto the actors who have tackled Dr. Jekyll or Dracula. But have we yet found a great Gatsby? Or a Frankenstein’s monster who excels Karloff? The media returns again and again to certain figures, and many of them are detectives. You might arguably find a good debate somewhere over the Dracula question, but if I mention the name Sherlock Holmes, the very molecules of the Internet begin to (*koff* Basil Rathbone koff) heat up.
(*The best Marple was, hands down, Joan Hickson. The best Poirot is a bit more up for grabs, but anyone who enters here and suggests it was Tony Randall or Albert Molina will not be welcome for long.)
“How does the detective affect your enjoyment of the novel or the personality of the case itself?”
Gosh, rk, the timing of your question is really apt. I just finished reading John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Wire Cage, and one of the issues that lowered this one in my estimation was the lack of participation in the story of Carr’s Chestertonian sleuth, Dr. Gideon Fell. Nowhere was this pointed out better than in a lunch meeting between the nominal hero and heroine of the novel, where Brenda describes at length to Hugh the weird machinations of Dr. Fell during his investigation. This turned out to be one of the most enjoyable scenes for me in the whole book, yet how I wished I could have been observing the good Doctor first-hand!
I grew up when Agatha Christie was still alive and the notion of a “Christie for Christmas” was a large part of my holiday cheer. My beloved Aunt Rosalie always made this her gift to me, but I still opened the package with heart racing. The newspaper ads and reviews would tease me mercilessly before I had gotten my hands on the thing, and one of the biggest issues would always be: was it a Poirot, a Miss Marple, or . . . something else? I’m pretty much an equal fan of both detectives because their cases were so different. The Poirot novels were much more steeped in logic, while Miss Marple traded in intuition, resulting in cases that may not have played as fair with the reader but often had more emotional resonance in the end.
Then there were Tommy and Tuppence, who I have to say appealed to me more as characters (they were a jolly fun couple) than as sleuths. The rest of Christie’s output is more up for grabs. If no sleuth’s name appeared on the cover, one had to wonder if the result would be something as fine as Towards Zero or Crooked House, or if we would end up with a Destination: Unknown or Passenger to Frankfurt.
It seems to me that Christie’s detectives kept her on her game. Even as she grew increasingly bored with Poirot and often stuck him in at the end of the novel, she knew she had to create a case worthy of his mental faculties. As her mental acuity began to fade and the plotting got sloppier, Poirot’s presence was sometimes the only pleasurable thing, as in The Clocks or Third Girl (although in this last title and the next couple, Mrs. Oliver’s presence was another huge asset.) And I will say this: I’ve written a few times about my frustration with Sophie Hannah’s version of Agatha Christie, and while the cases she has manufactured are utter bores, the real problem for me is that she has gotten Poirot all wrong!
Miss Marple is definitely one of the chief pleasures of the books in which she appears, although Christie’s expertise at crafting a village mystery makes the elderly sleuth’s late entrance into The Moving Finger and A Murder Is Announced less bothersome. Marple’s indomitable will to find justice in the face of her own physical limitations and amateur status, plus her crafty use of “fluffiness” to put suspects and policemen at their ease, are chief reasons to enjoy her books – even the ones, like A Pocketful of Rye and 4:50 from Paddington, where she essentially captures the killer through sheer luck.
Part of the charm of Christianna Brand is the essential balance she strikes between focus on her suspects – usually a charming bunch, none of whom we would like to see branded a murderer – and her main detective, the crafty, irascible Inspector Cockrill. “Cockie” can be funny, as Dr. Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale is funny, and he can be ruthless, cutting through the mass affection the circle of characters holds for each other (often resulting in a mass of solution-delaying lies) and reminding the reader that, even in such a cozy setting with such likable folks, murder is an ugly business.
Then there is the fascinating case of Ellery Queen. Our little community is awash in discussions of the many stages of Queen’s career. We tend to focus on the differentiation in the types of case: the international mysteries are based on Van Dine’s model for bizarre set-ups and a reliance on physical clues and dry – for many, too dry, logic. The second stage is most at home in ladies’ magazines (where they were, in fact, serialized.) One of the reasons I love the Third Period is because of the changes wrought on the detective himself. By 1943, Ellery’s supercilious little smile had been wiped from his face long ago, and his pince nez had been tossed in the garbage with most of his other affectations. What we’re left with is a young man full of doubts and remorse about his affinity for crime. The cases he tackles here range from simple problems to truly horrific ones, most of them tinged with tragedy. Some readers complain that they’re too simple or that Queen is stuck in an existential loop that finds new but similar iterations in title after title. I respectfully disagree with this argument, and my pleasure in the authors’ later work is compounded by the way each case affects the sleuth.
Then there are the detectives who, in and of themselves, are so much fun, that I can (almost) forgive the author for not finding equal weight in the cases themselves. This is the reason I read most of the Nero Wolfe novels. I cannot remember the plots for more than two of them, and they seem, for the most part, to be highly formulaic. But the character of Wolfe, and his relationship with Archie Goodwin, the best of Watsons, make this series for me and keep me returning (albeit rarely) to sample the joys of one of the best detective relationships every created.
Could you swap over detectives in certain novels and improve or not affect them (or create a car crash – how would Nero Wolfe deal with The Nine Tailors? Or Lord Peter Wimsey with The Maltese Falcon?)
Of all your questions, rk, this is the one where I wish Noah and JJ were sitting beside me in a panel situation. I think we would have a field day discussing the possibilities here. I have no doubt that anyone could find instances where a certain book might have worked better had the sleuth been swapped. It’s interesting that you offered two examples where the detective’s personality is the antithesis of the case in question. I can’t imagine NeroWolfe being interested in the problem of the church bells. (Frankly, I can’t imagine any reader being interested either!) And I personally would love to send Lord Peter Wimsey to San Francisco on the trail of Mr. Gutman, Joel Cairo and the Falcon, if only to watch Wilmer the Gunsel smack that smugness right off Wimsey’s face!
We have had the chance to see the “plopping down” of a detective into a story in which they originally never appeared in the ITV Miss Marple series, where nine of the twenty-three adaptations placed Miss Marple in non-Marple stories. It’s difficult to discuss the effect of this device alone, as more often than not, the script writers found a myriad of ways to destroy Christie’s original plot, and Miss Marple’s presence was the least of their problems. Still, look at Towards Zero, one of the episodes least altered from the original. In a 1946 review of the book in The Observer, Maurice Richardson makes a remark that is timely to this discussion:
“The new Agatha Christie has a deliciously prolonged and elaborate buildup, urbane and cozy like a good cigar and red leather slippers. Poirot is absent physically, but his influence guides the sensitive inspector past though whiles of the carefully planted house party, and with its tortuous double bluff this might well have been a Poirot case.”
One can almost imagine Superintendent Battle inviting his old friend to consult on the mysterious death at Gull’s Point. However, this is very much Battle’s case; his personal issues with his daughter even help him solve it! I suppose one could see Miss Marple stumbling in from the local spa where she is taking the waters to help, but it’s hard to imagine a less likely house party to which she would be invited. Furthermore, Miss Marple’s presence in the TV adaptation robs other characters of much of their original importance.
Your question makes us want to delve in the private sanctum of an author’s process. When one looks at Christie’s notebooks (thanks to John Curran), how often do we find her tagging a book as a Marple or questioning whether or not to include Poirot? And if she does not, does Christie’s plotting change at all? If the members of the Detection Club had experimented with swapping sleuths, how much would they have needed to consult each other about the cases they endowed upon their adopted heroes? (I’m not saying they would have! Some of them might even have considered their own efforts an improvement upon the originals!) I can’t imagine Sayers having the inclination to draft a clever enough set of clues and characters for Poirot or to be interested in the least in the dallyings of a snoopy village spinster. Nor, for that matter, would Christie have cared much for an upper class dandy like Lord Peter.
Could Dame Agatha have handed Nero Wolfe a richer mystery than the ones to which he was accustomed? Maybe, but she could never have created the relationship between detective and staff that Rex Stout did. (You need only look at is Captain Hastings for your evidence.) I imagine right now that JJ and our buddy Ben wish that John Dickson Carr had written all of the early Ellery Queen adventures! They may or may not have been better, but they would most certainly be different. The closest I think Carr came to creating something like the early Ellery is solicitor Patrick Butler, who is one of the most disliked characters in all of Carr’s canon. So the question becomes: would the investigations into the murders of Monte Field or Winifred French or Abigail Doorn have been handled better by Dr. Fell? Would Poirot’s vanity have been more palatable in The Bishop Murder Case than Philo Vance’s insufferable foppery? I can only wish Miss Marple had replaced Miss Silver and proven that one spinster is most certainly not like the other!
How many novels don’t have detectives at all and are they the better for it?
Can a classic mystery novel not include a person who does the work of the detective, even if he or she is not labeled so? This idea takes on a “tree falling in the forest” tone. If you ask me, unless we have someone working the case, even from the position of the intrusive boyfriend who wants to solve his intended fiancee’s grandfather’s murder if they are ever to be happy, or the worried young woman trying to find her sister, who disappeared somewhere on the California highway after absconding with $40,000 from her office – if you don’t have someone like that to root for, you’re dealing with a different sub-genre at least. Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle has a murder – a multiple murder, in fact – and a marvelous twist of a solution, but there’s nary a detective in sight, nor do any of the characters even try to find out the truth. (It just gets blurted out in a moment of extreme stress.) I adore this novel and will trumpet its charms to the hills, but it’s not a murder mystery because the concept of solving, a necessity of the genre, is missing. So if I tell you that adding a detective would only hurt Castle, I still don’t think I’m answering this final question for you, rk.
But I’ll make one final attempt, turning, as I always do in times of need, to Christie. Destination Unknown is a pretty tepid thriller, but it has its charms. For most of the book, we follow Hilary Craven, disguised as Olive Betterton, on a journey to find out what’s happened to all the missing scientists. Hilary recently attempted suicide, so the crux of the book is whether or not she can find new meaning in her life as she goes about saving the world. There is scarcely a whiff of Christie’s gifts as a detective-story writer here – it’s pretty obvious throughout who’s behind this global conspiracy – until the end! Then the author’s true personality reasserts itself and gives us both a murder and a surprise murderer. And although Hilary has not been much more than a reacting character throughout, Christie reveals another character to have been secretly acting the role of detective in order to find justice for a hidden victim.
So, yes, I think detective stories need detectives, even though they come in all shapes and sizes and kinds and sometimes don’t even resemble a detective until the final reveal. I want to thank you, rk, for broaching this subject, for asking so many good questions about it, and for – I hope – stimulating further discussion.
NOTE TO ALL: The illustrations here do not necessarily correspond to the text but offer images of some of the best detectives of all time. I assume you know which detective is which!