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Non-Fiction: A Century of Detectives

This paper was written for my senior thesis for English. My oral presentation was more of a chronological history so I had to shake things up a bit. (I got an A in the course) WARNING: There are spoilers for novels within.

Ever since Edgar Allen Poe published The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841 there have been many detectives; some not as well known as others, some more moral than others, but the case was always solved. They can generally be divided into three types: the private investigator that has clients come to him; the police detectives; and thirdly, the man who seems to attract trouble.

In 1841, the first private detective of fiction was created by the "Father of the Detective Story", Edgar Allen Poe and his name was Auguste Dupin. Dupin was an eccentric, only going out into the streets at night. He was nobly born but had lost his fortune. He derived his solutions from methodical analysis, or "educated thought". A nameless companion who is always amazed by Dupin's "mind-reading" abilities tells the stories.

Poe wrote three stories involving Dupin, the most famous being the first, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. A mother and daughter are gruesomely murdered--the mother's head practically severed off and the daughter shoved up the chimney. There is the added problem of how the murderer gained entrance to the room because both the door and window were locked. Dupin solves the case without even leaving his chair. He reads the accounts of the witnesses and through their discrepancies he realizes that the murderer was an escaped orangutan.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, successfully repeated this formula. Holmes first appeared in December 1887, the story being A Study in Scarlet. Holmes was also an eccentric gentleman with polished manners. He was modeled after a professor Doyle studied under at Edinburgh University. His companion was a discharged army doctor, John Watson, who narrates the stories. Holmes looked upon his writings as exercises in literature not science, as they should be. Their friendship lasted 40 years and three eras: Victorian, Edwardian, and Georgian. Holmes went for cases that "tended towards the unusual and even the fantastic". When nothing was happening, he resorted to cocaine--a habit Watson tried to break.

The most celebrated case of the Great Detective is The Hound of the Baskervilles, published in 1902. It tells the tale of the last remaining man of a cursed family. Sir Charles Baskerville was found dead on his private walkway supposedly of a heart attack. His close friend, Dr. Mortimer, goes to Holmes because he does not believe that to be the case. He relates to Holmes and Watson the story of the curse as it was written in 1742.

Sir Hugo Baskerville fell in love with a young girl and carried her off to his hall. She escaped and ran across the moor. Enraged, he chased after her and his friend followed. The hounds were released to chase her scent. The friends later came upon the body of the girl, dead from exhaustion, and Sir Hugo's. Over Hugo's body was a huge black beast shaped like a hound but larger, plucking at his throat. The superstition says that whenever the howl of a hound is heard, a Baskerville will die.

Holmes wishes to know why the story is important. Mortimer says that Sir Charles' features "were convulsed with some strong emotion". There were also footprints beside the body, "the footprints of a gigantic hound!" Sir Henry, Charles' nephew comes to England from Canada and during his first week in London, an attempt is made on his life.

Holmes believes that Sir Charles' death and the attempt on Sir Henry are connected. He investigates and discovers that there is another Baskerville posing as a friendly neighbor. To prove that this neighbor is trying to kill Henry, he puts Henry's life in danger so the attempt will be made. Holmes' true revelation was made through the observation of a portrait of Sir Hugo.

The character of Holmes elevated the respect of the detective to hero-worship. Contemporaries felt him to be the perfect hero for his age. Anthony Lejune said "The Great Detective...was a symbol...he brought the ancient message of hope: that somewhere, if we could find it, there is a rational solution, a perfect answer, to the mysteries which surround us." (Eames p39)

The next major detective was created by Agatha Christie in 1921 and his name was Hercule Poirot. Hercule was a retired Belgian police detective who had come to live in England. He was 5'4", rotund, and somewhat effeminate, not exactly what the British public wanted in the 1920's. Poirot also had a companion--Captain Hastings, who was later replaced by a valet.

Christie had a talent to deceive and her books always had surprise endings. The most famous--and most controversial-is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in which the story is narrated by the murderer. What is clever about this is that we never learn that the doctor had any ideas about killing him and it is only through a subtle reading and interpretations of the words used that we get any idea.

Poirot was suspicious of him from the beginning because of a discrepancy in time.

You will remember that everyone-yourself included-agreed that it took about five minutes to walk from the lodge to the house-less if you took the shortcut to the terrace. But you left the house at ten minutes to nine and yet it was 9:00 when you passed through the lodge gates; why had you taken ten minutes to do a five minute's walk?

Poirot had the ability to discover the truth by asking obscure questions that turned out to be meaningful.

Next in the private detective story comes the development of the "hardboiled dick", the Grand Master being Dashiell Hammett and his creation, Sam Spade. Spade first appeared in Hammett's third novel The Maltese Falcon which was published on February 14, 1930. Spade was an experienced, veteran detective whose partner is murdered after a mysterious beautiful woman comes to them for help. She asks them to protect the Maltese Falcon, a 300-year old golden falcon encrusted with jewels. The truth is that Brigid was hired to steal the falcon with Joel Cairo and they decided to keep it for themselves. Brigid left after framing Cairo and ran off with a gunman.

In America she wants to get rid of the gunman so she goes to Spade and Archer. They decide to take her case and Archer follows her. She tells the gunman she is being followed. She does this knowing that either way the bird is hers. The gunman is not alarmed and refuses to do anything. Brigid lures Archer into an alley and kills him. Meanwhile, Cairo is freed and comes to San Francisco, as does the man who hired him.

There are three other murders after Archer, and, because of his association with the case, the police suspect Spade. He disregards the police because of this; they hamper him more than help him. From the beginning, Spade suspects Brigid. She uses him and he uses her in return-he sleeps with her then sends her to jail.

After the death of four people, possible more, the bird turns out to be a fake.

Spade was a unique character, a loner, who used people and things to solve any case and let nothing stand in his way, not even the police. His character was so strongly chauvinistic that Hammett received hate mail about him.

Raymond Chandler said of him, "'Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley.'" (Eames p.112)

The second author in this category is Raymond Chandler. He wrote his first novel, The Big Sleep in 1939 when he was 51. His only detective was Phillip Marlowe, a very human detective and rare in the fact that he was an honest detective in a corrupt society. The police felt that Marlowe held his clients' interests above those of the police. Marlowe, on the other hand, knew of the police's failings. He never took more money than he earned.

The Big Sleep is divided into two minor plots both involving the same client. A rich widowed general asks Marlowe to watch his daughters. When he becomes mixed up in something he is not supposed to know about, Marlowe offers to return his $500. Instead of taking it, the general offers him $1000 to find one daughter's missing husband. Marlowe discovers that the other daughter killed him but refuses to the general so as to save his pride.

The private investigator category itself can be divided in two, as has been seen. The early detectives were well off financially, of great intellect, had a companion as a sounding board, and cooperated with the police. The hardboiled detectives avoided the police because they did not trust them and there was a chance of corruption. In spite of this, both types could not stand to lose a case, and they each doggedly followed clues.

The second type is the police detective who works for the government and very rarely gets the recognition for solving the case. Due to their constant exposure to death and violence, some of the detectives become hardened towards what they see. The next three detectives still feel for their job and the people they serve. They remain an invincible hero-like figure that people can focus on. (The three that will be talked about were created by women.)

Naigo Marsh was a later contemporary of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and was overshadowed by them. The New York Magazine said "It's time to compare Christie to Marsh instead of the other way around." Marsh's detective, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard was brought up in a wealthy family and is a family man himself with two sons. He is famous at the Yard and outside it and is described as "terribly good-looking and remote" and served in the foreign office during the war.

In Death in a White Tie, Alleyn has to chase down a high-society blackmailer. When a friend is murdered, Alleyn gets a strange sensation that he knows the person even before he is told.

A vague huge melancholy possessed Alleyn. He felt at once nerveless and over sensitized. His spirit seemed to rise thinly and separate itself from his body. He saw himself as a stranger. It was a familiar experience and he had grown to regard it as a precursor of evil.

Lord "Bunchy" Godspell was Roderick's friend from when he worked at the Foreign Office and was working for Alleyn at a party to try and find the blackmailer. He thought he had found out and so called Alleyn. Then he was murdered.

The man Bunchy thought to be the blackmailer was, but he could not have committed the murder. Dimitri was working for another man who had a hold over him. This man heard Bunchy talking to Alleyn on the phone and say "he's working with..." and thought Bunchy was going to mention his name. The murder was committed with a cigarette case. The one the murderer was using at the time Alleyn saw him he said he'd been using all day, but Roderick noticed it was too immaculate: "It shone like a mirror and I would have sworn had not been used since it was put in his pocket." (Marsh p.345) An admirer of Alleyn congratulated him on his observation. "How extraordinarily well-trained your eye must be! Could anything be more admirable?" (Ibid)

P. D. James is a follower of Christie and Sayers and is often compared to them. Sayers was a great influence on her writing. She takes the same care in plotting and has a desire for accuracy in minor points, and convincing dialogue. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1966 and introduced Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh of the C.I.D. Dalgliesh was a widower who had published a book of poems that "reflected his detatched, ironic, and fundamentally restless spirit." (James, p.19)

While questioning suspects, Dalgliesh does not let his emotions or feelings show at all. He becomes distant and disinterested.

...She didn't know quite what she had expected but certainly it wasn't this quiet, gentle, deep-voiced man. He hadn't bothered to commiserate with her on the shock of finding the body...He gave the impression that he was interested only in finding out the truth as quickly as possible. (James, p.62)

Dalgliesh is human, despite his remoteness. He felt that his emotions might mislead him or make him overlook a vital clue. It was this humanity that made him popular. At the end of A Mind to Murder (1963) he realizes that he has to take a break from violence. "If he were to break free from this persuasive gloom he needed a respite from crime and death, needed to walk for one brief evening out of the shadow of blackmail and murder." (James, p.255)

A contemporary author, Martha Grimes, created the third detective in this category. Grimes has been compared to Christie and Sayers. Some critics have even gone so far as to say, "Martha Grimes is not the next Dorothy L. Sayers, not the next Agatha Christie. She is better than both." The plot of each of the novels revolves around a local pub including The Dirty Duck in Stratford, The Anodyne Necklace in London, and Help the Poor Struggler in Dartmoor. Richard Jury--first and inspector than promoted to superintendent-is described by a ten-year-old girl in comparison to another policeman. "The other, taller one, had grey eyes and looked, somehow, comfortable." (Grimes, p.102)

Jury is accompanied by Sergeant Wiggins, a psychosomatic with a walking pharmacy who always comes down with some new ailment to try and get sympathy from Jury. "Weather and seasons were judged only in reference to Wiggins' health: spring brought allergies; autumn, a bleak prognosis of pneumonia; winter (the killer season), colds and fevers and flu." (Grimes, p.54). His other companion is Melrose Plant, an earl who gave up his title and all the responsibilities that went with it. The same young girl described him as "a good-looking one. Green eyes and sort of straw-colored hair." (Grimes, p.141)

Jury has the ability of making people feel comfortable around him so they talk more freely, almost forgetting that they are being questioned. "You're not very frightening for a policeman, Mr. Jury." (Grimes, p.181) "I don't see why they would (be suspicious) of a clever cop-you are trained in the lively art of worming your way into people's confidence." (Grimes, p.185)

Under the hands of women writers, whodunits became whydunits. Instead of just concentrating on the method if the detective tracking down the murderer/criminal, they tried to show the psychological motivation for the crime and the trauma suffered by those close to the victim and those being questioned. It is during this period that mystery novels became more than just "escapist" literature and closed the gap between them and the "straight" novels.

The third and final category consists of "stumblers", those, who, for the most part, through no fault of their own, become involved in murders and other crimes. People can better associate with this category because the heroes are everyday people like themselves.

The first is Lord Peter Wimsey, an amateur detective solving crimes as a hobby. Dorothy L. Sayers, a scholar who wished to be a don, created him. There are two opinions of her work: her admirers called her the greatest writer of the twentieth century and others thought her long-winded and snobbish. Her plots are organized with care and the methods of murder are well researched.

Lord Peter is the second son of the Duke of Denver and lives in Picadilly with his valet, Bunter, who was also his sergeant in World War I. Peter's family disapproves strongly about his hobby and his close association with a Scotland yard Captain, Charles Parker. It isn't until Peter's brother is arrested that they begin to take his criminology seriously.

Peter was described, in one incident, as "exceptionally ordinary-looking. He was dressed in a grey English suit, with a fawn overcoat on his arm, and his soft hat and stick in his hand. He had sleek, pale hair, and one of those rather stupid faces, with a long nose and a monocle." (Sayers, Lord Peter Views the Body, p.13)

Peter "stumbles" across these mysteries through his own curiosity. In later cases, he is asked by friends to help because of his reputation. At one point, his sister asks him to help a friend.

Peter first appeared as a confirmed bachelor in Whose Body? In 1923, and eight novels and close to forty short stories later, he marries a mystery novelist, Harriet Vane. He first met her when she was on trial for poisoning her lover. Peter is convinced of her innocence and proves that he was right. He is in love with her but she turns down all his shows of affection until her proposes to her in Latin in Cambridge.

From peer of the realm to "self-appointed agent" Simon Templar, created by Leslie Charteris. Templar, with some of his companions, terrorized criminals that the authorities were unable to convict. Because he did this through criminal means, the police tried to arrest him, but he made sure that there was no proof to tie him in with the crimes because he used the alias of "The Saint" and left a stick figure with a halo over it.

Templar first appeared in 1930 in the book Meet the Tiger and was 26 years old. He is described as being six-foot two-inches with black hair, blue eyes, and a tanned complexion. He dressed immaculately, is a connoisseur of fine wine and food, an expert knife thrower, a licensed air pilot, and a speaker of several languages fluently.

The Saint is always being chased by a Scotland Yard inspector obsessed with catching him.

...but for all any of them could prove in a court of law he was an unassailably respectable citizen who had long since left a rather doubtful past behind him...who had the misfortune to be seen in geographically close proximity to various lawless events for which the police could find no suitable scapegoat. (Charteris, p.32-3)

Even when the Saint was given a full pardon, Inspector teal knew that he continued his pastime but he still could not prove it.

The third man in this category is Dan Mallett, a poacher who was created by Frank Parrish. Dan lived in a small village in Wessex with his arthritic mother who was upset with him for choosing country life over the city. Dan did odd jobs for people and acted the part of a country bumpkin. "Though little over thirty years of age, his role among the local nobs was that of a gnome, a fossil, some Georgian or even medieval vestige left behind..." (Parrish, p.2) To the young women of the town, however, he was something very different, something of a ladies' man. One of the women he loved had married someone but still harbored feelings for him.

His face stayed in her mind...It was in such profound contrast to the faces of the two other principle men in her life-wedge-shaped, broad-browed, gentle, deeply tanned, but quite unlined, with those astonishing cornflower-blue eyes which had once made her knees tremble, and that slow, sweet, sexy smile which could probably still make her knees tremble if she let it. (Parrish, p.12)

Dan is liked by everyone in the village but not trusted because they all know of his poaching and disapprove.

Like the Saint, the police know of Dan's actions, but can't convict him. His biggest enemy is Edgar Bland, the gamekeeper of Medwell Court. In Snare in the Dark (1981) while out setting his snares, Dan witnesses Bland's death. The authorities-and everyone else in the village-refuse to believe there was a third man present, and, in their eyes, he had the opportunity and the motive. Dan goes into hiding and comes upon the true identity of the murderer after they try to kill him.

It all revolved around a nursing home where the Matron and a steward conned older male patients with no family into "marrying" the Matron and rewriting their wills leaving everything to her. Bland stumbled upon this and the steward killed him. Bland was lured to the woods by being told Dan was there and that way Dan would be blamed for the murder. Dan avoided the police because he thought they wanted him arrested for murder but they only wanted his help. They knew from the entry point of the crossbow bolt that the murderer could not have been Dan.

When the case is solved and Dan is leaving, he receives a slight scolding from the chief superintendent. "'Next time you're in trouble, for God's sake, behave responsibly.' 'Ay,' said Dan humbly. But trouble came in various forms, and he was not sure he saw sensible behaviour in the same light as the police." (Parrish, p.209)

The final man in the final category has been called the quintessential rogue and "One of the most likeable rogues in mystery history": Lovejoy. Lovejoy lives in his own cottage in a small village in East Anglia and is an antique dealer, not the kind who deals with cheap imitations for tourists, but a true lover of them. He is what is known as a divvie and has the ability to "sniff out" real antiques. The police do not trust Lovejoy because he has been in the vicinity of certain misdoings.

In some cases, Lovejoy is hired by people to help them find antiques because of his talent and at other times he follows a case to get revenge for the death of a friend. In The Sleepers of Erin, Lovejoy is hired by a couple to help them in a con by copying an ancient golden torque then authenticating the real one. They have researched Lovejoy before choosing him and have reached certain conclusions.

"You are a financial wreck, Lovejoy... Your liaisons with women cross all known marital boundaries. Currently you consort with ______ and _____ and ______ and sundry others...Your (police) record includes an alarming number of fights, thefts, disturbances, wholesale robberies, and several deaths. (Gash, p.43)

Lovejoy was created by a prominent English doctor under the pseudonym of Jonathan Gash. Gash himself is a lover of antiques and this shows in the information Lovejoy knows; how to fake antiques, how to spot fakes, and even how to figure out the pricing of antiques in individual stores.

In spite of the situations he is put in, Lovejoy seems to find something to laugh at. When a young woman and her grandfather want Lovejoy to take all the antiques out of Venice, he says:

Look, Grandad, you can't nick Venice. It's fastened to the floor of that lagoon. I've always wanted to nick the dome-dialled Castle Acre church clock, but I've more sense. The village bobby'd notice... Good luck getting Venice through Customs, but don't say I didn't warn you. (Gash, The Gondola Scam, p.35)

Mystery novels have always appealed to the public no matter what type of detective is involved. There has been a change and one will find less and less of the private investigator by the newer authors. People have felt closer to the police detectives because they have encountered them or just know they exist. There is not much call for many people to go to private investigators. As for the "stumblers", these are men without the clients of the private investigator or the government job-and pay-as the police detectives. They are men with "regular" jobs and come the closest to the everyday reading public.

O.K. Interesting-needs to be worked into a polished paper


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 13th, 2011 11:50 am (UTC)
"Templar first appeared in 1930 in the book Meet the Tiger and was 26 years old. He is described as being six-foot two-inches with black hair, blue eyes, and a tanned complexion. He dressed immaculately, is a connoisseur of fine wine and food, an expert knife thrower, a licensed air pilot, and a speaker of several languages fluently.

The Saint is always being chased by a Scotland Yard inspector obsessed with catching him."
That'll be the 1928 novel "Meet--the Tiger!".

And he's hardly always being chased by Teal. Teal worked for Scotland Yard so couldn't chase the Saint when he went abroad, which was a lot of the time. And Teal doesn't even feature in every UK Saint adventure...
Apr. 13th, 2011 01:18 pm (UTC)
I know that, having read them all, but I needed to create the topic of pursuit. Thanks for checking this out and I love your user name!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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