Tuesday, 28 February 2017
Detectives and stuff
I go through periods of listening to some of the crime dramas which Radio 4 Extra faithfully plays for the nation’s entertainment. In some cases, these have led to me reading some of the books associated with those same authors and characters.
I have observations on these authors and characters. They are unlikely to be original. They are not profound. But I feel the compulsion to share.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes
Recommended reads: The Hound of the Baskervilles (novel), The Red-Headed League (short story in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)
By a long way, Holmes is the most well-known, iconic detective in English crime history. He is the model for many other detectives that followed, and not just in crime fiction. The TV series, Sherlock – not to mention Elementary and the recent films – are not the only Holmes stories. House was Sherlock Holmes in a hospital. Bones, Numb3rs and a great number of other series revolve around a somewhat-condescending genius solving mysteries with a sidekick. Not all Sherlocks smoke pipes. Jonathan Creek wears a duffel coat.
Of course, there are different details – even within the official Sherlock Holmes stories. But give Sherlock Holmes the relevant jobs in each of these series, and the stories would basically be unaltered.
We are drawn to the autistic savant. I wonder why. Is it that we can comfort ourselves and our lack of intelligence/learning by the fact that we are at least human, and better relationally?
Or perhaps it simply lends itself to good explanatory dialogue. The Watson is the voice of the reader, keeping the story grounded, the Holmes is the voice of the author, driving the explanation.
That’s all without mentioning one of the foremost Sherlocks:
Agatha Christie/Hercules Poirot
Recommended reads for Poirot: The ABC Murders, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Recommended reads for non-Poirot: And Then There Were None, The Witness For The Prosecution (both of which have been skilfully, albeit humourlessly adapted for TV recently)
Christie herself fully recognised that she was writing within the tradition of Holmes style stories. A moustache instead of a pipe, and pomposity instead of opium, but with a similar role in the stories, a similar sidekick, wise observations and ingenious deductions.
My observations about Poirot are more my observations on Christie. Her novels generally (and thir adaptations) are machines. It seems to me that Christie decided the unique twist for a story (often an unlikely method of murder, but also unlikely culprits (e.g. And Then There Were None, Crooked House, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) and then worked her way out from there, complicating the story to mislead the reader in as many ways as possible.
With Christie, everything serves a direct storytelling purpose. Virtually every character will have the suspicion of guilt cast upon them.
This helps keep the story moving but limits the emotional impact and longevity of the story. Roger Ackroyd’s twist may have readers skimming the story again but there’s little pull to re-enter the imaginative worlds of even the most atmospheric of her stories. Once you know the answer the joy is mostly over.
I do not mean this as criticism – the stories are tremendous fun and there are certainly moments of humour along the way. And Poirot himself is the embodiment of that – although he’s colourfully described, and has his own cute catchphrases (‘the little grey cells’), his function in the stories is quite straightforward.
She wrote prolifically and her non-Poirot stories are often a little more interesting in my view. But this is largely to compare the alpha-male detectives, like for like – such as our next detective:
Dorothy Sayers/Lord Peter Wimsey
I must admit to not having read/listened to as much Wimsey as the others in this list. But The Nine Tailors is fresh in my memory from a recent read and the contrast to a Poirot story is noticeable.
The Nine Tailors has a longwinded joy about it. Its heart is a theme – of bellringing – used throughout the book in different ways – not just mechanically, for the mystery, but to introduce the reader to a whole type of British life that may be unfamiliar to many.
I grew up in a rural Church of England church, was briefly a verger there, and have a campanologist father. To me, it felt like home. But even for me, the details of water drainage and canals were an unfamiliar diversion. There is plenty in the book that does not directly serve the plot or the mystery, but speak to the broader person. The book isn’t filled with red herrings.
A Christie novel is like an architectural plan, sticking to the essentials. Sayers is more like a painting, highlighting the meaning of a story.
Wimsey himself is the personification of this. He gets involved in stories largely through curiosity, as a pastime. He isn’t driven, with a great sense of urgency, but plods slowly through his “detectin’”. Bunter is not much of a Watson, because Wimsey is far more personable in the first place. Wimsey is less a copy of Holmes, and more of a Jeeves/Wooster hybrid. Well-meaning and aristocratic like Wooster but with the genius of Jeeves.
I will certainly read more Sayers, and perhaps the Nine Tailors is an outlier. But I want to comment finally on the terrific…
Francis Durbridge/Paul Temple
To clarify, I mean ‘terrific’ in the sense that it is so dreadfully written it instills terror.
OK, I’ve only listened to the radio series. And they have royally entertained me, largely through being so bad they become good again.
Where to start with Paul Temple? OK, the cliffhangers. The writing is like Dan Brown raised to the power of Left Behind. Constant mystery, cliffhangers and clichés. Except, unlike with Agatha Christie, they are not even remotely resolved. Although the final episode will have twenty minutes or so of explanation, it will be so full of holes you could stick it in the Algarve and call it a golf course.
The characters act nearly entirely illogically. Paul Temple, the genius detective, stumbles from incident to incident, being deliberately mysterious and private about his thoughts for no reason, and getting him and usually his wife (Steve!) into mortal danger. The evil drug gangs that are behind each ‘affair’ (for that is what they are typically called) usually have some totally pointless distinctive calling card (like custom-made cocktail sticks) which serve no purpose to their gang but give the story a mysterious flavour.
The characters themselves are nearly entirely unlikeable; in particular, Paul Temple. He is more condescending than Moriarty falling down the Reichenbach Falls. I am no feminist but his patronising attitude to his wife is deeply off-putting. But worse still is their joint attitude towards Charlie, their butler(?) – who is ridiculed at every turn for no good reason other than to put the less fortunate in their place.
These points, and the one-dimensional characters, would be forgivable, were it not for the seemingly complete lack of self-awareness evident in the writing.
Despite all of this, I somehow like the series. The crisp accents, the hammy plot devices and the vintage music somehow compel me to listen to each series – in the hope that there will be a satisfying ending to a mystery.
It would be fun to look at many more detective shows, and books to see how they’re written, how their characters are developed. Father Brown would be an interesting study, as would some of the more modern detectives like Morse. But that would take much more watching, listening and reading on my behalf.
So over to you… tell me about your favourite detectives and how they are written.