So, needless to say, if you need to know how to kill someone, talk to me.
During the time I wasn't thinking about mystery, I was trying to concentrate on my own writing. Unfortunately, my fantasy novel was (and is) stuck around chapter twenty-five, and I couldn't whip up any inspiration. Thus, I did the obvious thing, and started writing a murder mystery. Given my rich history of murder fiction, I immediately started thinking about which elements of other detectives I liked and disliked.
I rated them by three criteria:
a) Methods of Detection - high emphasis on what: Psychology? physical evidence? intuition?
b) Personality - Intriguing? boring? Stoic or excitable?
c) Interesting Side-kicks - Are they just there to make the boss look good, or do they have a brain?
|Philip Jackson as Japp; Suchet; Hugh Fraser as Cap. Hastings|
First, and my all-time favorite, was Agatha Christie's recognizable detective, Hercule Poirot. His method of detection is distinctive, interesting, and enigmatic. The reader (or viewer, in my case - I haven't read many of the books) is drawn into the investigation, always wondering why Poirot is asking about stockings, elephants, or other miscellanea. But one is ever aware that Poirot is not being weird for weirdness' sake. The aura of eternal wheel-turning in his little grey cells is perfect for a main detective. Nothing kills a detective story quicker than having an overly fallible or mentally lazy sleuth.
(David Suchet is by far the best TV incarnation of the sleuth, and will be wrapping up the series, which has spanned twenty-two years and sixty-five episodes, next year.)
As all Christie’s sleuths, Poirot focuses mostly on psychology, motive, and so forth. My favorite Poirot story, Card on the Table, features a murder in a room where four people had the motive, opportunity, and access to a weapon. The only way to determine the true killer is through an examination of their psychology. One is too timid, another too honest….I know that psychology is hardly a foolproof method of detection, but it really fascinates me. I get that from my mom, another mystery buff.
Poirot's personality is quirky, unusual, and very memorable. Half the fun is watching Poirot be Poirot - laughing as he declares with a little smirk that he is the world's greatest detective, as he makes simple grammar mistakes (on purpose, we learn in Three Act Tragedy), or is indignant when he's mistaken for a Frenchman.
His side-kicks manage to soften Poirot's more extreme personality quirks. Captain
lichéd today, were cutting edge in Conan Doyle's times. Now, it's a little difficult to be excited by Holmes checking for footprints, cigar ash, or posting advertisements in the Times, because that's what all detectives do. Occasionally, he'll come up with something pretty clever that will pique my imagination, but since he pretty much created the genre, he's a bit out of date. But I'll allow differences in opinion on that one.
Using these methods of gathering evidence, Holmes makes extraordinary inductive leaps from A to B. (Aside: He calls his methods deductions, but that's incorrect. Deduction is deducing particulars from general facts; induction is taking the particulars and expanding to the general). His motto is “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true.” Personally, when designing my detective, I didn't want to rely on something as shaky as that principle. Here's a much better explanation than mine:
“[Vimes] distrusted the kind of person who'd take one look at another man and say in a lordly voice to his companion, ‘Ah, my dear sir, I can tell you nothing except that he is a left-handed stonemason who has spent some years in the merchant navy and has fallen on hard times,’ and then unroll a lot of supercilious commentary about calluses and stance and the state of the man’s boots, when exactly the same comments could apply to a man who was wearing his old clothes because he’d been doing a spot of home bricklaying for a new barbecue pit, and had been tattooed once when he was drunk and seventeen (these terms are often synonymous) and in fact got seasick on a wet pavement….It wasn’t by eliminating the impossible that you got at the truth, however improbable; it was by the much harder process of eliminating the possibilities.”-Terry Pratchett, “Feet of Clay”
So while I respect Holmes’s readiness to do most of his own legwork (unlike the self-professed armchair detective, Poirot), he jumps to conclusions a bit too often for my taste. It would be perfectly fine if the most probable thing happened all the time, but it just doesn’t. We don’t live in a rational world. People do stupid things that they really can’t explain afterwards. Why was the butler late meeting Harry the gardener at the corner of 9th and Carbuncle? Probably not because he’d had second thoughts about their illegal dealings, more likely that he stopped halfway and forgot where he was going because he was distracted by a passing circus. Unlikely is always more likely. Likely really doesn't exist. Weird things happen every day. People don’t make sense; the world doesn’t make sense.
Holmes's personality is unique, though not quite as eccentric as Poirot. The Holmes of the book is intriguing because he is, himself, a mystery, but most actors did not have that option, so each puts their personal spin on him.
|Cumberbatch as Holmes; Martin Freeman as Watson|
My favorite is Benedict Cumberbatch, of the BBC's modern reimagining (Sherlock). He turns Holmes into a “highly functioning sociopath,” and most of the interest centers around Sherlock's bumbling attempts to relate to other people. His personality is highly developed, even by the end of the first episode, and after two or three of them, you know exactly what sort of person Sherlock is. Like all well-fleshed-out characters, you can predict them, “Ha, that would drive Sherlock crazy!” and be surprised by them "Wow, didn't see that coming..."
As for side-kicks, Sherlock might just take the cake. Martin Freeman’s John Watson is amazing. He takes the character way beyond the original, becoming less of a bumbling idiot and more of a supportive ally. Sherlock really wouldn't be much of anything without John around to explain things to. The rest of the cast is much better than most shows, with even the peripheral characters, like Sherlock's brother, Mycroft, or their landlady, Mrs. Hudson, being highly developed.
Next on the list is G.K. Chesterton’s humble and childlike Father Brown. The good father often stumbles into mysteries by sheer providence, and halfway through the proceedings, baffles everyone by blurting something along the lines of “Oh, he didn’t do it. His hair’s the wrong color.” Drawn by curiosity, the skeptics cross-examine him until, shred by shred, he unveils the obvious. He shows them what they should have seen for themselves, had they been looking at it the right way.
|More as Father Brown|
Unlike Holmes, Brown’s methods are very much intuition-driven; he’ll cross a suspect off the list because the man has a religious belief that doesn’t fit the character of the criminal. He doesn’t care much for proof, only for truth. Chesterton used the medium of Father Brown to deliver his theological views, particularly his love of paradox. It elevates the story, making it more than just a mind-game and takes it into a place where one must think about ethics, ideas, and worldviews as well as motive and opportunity. Ther's very little realism, but like most of Chesterton's fiction, it falls into a realm of fantasy-theology with a heavy dash of whimsy. Don't take them too seriously, and you'll have lots of fun. So far, Kenneth More has been the best actor to portray him (I have revised my earlier opinion), but I'm interested to see Mark Williams next year.
When it comes to side-kicks, he doesn’t really have any, except for the occasional cameo from Flambeau, a redeemed burglar, thanks to Father Brown’s efforts. On the other hand, they aren't really required.
On the downside, the show could do better with its sidekicks. Sam Stewart (played by Honeysuckle Weeks), Foyle's driver (he doesn't drive for some mysterious reason, though I highly suspect it's so the writers could add another sidekick), is a very well-rounded character, but they could have done more with her. Same with Paul Milner (Anthony Howell), Foyle's sergeant, a one-legged vet with very wooden acting and marital troubles. Most of the storylines involving them lean towards the drama side, rather than the comic relief, or even the detecting side of things. Both of them could have been funnier, if they'd been given the lines. If a show is always serious, it just takes itself too seriously. They missed an opportunity there.