Sunday, October 7, 2012

Detective Design

This pic makes me grin like an idiot every time I see it
Jeremy Brett, David Suchet, Peter Davison, John Thaw, or: Sherlock Holmes
Hercule Poirot, Albert Campion/Dangerous Davies, Inspector Morse

I've been a fan of murder mysteries for a long time, but this year in particular I've been bombarded by mystery shows, movies, and books. We watched the RDJ/Jude Law Sherlock Holmes movie in the spring (an abomination, most Sherlockians say, but I thought it was fun), were then prompted to watch the first season of Sherlock (wonderful, most Sherlockians say, and they’re right).

From there, along with our old favorites (Poirot, Inspector Alleyn, Miss Marple, Cadfael) we moved on to Foyle’s War, Midsomer Murders, Murdoch Mysteries, Inspector Morse, and Campion. Right now I'm into Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey novels and am watching Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. I have two Charles Finch novels on my book shelf, and me, my mom and dad are halfway through Inspector Morse series.

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 Hastings is there to give him a reproving look when he's being too vain, Inspector Japp just rolls his eyes and gets on with it, Miss Lemon is efficiency extraordinaire. While none of them manage to solve the case quicker than Poirot, they often provide accidental inspiration, casual remarks that “Make it all clear” or provide Poirot with a welcome humanity.

Next on the list (by dint of popularity) is Sherlock Holmes. His methods, though thought clichéd 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
  (Fun Fact: Using Father Brown’s simple logic, YA author and apologist N.D. Wilson produced a plausible Shroud of Turin debunker that got quite a bit of attention. And like the humble sleuth, he annoyed a lot of self-righteous scientists.)

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.

Number four on my inspiration list is D.C.S. Foyle, a created-for-TV detective who quietly battles crime in 1940’s wartime Britain. When it comes to mystery, the stories are pretty formulaic, with the classic Agatha Christie body-in-the-library tone, but the war lends another layer to the otherwise conventional setup.
Kitchen as D.C.S. Foyle
Foyle doesn’t just deal with good old-fashioned murder, but also with corruption, war crimes, spies, government cover-ups, and the Blitz. Against this backdrop, Foyle (played by Michael Kitchen) is in his element. His methods consist of little more than never backing down in the face of power, and doggedly pursuing the case, regardless of any obstacles. His resolute, unwavering determination to get his man brings him into conflict with his superiors again and again.

And that’s when Foyle, with a calm, gentle eloquence, demolishes their arguments. The bad guys will have you almost convinced that Foyle should let his principles slide, just this once, (“don’t you know there’s a war on?”) when he returns with a perfect rejoinder. It’s pure joy to watch Foyle, such a modest, upright guy, get the one-up on arrogant and powerful loudmouths. And he always does it with serious class.

Foyle's personality is really what makes the show so great, but I basically just described it. The other personal elements are kept strictly low-key, which is too bad, because it would be interesting to see Foyle have a life outside the Job. He enjoys fly-fishing and Scotch whiskey. He was married for many years, but his wife is eight years dead by the first series. His hot-head son, Andrew, is a pilot for the RAF, and this is often used as a plot device. 

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.

Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter
Lastly, Lord Peter Wimsey, the ultimate gentleman detective. Peter’s sense of humor sets him apart from nearly all other detectives (except perhaps Father Brown). He doesn’t take himself, or anything for that matter, very seriously. He’s much more practical than other detectives, and acts pretty much like a real policemen, though with a bit more freedom. His motto is that the How will lead to the Who, and thus concentrates much more on means to the end rather than motive.

His personality develops throughout the novels, beginning with the classic silly British gentleman, and morphing into a complex and deep man, plagued by shell-shock and insecurity. But always, throughout, he maintains his teasing sense of humor and wit. He’s an avid reader and collector of rare books—when he finally meets his love interest, they amuse themselves by bantering obscure quotations from John Donne or Milton.

Dorothy Sayers, to her great credit, gave her hero an intelligent and interesting Watson in Bunter, Peter’s manservant, who assists with his knowledge of forensics and photography. Having served under Peter as a sergeant during the Great War, Bunter knows him better than nearly anyone else, and saves his master’s life several times throughout the series. Another good friend of Peter’s, and the Inspector Lestrade prototype, is Chief Inspector Parker of the Yard. But Parker’s far from the bumbling Lestrade, possessing a stolid, if somewhat plodding, logic.

So I set to the plunder. My detective, Gideon Lord, is a mix-up of all five. His methods are a combination of Poirot’s psychology analysis, Father Brown’s theological intuition, and Lord Peter’s practical “How leads to Who.” Gideon, like Father Brown, is a pastor, though unlike Chesterton’s sleuth, he’s a protestant.

His personality is a mix of Peter and Father Brown, with a strong vein of Foyle's obstinacy. Gideon is light-hearted and talkative, and is constantly underestimated because of it. His slogan is that the world is a wonderful place, and he takes it seriously. His cynical sorta-side-kick, Sergeant Simon O’Neil, is always slightly embarrassed by Gideon’s constant and unembarrassed curiosity and thankfulness. Gideon’s thankfulness, in fact, is what gives him his own unique quality.

Ever since reading Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, Gideon started paying attention to things…to everything. (Needless to say, that little tidbit isn’t in the novel, but it’s how I imagined Gideon got his idea….After all, that’s where I got it.) He lives fully in the moment, looking for beauty in the world around him, and it’s because of that that he notices everything. Unlike Holmes, he isn’t bored but observant, but excited and thus observant. I always thought that was an inconsistency with Holmes. If he really was noticing everything, he’d see that the world wasn’t as boring as he thought. And unlike Poirot, he doesn't notice things because they aren't perfect (Poirot's a little OCD about symmetry), but because they are.

His hobbies are still to be made official, but I'm playing around with the ideas of gourmet cooking and acoustic guitar. Those two things could get him into all sorts of mysteries (because dinner parties, those homicidal affairs, need a chef!)

When it comes to side-kicks, I had a load of fun. Gideon's mother is his forensics expert. A former nurse and midwife, she is a die-hard Gospel music fan and can't cook to save her life. Silas Graham is a blind ex-policeman with an encyclopaedic knowledge of criminal cases for the last decade. Sheriff Cochran could be compared to Inspector Japp, but only loosely. He harbors a secret love for Jane Austen novels. Lastly, Sergeant O'Neil is more of a Lestrade character, and there's no love lost between him and Gideon. He, like Silas Graham, is an atheist, but more of a hot-head than anything.

So that's it. If you don't like mystery, that was very boring, I imagine....But if you DO, check out my new page, The Detectives, to the right, a more in-depth list of all my favorite detectives, not just the ones that influenced Gideon. It drove me nuts to cut Alleyn, Morse, and my other favorites from this article, so check them out there. Also, if you're interested in Gideon Lord's adventures, check out the page marked My Books for a description and link.

Neo-Mayberry, Middle of Nowhere, America

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