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Review  of The Detective in Fiction

Jane Street

This slim volume came into being after a series of talks given for a WEA course, which later featured at The Reading Festival of Crime Writing.

The first crime novel was published as long ago as 1783 and subsequent novels threw up some interesting characters among whom the fictional ones were Dickens’s Inspector Bucket, and the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin of Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff.  But arguably the first fully-rounded detective  -  and the greatest in the author’s view  -  was Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes was the first to use science and deductive reasoning, with occasional flashes of insight, instead of relying on chance to solve a mystery.

During the 1920s a number of writers, led by Father Ronald Knox, laid the ground rules for the detective story:  only one secret room or passage to be permitted, and no Chinamen!  And so it was that in 1930 a group of mystery story writers set up The Detection Club with one of its principal tenets being that the author must always play fair with the reader:  thus the narrator as murderer in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd nearly resulted in Agatha Christie being thrown out of the Club, with only the casting vote of Dorothy L. Sayers preventing it.

Converting a series of talks into a cohesive narrative undoubtedly presents problems and the book does betray its origins at times, so that the appearance of of the author now and then comes as something of a surprise, an intrusion.  However, his analysis of Sherlock Holmes shows us the man through his Individual Characteristics before progressing to his Powers of Detection, and it is this technique he uses as a model for not only his original cast of Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and Phillip Marlowe  -  less one for deductive reasoning, more one for dogged perseverance  -  but also for such later arrivals on the scene as V. I. Warshawski, Adam Dalgleish, John Rebus and Kurt Wallander.  It is worth noting that they are all single  -  or separated from a partner or wife  -  which would seem to give them and therefore their creators greater freedom and flexibility  -  and although three of them do marry in the course of their fictional careers two are widowed later on and only Lord Peter’s marriage survives the vicissitudes of a detective’s life.

In the final chapters the author considers  -  not always with approval  -  the various representations of his detectives on, first, the large and, later, both the large and small screens culminating with the admirable Sarah Lund.

This may be a slim volume, but it is a slim volume full of interest and insight and a fair amount of deductive reasoning.