Detectives - the dominant characters of the 20th Century Discuss

IdleRich

IdleRich
Maigret starring Blackadder was on TV the other day and I quite enjoyed it. I've never read the novels and on looking them up I was surprised to learn that Simenon is one of the highest selling authors of all time. The very biggest I believe is Agatha Christie. With that it struck me how dominant the detective novel, film etc had become in the 20th Century. Holmes popped up towards the end of the 19th and I assume that that was when the idea of the genius detective was given form and the general rules of the genre were set in place.

Holmes, Father Brown, Poirot, Miss Marple, Maigret... those alone have racked up literally billions in book sales (translated into every language known to man), countless television hours and I don't know how many film adaptations. And they are just the most famous few; even if we count police procedurals as a very slightly different genre, it feels as though half of the TV shows and books that get made - certainly an enormous proportion of the culture that is created - are about detectives.

In fact detective stories are so standard that they are even used to anchor otherwise strange settings. For example Mieville's The City and The City was set in some bizarre world in which two cities were intertwined throughout the same space, yet at the same time utterly separated - a headscratcher to get to grips with, but luckily the story itself was the familiar tale of a mysteriously dead girl dumped in some wasteland, the reader could orient themselves by that.

Similarly there was a alternative history thing a while back set in a Nazi occupied UK. And how did the programme explore the consequences of German victory in the war? They had the toothless members of occupied Britain's police force try and solve a series of murders of course.

Not bad going for a genre that barely existed before Holmes (yes there is the Murders in the Rue Morgue and I seem to remember reading an earlier one by Hoffman that some claim is the first of the genre but I don't think the world really sat up and took notice until Arthur Conan-Doyle). From almost nowhere then to being utterly dominant in the 20th century - and showing no signs of letting up.

So, why did detective stories suddenly become so popular? Was it just a 20th century thing that will fade away as we go forwards, or will they keep on being made until we simply have two choices - detective story or Marvel*? And... as a rule, are they any good? Do any escape and transcend the shackles of genre fiction to become something more or is that impossible? Or, conversely, am I being snobby talking about genre fiction? Should whodunnits be taken more seriously?

Teach me about detectives in short, the what and the why and everything else.



*Is there a superhero called Detective Man or Sleuth Girl or something? If not then someone should create it and they will be guaranteed to becone a billionaire and completely dominate the entirety of culture for ever onwards... aaaargh it doesn't bear thinking of...
 
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version

Warehouse Operative
I think at least part of the appeal's that a single perspective attempting to piece things together and make sense of them is as much a description of each of us as it is a Sherlock Holmes or a Miss Marple.
 

catalog

Well-known member
Sorry this isn't the answer you are probably looking for but...

It's a post enlightenment thing I think, the in-between before you get to the 1960s.

The detective as solver of all things is a trope that becomes popular just as the idea around how its possible to know everything starts to wane.

At the height of the Victorian era, it was a "thing" that an educated gentleman of certain wealth and connections could know everything.

And as it became clear that this was not the case, fantasy literature provided an outlet for the fantasies of all of the people who bought into it.

And it was a good spin cos it could be played upon, to the nth degree, cos its a hero thing where you make yourself into the hero, and as it starts to become apparent that you of they don't know what's going on, it no longer matters, and the ride is what takes over, therefore into c20th.
 

version

Warehouse Operative
I dunno about a superhero called 'Detective Man' or 'Sleuth Girl', but Batman's sometimes referred to as the world's greatest detective and DC stands for "Detective Comics".
 

jenks

thread death
I think also detective fiction is satisfying - we get solutions/answers. The rules are strict (the 10 rules of Father Knox) it’s a genre that transcends cultures etc. allows for both highbrow and pulp versions. It’s a very accommodating genre and early on gave a space for female sleuths. Plus in the end satisfies that hunger for crime that is still here today with all that true crime podcast stuff (or how we love to hear about women being murdered)
I like Maigret - many for the way he offers this slice of crime in 150 pages whilst also slowly building the character so before too long you know how Maigret is going to react in any situation.
 

version

Warehouse Operative
The rules are strict (the 10 rules of Father Knox) it’s a genre that transcends cultures etc. allows for both highbrow and pulp versions. It’s a very accommodating genre and early on gave a space for female sleuths.
Yeah, it's such a solid concept and formula that there's lots of room for subversion, e.g. Pynchon, Altman and the whole stoner/psychedelic take on it, Gibson's cyberpunk version, Borges metaphysical detective stories and so on.
 

version

Warehouse Operative
I dunno how tight a definition of detective Rich is working with, but I can't ever see stories centred on an individual solving a mystery disappearing. It's too universal, for the reason stated in my first post. It's also a fundamental part of lots of people's jobs, be they journalists, police officers, lawyers or plenty of other things.
 

IdleRich

IdleRich
Sorry this isn't the answer you are probably looking for but...

It's a post enlightenment thing I think, the in-between before you get to the 1960s.

The detective as solver of all things is a trope that becomes popular just as the idea around how its possible to know everything starts to wane.
This is exactly what I'm looking for.

But with that start bit it seems to me you're saying something that reminds me a little of the standard explanation for why people like to believe in Conspiracy Theories; the idea that there is someone behind it all with reasons for what they do is comforting in a strange way even if that person is evil.

And so a detective who can put everything together, figure it out and solve it is comforting, cos that very process implies again that there is a solution, there is an explanation and even if the normal person can't see it, we know that a funny little Belgian man with over-active grey cells can.
 

Slothrop

Tight but Polite
I guess that at some level the detective story is just a distillation of how we acquire and interpret knowledge about the world, isn't it? So it's not that surprising that you get, say, Eco using it as the template for Name of the Rose, and Burroughs subverting it in Cities of the Red Night (IIRC, it's been years since I read it...)? Or Paul Auster's New York Trilogy or whatever. And paranoid fiction - the unclear distinctions between seeing mundane connections between the observed clues, and making metaphysical or symbolic connections, and inventing a whole paranoid worldview by overinterpreting happenstance and coincidence. As in, say, Crying of Lot 49, right?
 

IdleRich

IdleRich
I dunno about a superhero called 'Detective Man' or 'Sleuth Girl', but Batman's sometimes referred to as the world's greatest detective and DC stands for "Detective Comics".
Does it now? Never knew that, they've obviously moved far away from that then. I was gonna say that, luckily, my nightmarish idea of a marvel/Marple hybrid wouldn't really work... but I'm not sure that's true, both genres have shown they can be stretched and twisted to incredible lengths and still succeed, so a super hero with the power of solving mysteries is terrifyingly plausible.
 

IdleRich

IdleRich
Sorry this isn't the answer you are probably looking for but...

It's a post enlightenment thing I think, the in-between before you get to the 1960s.

The detective as solver of all things is a trope that becomes popular just as the idea around how its possible to know everything starts to wane.

At the height of the Victorian era, it was a "thing" that an educated gentleman of certain wealth and connections could know everything.

And as it became clear that this was not the case, fantasy literature provided an outlet for the fantasies of all of the people who bought into it.
One thing that ties in with this a little I think... Sherlock Holmes (and also, is it, Dupont in the Murders in the Rue Morgue?) are almost magic geniuses who instantly solve the problems.

We are all very familiar with Holmes providing impossibly accurate descriptions of someone ten seconds after meeting them - "The left cuff of your shirt was slightly more frayed which could only mean..." - and in TMITRM there is a bit where the narrator is walking along lost in reverie and the detective breaks into his thoughts to answer the exact question he was struggling with. He explains this by saying "I saw you pause by that wall and then look at the sky..." and reconstructs his entire train of thought this way.

In each case this is entertaining but completely ridiculous, there are many possible reasons for the frayed cuff or pausing by the wall, yet the detective unerringly picks the correct choice in hilariously long chains.

But by Poirot this kind of incredible power of deduction has been abandoned. In parallel with humanity's increasing uncertainty Poirot is not as superhuman as Holmes, however compared to later, more modern detectives he still has an impossible level of certainty.

Does that make sense? And do you agree?
 

WashYourHands

Cat Malogen
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IdleRich

IdleRich
I think also detective fiction is satisfying - we get solutions/answers. The rules are strict (the 10 rules of Father Knox) it’s a genre that transcends cultures etc. allows for both highbrow and pulp versions.
I'm not sure what they are to be honest. I suspect that one can instinctively tell when one has been violated though.
I remember a murder mystery in which there were, say, ten people at a dinner in a restaurant and one of the party was murdered. The book centred on interviews and investigations of the nine who remained... and then on the last page it revealed that the murderer was an enemy bearing a grudge who was sitting on the nearest table and who had not been mentioned up to that point. Any reader who made it that far is certain to groan with disappointment.
 

IdleRich

IdleRich
I dunno how tight a definition of detective Rich is working with, but I can't ever see stories centred on an individual solving a mystery disappearing. It's too universal, for the reason stated in my first post. It's also a fundamental part of lots of people's jobs, be they journalists, police officers, lawyers or plenty of other things.
I don't know how tight either...

But, if the mystery solving experience is so universal or relatable or whatever, for me it kinda raises the question of why it took so long for them to take off. Surely the problem of trying to figure out who killed and ate the village cow while everyone was asleep last night is as old as villages themselves.
 

IdleRich

IdleRich
Holmes: Get your coat and scarf Watson, we are facing an interesting three-pipe problem involving a tree
Watson: Really, what kind of tree?
Holmes: It's a lemon tree Watson.
 

IdleRich

IdleRich
Can we identify any trends or types etc in detective novels? It's slightly tricky cos it is such a huge field, you have to pull apart the strands and then identify trends within those types.

I would certainly say as I did anove that the infallible logic machines - Holmes, Dupont, Poirot - became less popular over time and those that remained became less infallible. But what else,
 
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