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British detectives

James Hodge, who contributed an interesting post a few weeks ago, shares his thoughts on British detectives.


'I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.'

My 'attic' is not so organized, nor its 'furniture' so carefully selected as Sherlock Holmes' and maybe that is why there is a whole corner dedicated to the bric-a-brac of what he would surely have considered frivolous: the detective story - especially the British detective story. As an American, of course, I began with the 'noir' treatment of the hard-boiled shamus: Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, and its ultimate cinematic expression in 1941: The Maltese Falcon - Bogart, Astor, Lorre, Greenstreet. Soon, however, despite the lure of violent retribution and untrammeled sexual innuendo in some of Hammett’s successors, I was lured into the larger world of secret societies, espionage, shadowy characters, deadly substances and fabulous treasures both in Britain and from the far-flung reaches of the empire. I discovered Sherlock Holmes.

Poe’s Auguste Dupin appeared first historically, but simply set the stage for the unique British sleuth who was to draw the global audience into the theater of imagined crime and punishment. Conan Doyle’s creation sent ripples of influence spreading outward in time and place, so that now there are literary detectives in every corner of the world: an ancient Chinese sleuth, a contemporary Japanese police official, a number of Spanish and Italian policemen, and arguably the best-known fictional policeman of modern time: that ne plus ultra petit bourgeois Maigret, whom - in defiance of the myriad French, Brit, Irish, Canadian and other actors who played him - I always picture as a rotund, too-warmly dressed figure sitting in his favorite bistro, pipe in mouth and red wine in hand. Things have advanced so far in the U.S. that at least two American authors have fictionally deserted their native land to create popular 'English' detectives.

Sherlock Holmes

The creation of a Scots doctor, who employed his literary alter ego as narrator, Sherlock Holmes is an arresting figure: violin, pipe, cocaine, the seduction of intellectually probing a problem, the manic energy to wrestle with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Even the titles of his tales are a kind of exotic riddle: The Five Orange Pips, the Engineer’s Thumb, The Speckled Band, The Second Stain.

No matter how eerily eloquent an author may be, if some producer and some director so choose, his or her prose will be translated into two- or even three-dimensional images in cinema or television or both. Because of my placement in the chronology of the twentieth century, my first experience of Holmes beyond the printed page was in a series of films with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson, who both unaccountably lived on in film to help fight WWII. The series began just two years before the cinematic apotheosis of Sam Spade and stretched to 1946. My child’s mind was persuaded to make the transition from the frenetic physicality and lightning-bolt mind of my reader’s imagination to the nasal aristocracy and sang-froid of Rathbone and his cohort, the harumphingly likable Bruce. I became, in fact, so used to Rathbone as Holmes that my first sight of him as someone else was the equivalent of discovering that Santa Claus was an impostor.

The only original, imaginative picture of him that could not be erased by the films was the struggle at Reichenbach Falls. That desperate shadowy figure just is not Rathbone for me. Rathbone and Bruce, in turn, made it difficult for me to fully appreciate Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke in their very well done television series. The most recent permutation of the great detective is simply beyond my tolerance: Robert Downey, Jr., as a hybrid of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Holmes even makes an appearance in the twenty-fourth century, on the holodeck of the star ship Enterprise, played by Data, who inadvertently programs a Moriarty so real and competent that he becomes a genuine adversary. In these episodes, Data resembles Rathbone more than my original mental picture of Holmes. He is logical, of course and unflappable, but it is Moriarty who has the leaps of intuition, and it is Picard who contrives the ultimate solution which allows Moriarty to exist in the holodeck, while convinced that he has freed himself and entered the real world as a real person.

Whether police procedural, private detective or gifted amateur, all detective types can be found in British fiction. I am most likely to be attracted by eccentrics who lift the cover on the national psyche, as do the unaccountable universal genius Holmes and his indispensable companion, the ex-military, solid, sentimental, eventually married Watson, who brings his pistol along when asked. I am fascinated by their equally eccentric, mischievous, cantankerous, stubborn, insightful progeny. Perhaps the reason I am attracted is also the reason that some of them have made the transition from the imagination of the printed page to the pre-digested, pre-interpreted format of television. It is not merely a powerful medium; when handled deftly, it can compete in its own way with the original.


Holmes is incredible. His successors are merely improbable. By rights they should not succeed. At first, their oddity or uniqueness earns them disapproval or opprobrium. Poirot and Hastings, for instance, are a wonderful parody of Holmes and Watson - Hastings perhaps less dashing and a little klutzier than Watson; Poirot a diametric opposite of Holmes, united to his predecessor only in the overriding attention given to the care and feeding of his 'little grey cells'. Short, vain, prissy, over-dressed, diminutively mustachioed, comically accented, he and Homes together would look like a stork and a penguin. Holmes must now and then resort to his '7% solution' to distract and energize his restless mind. Christie's Poirot takes himself to dinner in the intellectual pursuit of cultured, gustatory pleasure.

Unlike Holmes or any of the others I will mention, Poirot is the only one I know of who made it to American radio (in the 1940s), where he is already denying angrily that he is French. His accent precedes his appearance in film and television. Like sleuthing Brits, he also appears in a supremely successful TV series, played by David Suchet in a tour-de-force performance that has forever imprinted itself on my mind, as on many others, as the definitive Poirot. It is impossible now to read a line in which Poirot says 'Hastings' without hearing one of Suchet’s intonations. And since I am older and wiser, I am not offended, but fascinated to find the actor in some other part which underlines for me how different Poirot is from anyone else he has played. Poirot - one of many who came to the land of the Brits determined to prove himself in his adopted home and found both welcome and success. It's a nice memory.

Miss Marple

The other Christie character I most appreciate is Jane Marple. Since her time, little old ladies with unexpected deductive abilities are cluttering up the landscape, doing things that Miss Marple would not be caught dead doing. The original is more than simply a convenient gimmick. She is even more than a metaphor for the value of what we now like to call 'senior citizens'. She offers testimony to the value of the small things in life - whether small villages, small lives or small endeavors. No great good or evil can surprise 'Aunt Jane', because she has seen it all in embryo in St. Mary Mead.

Septua- octo- and nonagenarians everywhere rejoice when the little old lady from the sticks goes one up on the arrogant or choleric authority figure. People who are used to being passed by or ignored because of age or social position chuckle when a solution appears out of nowhere from a likable, small-town busybody.

Like Poirot, she participates in a series of cases, and gradually inspires respect in the official police. It is foolhardy to discount the flamboyant foreigner, just because he is in some ways comical. It is just as foolish to disregard the unassuming country woman, whose knitting - for all you know - may hold the answer to the murderous puzzle before you.

Probably like everyone else, I liked Margaret Rutherford as an actress, but I could never like her as Jane Marple. The definitive interpretation of Miss Marple's character came with Joan Hickson. I appreciated the faithfulness of those scripts to the story and Hickson’s portrayal of the uncannily insightful spinster. She added a new dimension to my understanding of what I had (perhaps myopically) understood as a very intelligent, if under-appreciated old lady. Hickson could infuse phrases like 'Oh, do you think so?' 'Yes, I see', and 'No, I didn’t know that', with such an intense, almost sibylline significance, that I would find myself thinking: 'Oho! What became of the kindly old lady? Where did this cunning, nineteenth century diplomat come from?' Re-reading some of her stories now is rather like reading familiar old letters from a favorite uncle, after discovering that he had been an international spy.

Morse and Lewis

After the preening but captivating French. . .Belgian, and the self-effacing denizen of a time warp village, who could compete for our attention, and what would be peculiarly 'Brit' about him? Perhaps a mildly duck-footed Thames Valley detective inspector named Morse, whose typically failed love affair early in life led to a failure to graduate from Oxford. Notwithstanding the lack of a degree and a humble background, he sprinkles his Received Pronunciation with cryptic multi-lingual tidbits. (Is it true that only about 2% of Brits still 'speak Oxford'?) He is accompanied in the novels by a middle-aged Welsh sidekick and on television by a younger Geordie sergeant, neither of whom gives any ground to Watson or Hastings.

By the way, who decided to change Colin Dexter’s middle-aged Welshman into a younger Geordie? Was it because they found someone who had already played the part demonstrably well? No matter; it worked. Somewhere, however, must be a talented Welsh character actor who was done out of a great opportunity.

With Morse and Lewis, again, I was a reader before I was a viewer, but the TV series engulfed the original characters in my mind. They are still a wonderful contrast, easily competitive with Holmes and Watson or Poirot and Hastings. Again the camaraderie of the visibly unmatched. Rather like visiting the era of the Napoleonic wars and witnessing the mutual affection of an aristocratic officer and his up-from-the-ranks sergeant. The perennial (but not confirmed) bachelor, with a crusty exterior, but a heart of mush for a fair lady versus the stable, friendly family man. The 'Oxford don' of a policeman, sporadically but relentlessly attempting to bring some culture into Lewis's life. The sergeant, who - if his fingernails were not so clean - could have stepped straight out of a coal mine, constantly worrying about Morse and the drink. (Could it be that Morse’s particular kind of mental attic is illuminated by the lambent glow of the 'best bitter'?)

Lewis, skeptical as necessary, but essentially a 'man of the people', who can sympathize with his peers or with those of more exalted standing. Morse, knowing himself the equal of anyone and skeptical of his own peers. Lewis, intelligent and eager to learn, struggling to follow Morse's intellectual leaps, but attuned to the mundane and the modern. Morse, whose ancient Jaguar symbolizes his own condition as a brilliant and isolated anachronism. I will always remember John Thaw's voice, when Morse was a bit annoyed at his sergeant: 'Lyeuuuwis!'

Andrew Dalziel

Holmes is unorthodox but respectable, Poirot is alien but respectable, Miss Marple is nothing if not respectable, Morse is so cultured as to be beyond respectability. So let us leave the influence of London and Oxford and small English villages and explore another aspect of the United Kingdom, whence comes a ridiculously fat, gluttonous, offensive Scotsman, who delights in scratching himself in the worst possible places when in polite company. Andrew Dalziel, whose name suffers as many mutilations as Poirot’s, because it, too, does not comport with English orthography.

Dalziel himself, another rough exterior with a heart of gold, would no doubt horrify Morse if they ever met. He too touches reality through his bear-like affection for Peter Pascoe and his family. His devil-take-the-hindmost approach reminds me of stories about why the Scottish regiments of the British army were so universally admired. Charge over the top, take no prisoners, then have a bite and a drink. I am afraid I saw little resemblance to him in the television series. He just wasn’t comical, fat, gluttonous or offensive enough. Perhaps that just is not possible in this medium.

Jack Frost and Rumpole

Two other 'characters' I have enjoyed were introduced to me via television, encouraging me to read the stories: Jack Frost - stubborn, intuitive, anti-establishmentarian, incapable of a reasonable, or even reasonably tidy, home life - the epitome of the police officer who is good for nothing else in life; and that legal rascal, Rumpole of the Bailey, whose life consists of guerilla warfare against his wife and all other powers-that-be, whether in his chambers or in the court. In the case of Rumpole, I strongly suspect that someone told the casting director: 'Find me someone like John Mortimer'.

Adam Dalgleish

I know I should include Adam Dalgleish. I have both read and watched his stories and the actor seems to me a fine match to what I imagined he could be. His cases are intriguing and PD James weaves her plots captivatingly. I appreciate him as an apparently laid-back detective who solves interesting problems. He is probably the one I would most like to share a cup of tea or coffee and a talk. Although he is clearly intense when worrying a problem, he has no outstanding eccentricity to rattle my sensibilities like the others. Maybe that’s what makes him good at what he does.

No one can write a better detective story than a Brit, and there are no better electronic culminations of this art than the series just cited. In a world of political confusion and religious confrontation, it is good to be able to take refuge in a bit of fictional crime with your choice of eccentric guides to the truth, and preferably, no confusion about who the hero and who the villain are.
- James Hodge

A Murder Is Announced

Below is a brief video introduction to Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in A Murder is Announced. Morse's Lewis plays a policeman very like Lewis in the production.

As Jim notes, British murder mysteries were often set in villages - perfectly fulfilling Aristotle's advice on unity of place and action - and the attractions of village life have never seemed more appealing.

Comments (3)

Yet no mention of the inestimable figure of Father Brown? He, too, was not only a regular in 52 stories, later compiled into 4 books, but televised, and made into a movie starring Sir Alec Guinness as the good Father Brown.

A strange silence for such a British figure and brainchild of G. K. Chesterton - prior, I might add, to his conversion to Catholicism.

james Hodge:

Jeff Hendrix

You will have to excuse my "attic" not being fully furnished. I have enjoyed reading Chesterton's Father Brown, but have not "seen" him. I suspect you are the first of many who will point out what I have missed. I hope they all do me the same service and direct my attention to something I have missed. I will be interested to see if I can find the Guinness film. Thank you.

Maragret Fraser:

I am trying to learn the name of an old movie in which a little girl is murdered in a small village - very haunting music in background is an old folk song - does it have to do with a child who tends the geese? There is a picturesque church and river in it.Perhaps Alastair Sim was in the movie - late 1940's, 1950's???

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