Whodunit?

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Whodunit

The Creation of a Stereotype

by Arielle Seidman


 

I can probably say, without incurring any disagreement, that every genre of fiction has multiple different incarnations and varieties, many of which are offshoots of other varieties. Although it all originated from somewhere (presumably the imagination or experience of some visionary author), as the genre develops, different kinds of work, varying at first only slightly, then more and more from the original work or works. My favorite literary genre, and the one that I am the best versed in is that of detective fiction. To demonstrate my theory of literary evolution, I’m going to use detective fiction.

This exploration will not be chronological. Though it is very possible to examine the development of detective fiction beginning in the nineteenth century and reaching to today’s popular mystery novels, that doesn’t really serve my purpose. Instead, we’re going to discuss detective fiction as if it were an evolutionary tree, which begins at a certain point and then branches off until it has multiple limbs/variations, each of which spouts multiple different twigs and boughs. I will not be paying attention to time period to any great extent, but rather to which works have influenced or seem to have influenced which other works within the genre. This essay will consist of two parts. First, I’d like to demonstrate how, book by book and author by author, a genre can pick up conventions and establish archetypes which slowly become the staples of the genre. Second, I’m going to establish how one genre can arise from another genre by taking some of its conventions and casting others aside.

Despite our lack of interest in too much of the chronological, we do have to begin at the beginning. Many people when asked who they think is the father of the detective genre would immediately insist that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, is the man. To be fair, they wouldn’t be right. Before even Sherlock Holmes came the illustrious and disturbing Edgar Allen Poe. Poe’s literary focus was horror, rather than detective fiction, but he did dabble in the genre now and again. His literary detective, the languidly brilliant C. Auguste Dupin, Dupin is the originator of several classic character traits that continue to serve as archetypes of the detective genre for centuries to come. Perhaps the most significant and lasting of these is the fact that all of his stories, although admittedly penned by Poe, are narrated by a close friend of Dupin’s, a man who is not nearly as brilliant, but who is staunch, loyal, articulate, and obviously in awe of the great detective. In Dupin’s case, the friend in question is anonymous. [1]

Dupin is also not an official member of the police force, but is instead a private citizen who works outside of and sometimes in conflict with the official force, who, when they find themselves bemused by a case, come grudgingly to him for an explanation and salvation of their reputations. Finally, on our list of important detective traits, Dupin is famous for being what is now referred to as “an armchair detective.” Rather than going out and collecting any clues or information on his own, he waits for others to bring the facts to him, and then determines the solution to the problem with purely his superior mental prowess. [2]

Although perhaps every single piece of detective fiction can be considered inspired by Poe’s work, there are two offshoots in particular that we can be reasonably sure came directly from his literary influence. Now, although I waited more than one impatient page to bring him properly into this paper, we get to discuss Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

The immediate connections are obvious. Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who insists that he is the “only unofficial consulting detective (A Study in Scarlet, p 36),” of his age. In his capacity as an unofficial consulting detective, he takes cases from all sorts of clients who come from all over the world and from all social strata to complain that the official force will be or has been unable to solve their problems. He also assists the official force when they are stumped, very much like Dupin does. Holmes is both a compatriot and a rival of  both Inspector Lestrade and Inspector Gregson, among many other members of the police force who are disgusted by the fact that they are so much in his debt for all of his assistance.

Of course we cannot forget Doctor Watson. Perhaps the most well-known sidekick to any detective, fictional or otherwise, Doctor John H. Watson is the narrator of the entire Sherlock Holmes canon, and the closest friend of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes treats Watson rather terribly, abuses him verbally, underestimates his intellect, and very rarely shows him any signs of the affection he truly deserves. Although Watson is certainly a capable doctor in his own right, he’s not very good at detective work, but serves instead as a backup for Holmes when it comes to any sort of immediate physical danger. Although Holmes does all his own sleuthing and detective work, going to visit the homes and workplaces of his clients in search of clues, Watson is always along with him to come to his aide if he stumbles into a particularly vicious foe. Watson is also a foil for the reader, and as Holmes explains both his methods and his surmises to Watson, the reader appreciates and obtains those explanations alongside the sidekick.

Let’s take a moment to summarize the connections we’ve made between Dupin and Holmes. From Dupin, Holmes inherited the loyal narrator/sidekick, the status of an unofficial detective, consulted by the official force, and the unsurpassed brilliance that none around him can truly understand. Through Dupin and Holmes, we see the creation of a character archetype. Note, we are NOT witnessing the creation of a stereotype. The definitions of archetype and stereotype are often confused and/or misused, so perhaps I should define them for my purposes. The way I will be using the word archetype for this paper is to stand for something that defines a character’s background, situation, and place in the novel, while not necessarily affecting his or her personality or specific character traits. A stereotype, then, is a character who goes beyond being a stock character, and is in fact a copy or a recreation of a character who has already been invented for another book, and is there for the sake of moving along a plot without having too many truly original traits of his or her own.

Agatha Christie’s detective, Hercule Poirot, also had a loyal narrating sidekick, and the status of unofficial detective. Hercule Poirot, however, deviated from the detective fiction norms in certain ways that identified him more closely with Dupin than with Holmes. For one thing, although the official detective force is his rival in many ways, he is also friends with one of the heads of the police, so that the rivalry is more of a joke, or a game than anything significant or threatening to his career. Dupin had the same relationship with the official force in his stories, while Holmes had much more of a heated and vicious rivalry with the inspectors featured in the Holmes canon. Also, Poirot could hardly be called aloof or unaffectionate to his sidekick, Captain Hastings. Where Holmes had been nothing if not cold to Watson for most of the series, Poirot showers Hastings with praise sometimes too much physical affection, which Hastings finds very embarrassing. We can see Christie adding elements of classic detectives to Poirot that were used both by Dupin and Holmes, and some elements that were used only by Dupin. We can see here that Poirot and Holmes share an archetype, although they are different enough as characters not enter into being stereotypes.

The most significant way, however, in which Poirot differs from Holmes is that Poirot considers himself something of an armchair detective. He is constantly articulating his vie that all he has to do is sit back and think about clues in order to solve a problem, exactly the way that Poe’s Dupin solved his cases. It appears, however, that Christie was aware of how difficult it would be to keep an audience interested in the psychological meanderings of her detective, if she did include any actual physical travails. Although Poirot detests the idea of traipsing around after clues and villains, he often finds himself without any other option, and so acts a great deal more like Holmes, although he claims to think more like Dupin.

There is, in fact, a character in the Holmes canon that acts a great deal more like an armchair detective than Holmes does. In three different stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduces Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft Holmes, who is obese to the point where he has a great deal of difficulty getting around on his feet. Mycroft is far too lazy to engage in any actual detective work, and so he works for the government. Sherlock, however, often finds that Mycroft is very useful when there seems to be no other way of solving the case. Sherlock brings a series of clues and surmises to Mycroft, who, without leaving his home, identifies the solution for Sherlock, much as Dupin did, and as Christie’s Poirot wished he was allowed to.

This narrative has been a bit meandering, but frankly, so is the chronicle of the detective genre. You can see from this series of summaries that the classic detective has several different varieties, all which branch off from, are inspired by, and connect with each other in different ways. Although Poe’s Dupin really did seem to be the founder of it all, there are things about Dupin that have been modified or tossed out all together by other writers, to be replaced with elements that audiences might find more engaging. The story of the classic literary detective does not, however, end here. There is at least one more significant contributor to the story that I’ve yet to mention.

Rex Stout, who also wrote cookbooks and had, apparently, a passion for the culinary arts, created a detective whose name is Nero Wolfe. Nero Wolfe is certainly an armchair detective, and refuses most of the time to even leave his office for any reason or consultation with a client. Nero Wolfe is also morbidly obese, and so his sluggishness makes some physical sense, also mirroring his potential predecessor, Mycroft Holmes. Stout handles the problem of needing some action to please an audience by giving Nero Wolfe an assistant who does all the work that requires moving around. The assistant, Archie Goodwin, narrates all of the stories, and has a rocky relationship with Wolfe, true to the classic form. The major difference between Archie and all of the other sidekicks previously mentioned is that Archie is in fact a much stronger character than Nero Wolfe himself. A full fledged private detective in his own right, Archie is not only a sidekick, but a talented and sought-after detective who occasionally rivals Nero Wolfe for clientele.

In these ways, Stout’s detective stories encompass several elements from each of the other classic detective stories, and these different elements combined proved o be a very successful formal. Stout wrote in excess of 64 Nero Wolfe stories before his death, and was a bestselling author for most of his life.

I’d like to draw your attention to perhaps the single factor that every single one of these authors has in common. Every single one of them focused a great deal more on the characterization, habits, relationships, and foibles of their detectives than on the plots, crimes, or motives. Although the plot in any mystery story is obviously very important, these sets of stories would not have been at all interesting or readable without the characters who featured in them. The fact that I have managed to write six pages of pure summary about the personalities and identities of the individuals in these stories proves my point without really requiring any further discussion of the matter.[3] There is endless information about their individual character flaws, traits, tricks, and tribulations that I have entirely left out, hence the fact that each of these characters, though obviously very similar and perhaps having evolved from one another, are not n any way stereotypes.

The genre (or subgenre, perhaps) that arose out of this fixation on character traits was the genre of “noir” detective fiction. Noir fiction is not classic detective fiction, and often does not share a lot of the elements previously mentioned about classic detective fiction, but there is enough carry over that there is very little doubt that one evolved from the other. Noir fiction is often characterized by amoral characters, detectives who are unsavory, unattractive, or have incredibly bad habits. The focus is still distinctly on character and on character relationships, but a reversal seems to have come into play. Readers of detective fiction are not reading the exploits of heroes. They are reading the tribulations of mercenaries and lowlifes, who are sometimes redeemed, but sometimes not. The juxtaposition of the bad guy doing the good deed seems to be what fuels this subgenre, and what makes it such a novel change from classic detective fiction.

To demonstrate one of the ways in which noir evolved directly from classic detective fiction, I must again use the example of Sherlock Holmes. In the Holmes story, “The Sign of the Four,” Watson catches Homes injecting himself with cocaine, and complains to the reader at great length about Holmes miserable and unhealthy drug habits. Holmes responds by insisting, “I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment (Sign of Four, pp 1-2).” These drug habits feature very rarely in the Holmes stories, and yet Watson takes several pages to explain to us exactly how he feels about it, and how he deals with attempting to get Holmes to stop. Holmes sees nothing wrong with the vice of cocaine, one of the few aspects of his character which might be viewed by the conservative as particularly amoral.

Almost one of the requirements of noir fiction is for the detective anti-hero to have some sort of terrible substance abuse habit. Nick and Nora Charles, in Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man,” are a married couple who do essentially nothing but solve mysteries and drink ridiculous quantities f alcohol. There is not a single chapter in that book which does not feature Nick Charles asking for or offering someone an alcoholic beverage.

Noir also tends to either eliminate the sidekick character, or to give the role of the sidekick to a character who also serves as the romantic interest for the anti-hero who is he main focus of the story. Nora Charles is hardly a sidekick, but just as significant and competent a sleuth as Nick Charles is. In Dashiell Hammett’s other most famous work, “The Maltese Falcon,” Sam Spade has no sidekick, but does end up spending a lot of time and doing a lot of detective work with Bridget O’Shaughnessy, who serves as his love interest and the most significant secondary character. Bridget is really nothing useful on her own, but is a mirror image of just about every other femme fatale/mysterious double agent/woman with a mysterious problem that one might find in other novels. Bridget is our first example of a stereotyped character, rather than a character who falls into an archetype.

Again, to keep track of where we are in the story of the evolution of detective fiction, here’s a little bit of a recap of what we’ve learned from our discussion of the noir fiction subgenre.  The idea of the character as the central focuses seems to have been borrowed directly from the classic detective fiction genre, although the characters in noir fiction have been twisted so that they show a different side of their personalities, and may appeal more to audiences and readers who do are tired of the classic formula of the hero, doing the good work, saving the day. To do this, noir fiction incorporates aspects previously found in classic detective fiction in order to better demonstrate these amoral elements, such as vices like substance abuse. They also, however, have chosen to emphasize the main characters’ vices rather than to put focus on the supporting characters, who have drifted into the realm of stereotype and seem to exist only to highlight aspects of the main character. Noir is perhaps the turning point between the classic detective fiction genre, and the modern mystery genre.

I’m going to use noir fiction as a jumping off point to show you how a genre can evolve over the years, until it becomes a slightly similar genre with some recurring features, but which in many ways is entirely different from the genre from which it sprang. The modern mystery genre, characterized by far too many prominent and popular authors to successfully name here, is a far cry from classic detective fiction. Although several elements of classic detective fiction, such the plot being structured around a series of clues and potential red herrings, remain, other features either diminish or are eliminated entirely by the author. I imagine that you have guessed by this point that the element of mystery fiction most wanting in the modern novels is that of nuanced, well established character.

I readily confess to a bit of a bias against the Da Vinci Code, the novel about which I am about to expound. I am not fond of Dan Brown as a writer, in the same way that I am not fond of Judith Butler’s sentence structure, or the creative spelling in the Bi-Co news. [4] I am, however, to the best of my ability going to ignore how I feel about the writing style of the author, and focus instead on the way Dan Brown uses or chooses not to use conventions of mystery.

The Da Vinci Code was fantastically popular when it first arrived on the shelves primarily, according to several readers and book reviews alike, because of the mind-boggling complexity and brilliance of its plot. The twists and turns, which one never saw coming and was always pleasantly surprised by, made the novel into the fast-paced, action-packed reading experience that modern society craves. The novel included historical references (the accuracy of which I’m afraid I cannot speak to with any authority) and multiple vividly recreated settings in different parts of the world. To be frank, the Da Vinci code read a great deal like a well-done action movie. The book was a treat for the mind’s eye, but did all the actual sleuthing and thinking for the reader.

You have, no doubt, heard the age old rigmarole about society getting more fast paced and more attention-deficit with each generation many times before. Note that I am not claiming that a change in the tastes of modern readers is at all a bad thing. However, in the ages of first-person video games and movies that go back and forth between breathtaking landscapes and violently complex battles, the modern reader expects to be scintillated and impressed at every turn. There is little time in modern entertainment for the slow establishment of complex characters, especially when those characters proceed to take the focus away from perhaps comparatively mediocre collections of clues and plot points.

Despite the change in interest of the readers, and the subsequent radical adjustment of the mystery genre, several elements remain the same. No matter what era of mystery novel you read you will find the detective doing all the sleuthing, making sure that he or she explains the entire process to the reader by the time the story has reached it’s close. There is very often still a love interest or question of emotional or sexual attachment involved in modern mysteries, just as there were in classic detective stories. Some things, as they say, never change, mostly because there are some things that will never cease to appeal because of their capacity for being universally understood. The genre, however, has changed a great deal from the time when sixty novels were written about a single detective, solving similar mysteries over and over, but evolving as a person to the delight of the reader every time. 


 

 Works Cited

Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. Anchor, 2009.

 

Christie, Agatha. Poirot Investigates. HarperCollins Publishers, Facsimile Edition, 2005.

 

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Sign of Four. House of Stratus, January 12, 2008.

 

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Headline Book Publishing,

 April 1, 2007.

 

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Oxford University Press.

USA, October 22, 1998.

 

Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. Vintage, 1989.

 

Poe, Edgar Allen. The Dupin Mysteries and Other Tales of Ratiocination. Coachwhip

 Publications, 2009.

 

Stout, Rex. Black Orchids. Crimeline, 1992.



[1] I will be using the present tense when discussing anything that occurs within the literature. It’s how I was trained, and besides, I’ve been told that it allows the suspension of disbelief. Of course I would love for you to suspend any disbelief you have of the facts presented in this paper.

[2] I have read the Dupin stories, the entire Holmes canon, and several other of the works listed here more than ten times each. Yes, that is potentially unhealthy. It also means that I may inadvertently quote a line or phrase that comes directly from the text without having any idea that I am doing so. I will try very hard to avoid this, but if it happens, I beg you to believe that it’s nothing close to intentional plagiarism. I do not have all 100 or so of the stories referred to here open at this moment.

[3] Don’t worry, I’m gonna do it anyway.

[4] I’m not apologizing. It’s true.

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