The detective yarn is one of the most formally defined modes of storytelling. There is a victim, or victims. There is a crime, or crimes. There is a criminal, or criminals. There are clues, which on first blush do not correspond in a meaningful way with the apparent series of events. In fact, the apparent series of events probably doesn’t hold together very well, giving the motivation for a deeper investigation by the detective.
Ah, the detective.
You see, for each story you have to change the criminal*, the victim, the clues and the details of the crime. In fact, the only thing you are really allowed to keep is the detective. So the detective becomes the hook, and authorial investment in this character becomes paramount.
At the same time, there isn’t really room in the average detective fable for detailed characterisation of the sort you would find in a serious novel. There is no opportunity for the fine brushwork found in Dostoevsky or George Eliot. Detectives have to be drawn boldly, more Rolf Harris with a roller than Rembrandt with a brush.
That, in brief, is why fictional detectives can mostly be described on the inside of a book of matches:
Sherlock Holmes - tall, aquiline, drug-addicted violinist
Father Brown - tubby Catholic cleric from Essex
Miss Marple - interfering rural granny
Hercule Poirot - snobbish moustachioed Belgian
Lord Peter Wimsey - A lord
Albert Campion - wrong side of the blanket, keeps dodgy company
Columbo - scruffy raincoat, not as scatty as he looks
Inspector Morse - Gruffly drinks beer and does crosswords in Oxford
Brother Cadfael - Medieval monk
Falco** - Roman
Inspector Rebus - Gruffly drinks beer and does crosswords in Edinburgh
It’s easy to add your own.
After a while, it becomes increasingly difficult to come up with original matchbook descriptions. Brother Cadfael starts to seem a little too similar to Brother William of Baskerville, Hetty Wainthrop to Miss Marple. So the pursuit is always on for distinctive detectives. The trouble being the fact that most of the good ones are taken.
So, lying on my sickbed, I’ve been idly working out the next great quirky detective.
It can’t be a spaceman (Outland and the short-lived Star Cops), or a politician (come on, detective stories are about uncovering the truth). We’ve had everything from gardeners to country singers to radio DJs. Borges and Bioy Casares (writing as Hilario Bustos Domeq) even wrote a collection of stories in which the detective was in prison. There are authors and ghosts, obsessive compulsives and shedloads of kids.
Look, when there’s even a chimp detective you know you’ve got to try harder.
My sheet of paper is full of crossings out. Only one idea hasn’t been struck through, so this is my offering to the world of the roman policier: the detective should be an Elvis impersonator. Call it ‘Suspicious Minds’, send me 10% of the royalties and we’ll all be happy.
* You think not? The most famous fictional criminal, Professor Moriarty, is first mentioned in ‘The Final Problem’, the story in which he is also killed off. He does appear repeatedly in the very influential Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce wartime films featuring Sherlock Holmes (where he stands as an analogue of the Nazi enemy), but these are more in the manner of thrillers and so play by different rules.