Favorite Fictional Detectives

Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget.  Public domain.

Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget. Public domain.

In literary gatherings, I usually introduce myself as part of the fantasy camp, but I’ve probably read and enjoyed just as many mysteries over the years.  In my previous post, I gave a lukewarm review to James Patterson’s latest Alex Cross thriller.  I think the real reason is that I’ve never bonded to Alex Cross the way I have to other favorite detectives.

Character is key to detective novels just as it is to other types of fiction, and this is separate from an issue that has surfaced over the last decade, the distinction between plot driven and character driven stories.

In character driven tales, some attribute of the protagonist begins and sustains the action, the way Katniss Everdeen’s sacrifice for her sister gets things moving in The Hunger Games.  Mysteries are almost always plot driven – the story begins when the first body is found.

These days, agents and editors say they’re looking for character driven tales.  Dan Brown wasn’t listening when he wrote The DaVinci Code, now one of the five best selling books of all time, a distinction shared with The Bible and Harry Potter.  Like much advice for writers, I think it misses the point.  Regardless of what moves the action, we love novels with characters we love, in worlds we’d love to visit.  Have you ever imagined yourself in Baker Street when Holmes jumps up and cries, “The game is afoot?”

If so, read on!  I’ve listed a few of my favorite detectives, not necessarily in order, for that, like everything else, is subject to change.

Sherlock Holmes:  This is obvious.  How many popular books of today will still be read and loved 100 years from now, spawning a lively stream of new presentations in all the popular media of the future?  I seldom reread mysteries – often there is no point when you know the criminal’s identity, but I still dive into Holmes for recreation.  Has there ever been a more dastardly villain than Dr. Grimesby Roylott in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band?”  And for chills up the spine, one sentence has never been beaten:  “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” 

I enjoy all the presentations of Holmes in film, but my favorite movie Holmes is still Jeremy Brett for his perfect blend of genius and madness, without the slightest trace of modesty:

Cadfael:  The Brother Cadfael mysteries were the creation of Edith Pargeter, under the pseudonym, Ellis Peters.  In early 12th century England, during a period of contention for the crown known as The Anarchy, Cadfael, a middle aged and disillusioned veteran of the crusades, becomes a Benedictine monk.  With keen powers of observation, a scientific turn of mind, and an in depth knowledge of herbalism, he solves the many murders that just happen to happen whenever he is near.

I enjoy the film versions more than the books, thanks to renowned Shakespearean actor, Derek Jacobi, who plays Cadfael.

Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple:  Most writers are lucky if they can create a single unforgettable character.  Agatha Christie gave us two.  Sometime in the early 90’s, I went on an Agatha Christie binge, and over the next few years, read all the stories of both characters I could find, some 80 novels in all.  Poirot and Miss Marple turn up often in films and on TV.  I’ve enjoyed several versions of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile.

The bad news is that Miss Marple stories are usually classed as “cozy mysteries,” a sub-genre with a distinctly unmanly name.  The good news is that  I’m too old to care.  There is no definitive movie Miss Marple, but British actor, David Suchet takes the honors for his portrayals of Hercule Poirot:

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

Wallender: To re-establish my manly credentials, I add Kurt Wallender to the list.  Wallender is sort of a Swedish, existentialist, high plains drifter, and the most angst-ridden detective in the history of the world.  The creation of Swedish novelist, Henning Mankell, Wallendar was adapted for British TV, beginning in 2008.  Episodes are show up here on PBS.

The series stars Kenneth Branagh, another great Shakespearean actor.  Branagh says Wallender is “an existentialist who is questioning what life is about and why he does what he does every day, and for whom acts of violence never become normal. There is a level of empathy with the victims of crime that is almost impossible to contain, and one of the prices he pays for that sort of empathy is a personal life that is a kind of wasteland.”  

Don’t watch this guy when you’re feeling blue!

Kenneth Branagh as Wallender

Kenneth Branagh as Wallender

Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn:  These officers in the Navajo Tribal Police star in 18 mysteries Tony Hillerman wrote between 1970 and 2006.  The grandeur of the American southwest and Navajo tribal beliefs are the background against which these unique detective stories unfold.  Chee, the younger officer, struggles to hold on to tribal traditions in 20th century America.  Leaphorn is more world weary and cynical, but he knows that where there is talk of witches and taboos, trouble erupts.

Hillerman, who died in 2008 loved the four corners and wrote about it so vividly that it’s really another character in the stories.  His books won many awards, but he always said what pleased him most was being named a Special Friend of the Navajo Nation in 1987.  Adam Beach and Wes Studi starred in three movie versions of Hillerman’s novels, including Skinwalkers, (the Navajo name for malevolent sorcerers), that is regarded as Hillerman’s breakout novel.

Amelia Peabody:  Elizabeth Peters’ 19 book series centers on the adventures and detective skills of independently wealthy and independently minded Egyptologist, Amelia Peabody and her family, which at first includes her husband Radcliff Emerson (who hates his first name and refuses to use it), and their son Ramses, who was born as stubborn as his parents.  Later Amelia and Emerson take in two wards, David, the son of a Muslim and a Christian whom they rescue from semi-slavery, and Nefret, a red headed former priestess of Isis who will eventually marry Ramses.

Set in the years between 1884 and 1923, there are rascals, rogues, adventurers, tomb robbers, mummy’s curses, and Sethos, aka, The Master Criminal.  Historical Egyptologists and archeological events are woven into the series which ends with the 1922 discovery of the tomb of King Tut.  The author has said that Amelia herself is based in part on Amelia Edwards, a Victorian novelist and Egyptologist, whose 1873 travel book, A Thousand Miles up the Nile was a best seller.

The middle east has changed since Peters began writing her novels, but they remain among my favorite beach reads of all time.  For anyone who enjoys a good mummy movie or has ever fantasized lost tombs, pith helmets, and midnight at the oasis, these are great adventure stories, ever complicated by the corpses that turn up wherever Amelia goes.

I’ve only listed detective series here because I cannot remember every good singular mystery novel I’ve read.  Please add any favorites of yours to the list.  There’s always room for more, since the game is always afoot somewhere!

Barbara Allen – Mysteries in a Ballad

When I was six years old, my mother’s cousin, Junie, got married.  The two had been lifelong friends, and for the service, I was chosen to be the ring-bearer, and my sister, the flower girl.  That summer we drove from our home in upstate New York, to Kalamazoo, where Junie lived.  I’m happy to say that recently, Mary and I travelled to Oregon to celebrate Junie’s 50th anniversary.

Junie’s father, the uncle who later taught me to play poker, was a renowned surgeon and they had a beautiful house with a separate guest cottage on a bluff above Lake Michigan.  There were lots of adventures along the shore of the lake, like capturing a snapping turtle I recognized as such from my Pocket Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, but one that stayed with me to the present day involved discovering a treasure trove of ballads.

The guest cottage had a box of old 78 recordings, and a book of lyrics and sheet music for a collection of American ballads.  There were two I listened to again and again because they haunted me with questions I didn’t understand then, and still can’t answer now.  The two were, “The Ballad of Barbara Allen,” and “The Ballad of Jessie James.”

Barbara Allen, which exists in as many as 92 versions, was first mentioned as “a little Scottish song” in 1666.  It came to our shores with the first settlers and was almost certainly popular well before the first printed versions appeared in England in 1750 and in America in 1836.  Barbara Allen is classified as Child Ballad 84.

In most versions, Sweet William lies on his death bed and sends his servant to fetch Barbara Allen, who reluctantly comes and says, “Young man, I think you’re dying.”  He says he is dying of love for her, but she will not have him, often because he bought a round of drinks for all the girls at the tavern a week before but not for her.  Sweet William dies of love for Barbara, and she dies the next day of sorrow.  Out of William’s heart there grows a rose and out of Barbara’s, a briar.  They grow and grow and finally form a lover’s knot above the graves.

The first thing you notice about this ballad is the lovely melody.  Then the haunting and tragic lyrics.  And then you realize it makes no sense.

Why is Barbara so cruel, I wondered as a kid and I wonder now.  Over a drink in the tavern?  Really?  I mean, really?  Even if, in that day and age, these kids were 14 or 15, and Barbara was a high school prima-donna, I’m not fully satisfied, and I bet you aren’t either.

And then you wonder, if William liked her so much, why did he buy drinks for all the girls except Barbara?  As in, “Dude, isn’t that playing a little too hard-to-get?”

There is also the mystery of Barbara’s change of heart and her subsequent death of sorrow.  I also wonder what real event or pair of star-crossed lovers might have inspired the song.

The supreme question, of course – and I chewed on this when I first heard the song at age six, is whether people really die of love?  Could it happen in the past, in simpler times, before eHarmony?   Especially for those like the Celts, who possess a genius for melancholy?

As a kid, I thought no.  Later, as a morose teenager, (I used to read Thomas Hardy for “fun”), I would have said yes, pining away is not that hard to believe.  As an adult, my response would have been, “Come on, William, get a grip.”  Now, from the Buddhist perspective of the ultimate power of mind, I would say, if you really believe you can’t live without a particular person, sooner or later it will come to pass.

This or that answer is not the point – the point is the questions.  I’ve recently been mulling over stories I have loved all my life, and so far I think they possess one of two qualities (or both) – one is characters I love so much they seem like a part of me, like Ratty and Mole.  The other is mysteries or questions I cannot solve.

Not surprisingly, I have collected quite a few versions of “Barbara Allen,” and this, by Emmy Lou Harris, I think is the best:

Tony Hillerman: An Appreciation

Tony Hillerman

Tony Hillerman

For many years during the nineties and the early part of the last decade, Tony Hillerman’s mysteries were a part of my annual celebration of spring.  In April or May his newest title would hit the bookstores – just in time for the beach or the pool at the gym.  “Beach read” is often synonymous with “guilty pleasure,” but I never feel guilty about enjoying good stories.

Hillerman is best known for the 18 mysteries set in northern Arizona and New Mexico and featuring Navajo tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, and later in the series, officer Bernadette Manuelito, who eventually marries Chee.  This series won Hillerman the 1974 Edgar Award, the 1991 Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award, as well as the Navajo Tribe’s “Special Friend of the Dineh Award.”  Dineh is usually translated as “the People.”

The stories emphasize the Navajo ideal of living in harmony with the world and bring in themes from Navajo cosmology.  Many of Hillerman’s criminals are rumored to be witches – the worst thing you can become.  Leaphorn, the first detective in the series is skeptical, but…

Leaphorn didn’t believe in witchcraft.  He believed in evil, firmly believed in it, saw it practiced all around him in its various forms-greed, ambition, malice-and a variety of others.  But he didn’t believe in supernatural witches.  Or did he? (The Shape Shifter, 2006).

Chee, the younger officer, tries to walk in the worlds of both a modern policeman and a tribal shaman.  More than once, at the end of a case, Chee undergoes a traditional ritual to restore his balance and harmony.

Details of Navajo culture pervade all of Hillerman’s books and lend the restrained pacing of a people who think it rude to interrupt someone else who is talking.  In real time, the cops may have to drive a hundred miles to interview a suspect, but Hillerman keeps things moving by letting his detectives constantly mull over the compounding mysteries, and notice tiny details in the vein of Sherlock Holmes.

That said, the book I recently found, The Shape Shifter, the only one the Navajo mysteries I had not read read, is not where I would suggest a new reader start.  In places, it is a bit too slow, and it assumes we are familiar with the characters.

Skinwalkers (1990) would make a better first time Hillerman read.  This is the book where Leaphorn and Chee first team up, and the story is filled with supernatural menace.  Skinwalkers are especially nasty witches who change shape to harm others, like European werewolves.  Skinwalkers is one of three Hillerman titles featured on the PBS series, Mystery, with Wes Studi brilliantly cast as Leaphorn.

Skinwalkers movie

This is old-time detective fiction at its best, with the unique slant of a unique people, living in a remote and beautiful part of the country.  I only wish there were more of Hillerman’s books I hadn’t read.

Literary Comfort Food

In early March I was searching the shelves at a Barnes&Noble for a mystery for Mary’s birthday, when I spotted a treasure – one of Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police mysteries neither of us had read.  The Shape Shifter (2006) is the last of the 18 titles in this series that won Hillerman (1925-2008) numerous awards both as a mystery writer and as a friend of Native Americans.  I will review The Shape Shifter when I finish, but starting it today reminded me of other stories that represent pure reading pleasure to me.  Books that carry me into another world.  Books that I read because I like to hang out with the characters, almost regardless of what they are doing.

I realized this morning as I sat down to coffee with Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, and officers Jim Chee and his new wife, Bernadette Manuelito, that the greatest pleasures I’ve had in reading, bar none, are books in which I just want to be with the characters, almost regardless of whether they’re solving mysteries or buying groceries.  In addition to Hillerman’s tribal officers, other examples come to mind:

  • Frodo Baggins and friends.
  • Holmes and Watson.
  • Amelia Peabody and family in Elizabeth Peters’ Egyptian mysteries.
  • Rat and Mole and Toad in Wind in the Willows.
  • The sometimes annoying but always brilliant, Hercule Poirot.
  • Lirael and the disreputable dog in Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy.
  • Hamish Macbeth, the irrepressible Scottish detective in M.C. Beaton’s series.

I have also spent way too much money and time reading second rate fantasy series in the often vain hope of recapturing the Tolkien experience.

It’s important to realize that in stressing the importance of characters, I am not referring to the contemporary buzzword, “character driven.”  That has little or nothing to do with my list of comfort-food books, since with the possible exception of Wind in the Willows, these titles all belong in the “plot driven” category;  most mysteries begin, not with the detective’s quirks but with the discovery of a corpse, and problem of the Ring of Power was independent of Frodo.

As I said – these fictional people are friends, whether they are solving mysteries, dodging orcs, or sitting down to second breakfast.  This is a real clue for me, something to remember as I juggle plot elements.  Even though that is critical work, I find myself anxious to get back to the characters, both the heroine and the villain.  That, more than anything else, tells me I am heading in the right direction.

But now, before that or anything else, I have to get back to the The Shape Shifter, where storm clouds, both literal and metaphorical, are gathering over the reservation.

Gone For Good by Harlan Coben

A few posts ago I said I was going to read six books straight through for pleasure, and then cycle back and analyze the ones with plot features I admire.  Book number two on my list was Harlan Coben’s Gone For Good, 2003.  Donald Maass had good things to say about this title in his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.  He said it takes a mystery cliche – a detective haunted by the murder of his wife or girlfriend – and turns it inside out by layering the plot and adding twists and turns.  I cannot recall a thriller with more surprising twists packed into its pages.

Will Klein’s mother tells him a few days before her death that his beloved older brother Ken is still alive. Ken disappeared eleven years earlier, wanted for the murder of Will’s former girlfriend. The family believes Ken is innocent but assumes he is dead – could he really be alive and in hiding? The day after his mother’s funeral, Will’s girlfriend, Sheila disappears. The next day at work, two FBI agents ask for Sheila’s whereabouts, and inform Will that her fingerprints were found at the scene of a double homicide in New Mexico. Meanwhile we meet two former classmate’s of Will’s older brother, one a gangster and one a sociopathic master-assassain known as “The Ghost,” and both have a keen interest in Will.

Got all that?  You need to, since this is just the basic setup of Gone For Good.  When Will sets out with his friend, Squares, to try to discover what is really going on, Squares warns him he may not like the answers.  “The ugliest truth, in the end, was still better than the prettiest of lies,” Will says, a sentiment that will be tested as the story progresses.

Perhaps the greatest take-away for me as a writer is the way questions can keep us turning pages as effectively as tension.  From the initial, “What’s going on?”, “Is my brother alive?”, “Where is my girlfriend?” mysteries, Will must face issues that cut deeper and deeper into the basic assumptions of his life and the people he loves.

This is not a perfect book.  During the second half, I found my attention wandering.  In part, the plot twists were coming with such frequency they felt expected and lost a little of their power to shock.  So I think when I review Gone For Good in greater detail, I am going to discover that for a large section of Act II, the stakes and the pacing of the revelations stayed somewhat constant.

Also, the most menacing character, The Ghost, was not fleshed out until the end of the book.  It is hard to write a convincing, three-dimensional, psychopathic killer.  It is the humanizing details that make them come alive.  Hannibal Lektor valued good manners and hated rude people.  The killer in No Country for Old Men had certain personal values – keeping his promises, for one.  Such quirks make them more believable than an apparently flawless killing machine.  The Ghost, we learn at the end of the book, is driven by a complex and unexpected sense of loyalty and fair play, but I think we would have found him more “real” and more frightening if we had known some of the details earlier.

As I now understand it, the whole point of this exercise – reading and then rereading six books to try to look under the hood – is to look deeply into what works in six unique approaches.  Having just finished a complex novel like this, I have several other opinions and hunches but I need to review them further.

I was reminded though, of the very first post I made on this blog at the end of last June.  I quoted Neil Gaiman’s comment as editor of Stories, that the measure of a storyteller’s success are the four words we all want to hear – “And then what happened?”  By that measure, Harlan Coben deserves the acclaim Gone For Good has won.

The Murder Room

 I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes through his many permutations, from Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey Jr., from Arthur Conan Doyle to Laurie R. King’s novels of the wife of Sherlock Holmes, so when I caught this title on an NPR interview this morning I stopped to listen:   The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases, by Michael Capuzzo.

Capuzzo writes about the Vidocq Society, a group of 82 full members (and 150 associates), all experts in the field of crime solving, who meet once a month over lunch in Philidelphia to discuss and work on solving cold cases. 

Why 82?  Because that is how many years their namesake, the French detective, Eugene Francois Vidocq (1775-1857) lived.  Vidocq was a a former criminal, “a kind of Willie Sutton,” who made a deal with the police to help them fight crime.  In the process, he founded the first private detective agency, and inspired the stories of Conan Doyle and others.

According to Capuzzo, the Vidocq Society had an initial academic focus, the way people still put forth new theories on the identity of Jack the Ripper, but after a New York Times interview, they decided to turn their talents to working on cases where resolution is possible.  Members of various police departments as well as friends and family of victims are invited to the lunch meetings, and acccording to Capuzzo, the considerable talents of these sleuths has resulted in closing some old cases (he did not say how many in the interview).

Anyway, the story is worth a listen and the book looks to be an interestingread for those with mystery and CSI type interests.