The days of the hero detective are numbered.
The traditional formula for crime novels was Cluedo writ large
- the country house, the missing will, an array of vulture-like
dodgy relatives and hangers-on, the body in the library, then
enter stage left our hero, the amateur sleuth to sift through
the clues and beat the police to outwit the culprit. With any
luck it would be the Butler wot did it, and the grand denouement
would be played out with all the suspects neatly lined up in the
Billiard Room. It doesnt really work like this anymore.
In the golden age of detective fiction the crime novel was like
a cosy cross-word puzzle. All the clues were there swirling in
the fog of red-herrings and superfluous information, for the reader
to attempt to unravel and guess the murderer before the author
chose to reveal it. It generally would be a guess, and the motive
could be almost an afterthought. They were comforting because
in the end all the loose ends tended to be tied up, all questions
answered, by the hero-detective.
Crime can be brutally straightforward - a little old lady mugged
in the street, a telephone box vandalised; or petty, like an unpaid
television licence. The majority of crime is not violent or complex
in its motives. In the books it is different.
Psychological Thrillers have taken the place of detective
puzzles. The object is often no longer Whodunit, But why? One
all action hero detective is often not enough to answer such questions
as we now want answered. In honour of the demise of the detective,
Bloc has cast an eye back over a century of detective fiction,
and compiled a checklist, just incase they ever do come back into
Criterea for the fictional Detective:
1. The kind of name you would shoot your parents for giving you.
Dickens lead the way with Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, followed
closely before the end of the century, by Sherlock Holmes. Last
names as first names would always be a winner, or names which
seem to have been made up to protect real identities. Modesty
Blaise and Scarlett Lipstik spring to mind. Then there are the
aristocrats like Lord Peter Death Breddon Wimsey, with too many
names, and those who go the other way, Morse and Columbo. Note,
no detective was ever called Smith.
2. Gimmicks. Apparently Bob Mortimer, playing Randall in the current
TV adaptation of Randall and Hopkirk was so concerned about his
characters lack of an interesting prop that he made one up. Introducing
the worlds first crisp eating detective. Im not sure
that quite does it, but traditionally they all have to have gimmicks.
Holmes had his violin and pipe, his deer stalker and cocaine addiction.
Morse has Opera, Real Ale and the car, Poirot has spats and a
moustache to twirl. Columbo has a crumpled overcoat and cigars.
3. Catch Phrase. Elementary.
4. Address. 221b. The setting becomes part of a detectives
identity. Almost every Holmes story begins in London, fog seeping
atmospherically, even if it doesnt stay there. Miss Marple
is St. Marys Mead, Morse is Oxford, Bergerac belongs in
the Channel Islands. Poirot is London again, and various country
houses where tea is taken on the lawn. The fictional world of
the detective is an important part of what readers of detective
fiction recognise and identify with.
5. Sidekick. Steady and Pedestrian, the sidekick has to be as
slow as possible in order to make the great detective look even
more brilliant and smug. When the detective himself is somewhat
slow and plodding, as in the recent TV Midsommer Murders, this
is even more important as the particularly dull sidekick goes
someway to hiding his superiors failings.
6. Temperament. Think about it, theyre all bad tempered.
7. Style. This is a mixture of it all, the gimmicks, the catch
phrases, the silly outfits and silly name. A detective without
charisma would never sell.
8. The art of disguise. Not strictly a detective, but I think
The Scarlet Pimpernel may have begun this with his habit of blending
into the background and foxing his opponents. Sherlock Holmes
was famous for it too.
9. Adversary. Every sleuth needs a foe worthy of the name. Holmes
had Moriarty, Austin Powers had Dr. Evil. I dont think I
need to go on.
10. The Achilles Heel. Every detective has to have a fatal weakness,
mainly because nobody can be perfect.
Old fashioned, or just eccentric? Is the concept of a detective
who can soothe all our anxieties by making us smile, or our pulse
rate soar, outdated or will we see a new rash of detectives, with
new techno-gimmicks, for the twenty-first century?
©JAYNE SHARRATT 2000