Monday, June 16, 2008

The Origins of the Great Detectives

by Julia Buckley
I once read a terrific book by William Kittredge and Steven M. Krauzer called THE GREAT AMERICAN DETECTIVE. In the introduction to this book, which contained short stories by some of the American greats including Hammett, Chandler, and MacDonald (Ross, that is), they spoke of the origin of the genre. Poe, of course, is credited with the creation of the archetype of the "classical" detective. But before the time that Sherlock Holmes was created in England (1887), Nick Carter had already appeared in American magazines, as early as 1886.

From this point on emerged two distinct genres, which Kittredge and Krauzer elaborate upon in a most interesting way. They also suggest the emergence of a third type: The Aggressor. This offshoot of the hard-boiled style tends to take the law into his own hands, often after a personal wrong has been done. In literature, an example might be Mack Bolan or Mike Hammer. In movies, think of Dirty Harry, or any number of Charles Bronson movies. But before the aggressor, there were two basic genres existing together and forming what we now know about the mystery story--and its detective. Those two, of course, were the Classical and the Hard-Boiled styles.

Kittredge and Krauzer broke it down like this:

Features of The Classical Detective:

* He (or she) is an amateur
* Even if he accepts a fee, he solves the crime for intellectual stimulation, not for cash.
* He is superior (sometimes arrogant).
* The mystery is removed from real life (cases are puzzles, not crimes)
* The cast of characters is small and inter-related.
* The setting of the Classical Mystery is usually isolated.
* The stories have a fairy-tale like quality.
(Today’s classical mysteries are sometimes referred to as “cozies.”)

Features of the Hard-Boiled Detective:

* A working man, self-employed in a small business.
* He is part of his environment (office downtown, lives in a large apartment house)
* He carries a gun (instinct for self-preservation)
* He does not seek violence, but it often finds him.
* He does have a conscience and a moral vision, BUT he might have to kill in the line of duty.
* He DOES solve mysteries and unmask criminals, but with persistence and legwork, not through a magical logical process.

It's interesting to apply these features to modern-day mysteries; some current fictional detectives fit quite obviously on one list or another, while some of them seem to be an interesting grafted version with elements from both the classical and the hard-boiled. A very successful blend of the two, of course, were the Nero Wolfe mysteries, in which Nero was the rather scornful intellect and Archie Goodwin was the leg man with a photographic memory, who could therefore guarantee that the story he brought back to Nero was identical to what he witnessed, dialogue and all.

The most famous examples of the Classical would be detectives like Holmes, Marple, Poirot, Wimsey, while hard-boiled greats are Spade, Archer, Marlowe, etc.

But looking at the list, who's your favorite classical or hard-boiled fictional sleuth in the modern era?

(Kittredge, William, and Steven M. Krauzer. The Great American Detective. New York: Signet, 1978).


Deborah M. said...

(Let's start over.) Arnaldur Indridason's detective inspector Erlendur Sveinsson: very flawed, very human. He is brilliant, rumpled, cranky, divorced; his daughter is a hopeless addict.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that both of the lines are private individuals, private investigators, not police detectives. Why is that I wonder?

We've written a detective who is of the police type, a bit Columbo-like, divorced, father of two, of a line of police [father is retired officer], ethnic [Lebanese heritage], no nonsense type. He even investigates on the weekends because he doesn't have anything else left in his life.

Are police detectives modern then?

Thanks for the article, Julia!

Julia Buckley said...

That's a great suggestion, Deborah--and something I can put on my summer reading list. It's also interesting because I can think of two other police detectives (men) who have difficult relationships with their daughters. Maybe that's realistic.

jwhit, I think the police detective form of today is probably yet another genre--the police procedural. Perhaps Kittredge and Krauzer were examing the notion of the self-made detective. Although it is true that the police detectives meet many of the criteria here. BUT the traditional classical detective was supposed to have superiority OVER the police--the way that Holmes always bested Lestrade.

Anonymous said...

I guess Travis McGee pretty much fits the hard boiled mode you describe, although I never thought of him as such. But is he modern?

Julia Buckley said...

I think he's modern enough that he still has a wide readership. I like those MacDonald novels (although Ross, not John D, is my favorite), but I find that they are particularly popular with men. Maybe it's because McGee, who was tough and cool and lived on a boat, also had a pretty good love life. :)

Jane said...

Hercule Poirot is my favorite. Holmes is a close second.

Julia Buckley said...

Hercule is great because he has so many little foibles to make him memorable. I love his little mustache, but not as much as he does. :)

For the hard-boiled genre, I also remember that Max Allan Collins had a really cool detective back in the 70s and 80s--I have to look up his name, because the series is out of print.

Anonymous said...

Where do we fit in the new group of female detectives? Are they new or just the other two forms with a hoo-hoo? Julia, your book has a female MC who has certainly had some challenges. I'm enjoying it.