The Eccentric Detective
Arthur Conan Doyle started it all with his highly successful and extremely eccentric detective Sherlock Holmes. If you read the Sherlock Holmes stories, I hope I am not treading on too many toes by saying this but quite frankly they are not very good! So if it’s true that they are not too brilliant how come they are so successful? ‘Elementary my dear Watson,’ says Holmes, although I don’t think Holmes ever said that. What makes the Sherlock Holmes stories so popular is not the plot line or the stories but the character of Sherlock Holmes himself. It was the violin playing, drug taking, master of disguise, intense, meticulous and utterly methodical and amateur, but inspired amateur, detective that captured the popular imagination. Holmes could work out who killed who simply by the wear on a left foot shoe or the slight piece of dust on the lapel of a dinner jacket and this spellbound the readership. This sort of attention to detail was new and so was the art of detection, throw in a deerstalker hat and a funny pipe, both added later, and you have a character that the reading public and later the film and TV going public can visualise, admire and love.
Strange interesting detectives sprang up in many books in the early twentieth century. Lord Peter Wimsey a frivolous, languid and decadent aristocrat spent his spare time solving intricate murders in the Dorothy Sayer murder mysteries. There was also Chesterton’s Father Brown starring a short, fat, priest who wore a cassock and a funny hat and used lateral thinking, or thinking outside of the square, to solve complex mind boggling riddles of crimes.
Then there was Agatha Christie. She created two eccentric detectives destined to become superstars on a par with Sherlock Holmes, the funny little pedantic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot with the silly moustache who is full of his own importance with his little grey cells and is really a bit of a pain and Agatha Christie’s other famous detective the gossiping old lady Miss Marple who misses nothing and has a rather severe view of human nature. After creating these two eccentric sleuths Agatha Christie went on to become one of the most read writers in the world. When I was a boy people read Agatha Christie when they went to the beach as a holiday read but she was considered very low brow, today her status has improved but really she is not a great writer so why is it that she is so popular?
I put Agatha Christie’s popularity down to basically one thing, she didn’t write detective stories so much as puzzles, and puzzles of one form or another are immensely popular. Agatha Christie’s approach to a story, as in Murder at the Vicarage, is to introduce up to a dozen characters from all walks of life and to set up a situation where any one of those characters could have done the murder. There is a murder, the police arrive and the eccentric detective takes over, the clues are set out, a few red herrings are thrown in for good measure, the police get nowhere and then the eccentric detective unravels the puzzle. Agatha Christie writes clearly and concisely so the books are easy to read and easy to follow and all the time the reader is kept guessing, and clearly the reader enjoys the guessing game, the reader enjoys pitting their brains against Agatha Christie’s, they enjoy trying to outsmart the eccentric detective.
The other quality that Agatha Christie has, and this goes hand in hand with the puzzle format, is the ability to create a dozen or more quite distinctive stereotype characters, the priest, the retired soldier, the interfering old lady, the lethargic young girl, the love struck boy, the energetic but rude police detective, the self-possessed artist, the unloved wife and so on. Agatha Christie’s ability to create a mob of energetic and individual stereotype characters enables the reader to follow her puzzles with ease. Finally the eccentric detective is a draw card in itself and the weird little man, Hercule Poirot, is a real draw card every bit as famous as the great Sherlock Holmes.
Another quality Agatha Christie has is the ability to present interesting stage sets for her murders, a famous train in Murder on the Orient Express, a river boat in Death on the Nile, an archaeological dig in the middle east, a holiday resort on an island, a famous hotel in London and she also uses the English grand country house and the typical quaint English Village and so on. She is also very good at throwing in the odd amusing line. The following two quotes are from The Murder at the Vicarage:
I do hate old women they tell you about their bad legs and sometimes insist on showing them to you.
There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.
There is also a whimsical side to Agatha Christie, she even satirizes herself in the form of the novelist Ariadne Oliver. Hastings is yet another of her fun characters, the loveable Hastings is a send up of the average middle class English gentleman come fuddy duddy military intelligence officer. If you peruse Murder at the Vicarage the maid, Mary, is a character of pure fun, Agatha Christie sends up the hired help, in the form of cook and girl of all trades, she can’t particularly cook, isn’t much good at cleaning, is surly with both guests and her employers alike, but they won’t say anything to her as they don’t want her to get any better, they are worried that she could find more lucrative employment elsewhere if she wasn’t so bad at her job.
An interesting point about Miss Marple, the busy body old lady detective, is that she quite often doesn’t take part in the stories to any great extent, she is more a Greek chorus sitting in the background commenting on the action. Take At Bertram’s Hotel, she is more like an avenging angel helping to guide providence than a real detective, she lets the police do ninety percent of the work. Hercule Poirot or the other hand likes to take control and he is a rather annoying creature full of his own self importance someone should write a whodunit where he gets shot. Miss Marple has met her Waterloo in the book Miss Marple Struts her Stuff however, I know this as, in fact, I wrote the book! It’s coming out soon try it.
Cheers Anthony E Thorogood July 2015
I also wrote
In Bed with Jane Austen
About to start In Bed with Jane Austen woohoo looking forward to Jack Hamma’s next case.
An awesome book! It’s really funny and you’ll just love the book.