or Made Different
Part 1: Holmes. Thorndyke,Furnival & Stoddard, Poirot, Wimsey.
by Carol Westron
This series of articles will consider eighteen of the most popular fictional detectives who operated in the Golden Age, although the first three started their careers before that illustrious time.
Sherlock Holmes (1886-1927) by Arthur Conan Doyle
of which is Sherlock Holmes, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who first made his appearance in 1886 in A Study In Scarlet, which appeared in the Beeton's Christmas Annual. Holmes describes himself as a ‘consulting detective’, which in modern terms means a Private Investigator. He claims to have created the role for himself, and, although it is a means of earning a living, his primary object is to avoid mental stagnation. ‘I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.’ (The Sign of Four, 1890.)
Holmes has an unusual and commanding presence, and his biographer, Dr John Watson, emphasises that he was a force to be reckoned with:
'In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed of extraordinary delicacy of touch, as I frequently had occasion to observe when I watched him manipulating his fragile philosophical instruments.' (A Study In Scarlet, 1886.)
Holmes’ technique as a detective was a mixture of scientific knowledge, logical deduction and observation. His remark to Watson, “You see, but you do not observe,” (A Scandal in Bohemia, 1891) has been echoed by fictional sleuths for generations to follow. As is his warning, ‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’ (A Scandal in Bohemia, 1891).
Holmes values information that is of use in his career, ‘My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people do not know.’ (The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, 1892) However, Watson is amazed at his ignorance of things that most educated people would be aware of: 'His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing... I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.' (A Study In Scarlet, 1886.).
Nowadays, we are used to the detective with a brilliant but flawed personality, but when Conan Doyle first created Holmes his cold, egotistical personality was something out of the ordinary in a detective who was employed to battle evil and bring wrong-doers to justice. Holmes is aware of this characteristic: ‘I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix.’ (The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, 1921.) Holmes does need Watson, not just as his biographer but also as a sounding board when discussing cases, although his compliments to his faithful friend are, at best, backhanded: ‘It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.’ (The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902.) However, Holmes is not as cold-hearted as he usually appears, and when Watson is wounded he allows his true feelings to show:
‘My friend's wiry arms were around me and he was leading me to the chair.
“You're not hurt, Watson? For God's sake say that you're not hurt!”
It was worth a wound -it was worth many wounds- to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay beyond that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain.’ (The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, 1924.)
Despite his friendship with Watson, Sherlock Holmes was a loner, a man of towering intellect who did not lightly enter into relationships with others. As well as the short stories and novels written by Conan Doyle, there have been numerous books written by other people using the Holmes and Watson characters in a variety of ways and many film and television adaptations, some of which stayed faithful to the original characters while, more recently, they have turned Holmes into someone that it seems unlikely Holmes or his creator would recognise.
Dr John Thorndyke (1907-1942) by R. Austin Freeman
is a 'medical jurispractitioner,' qualified both as a medical doctor and a lawyer, although he is somewhat dismissive of his role as a lawyer, describing himself as ‘a mere sheep in wolf’s clothing’. Although Sherlock Holmes was doing experiments and gathering physical evidence before Thorndyke, the latter is regarded by many people as the first real fictional forensic scientist, because Thorndyke explained in detail all the steps of the forensic process and he often appeared as an expert witness. He made his first appearance in 1907 in The Red Thumb Mark, in which case he appeared for the defence ‘“in the character of that bête noir of judges and counsel - the scientific witness.”’ (The Red Thumb Mark, 1907.) He has a large number of contacts in the legal sphere and cases are often directed to him by the solicitor Mr Brodribb.
Thorndyke is handsome, tall, athletic and highly intelligent. He never has romantic involvements or marries but he is a warmer and more friendly character than Sherlock Holmes, and has assistants, usually doctors, who act in the Watson role of biographer. These assistants often provide the love interest by having relationships and marrying a female central to the story. The Red Thumb Mark is narrated by Christopher Jervis, a medical doctor and friend of Thorndyke. A similar role is later taken by Paul Berkeley, a doctor slightly junior to Jervis, who had Thorndyke as his lecturer on Medical Jurisprudence (Forensic Medicine). Berkeley first appeared in The Eye of Osiris (1911), the book that grabbed public attention and ensured Thorndyke’s place in the ranks of popular fictional detectives.
Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Thorndyke treats his assistants and fellow doctors with respect, which extends to his forensic assistant, Nathaniel Polton, a man of infinite resourcefulness whom Thorndyke had rescued from extreme poverty. Polton is described by Thorndyke as '“obviously intended by Nature to be a professor of physics. As an actual fact he was first a watchmaker, then a maker of optical instruments, and now he is mechanical factotum to a medical jurist. He is my right-hand man.”' (The Red Thumb Mark, 1907.)
Thorndyke has a better relationship with the police than many of his contemporaries. This is remarkable when one considers that, in his first case, The Red Thumb Mark (1907), he attacks the latest scientific weapons used by the police and prosecution lawyers and demonstrates that fingerprints can be falsely left in an incriminating place by trickery. Sherlock Holmes had done something similar before Thorndyke in The Adventure of the Norwood Builder (1903) but Thorndyke went several steps further by demonstrating the process in a Court of Law and also revealing the process by which blood can be kept fluid by the use of chemicals. Thorndyke is often critical of the legal process and describes himself as ‘“Hippocrates... hiding under the gown of Solon.”’ (The Red Thumb Mark, 1907.)
Because Thorndyke explained things as he investigated, it was hard for him to feature in a traditional mystery, in which a detective investigates and eventually discovers the perpetrator. And so Thorndyke became the first
fictional detective to feature in the inverted detective story, in which the reader knew who had committed the crime and how they had done it, and the excitement came from discovering how the detective would prove the villain’s guilt. Unlike Holmes, Thorndyke’s adventures have been rarely dramatised for television and radio and, although Thorndyke novels are still available on Kindle, he has not retained the fame he enjoyed before the World War ll
Father Brown (1910-1936) by G.K. Chesterton
‘commonplace exterior was meant to contrast with his unsuspected vigilance and intelligence.’ Our introduction to Father Brown was in 1910 in the short story The Blue Cross, in which he was described as a ‘very short Roman Catholic priest going up from a small Essex village... The little priest was so much the essence of those Eastern flats: he had a face as round and flat as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown-paper parcels which he was quite incapable of collecting.... He had a large, shabby umbrella, which constantly fell on the floor.
He did not seem to know which was the right end of his return ticket. He explained with a moon-calf simplicity to everybody in the carriage that he had to be careful, because he had something made of real silver 'with blue stones' in one of his brown-paper parcels.’
Father Brown’s approach to solving crimes might be described as ‘psychological’ but he would explain it as an understanding of evil, which comes to him through his calling: ‘“Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of real evil?”’ (The Blue Cross, 1910). When pushed to explain his ‘method’ he describes it in a peculiarly personal way: ‘“You see, I had murdered them all myself,” explained Father Brown patiently. “So, of course, I knew how it was done.”... “I planned out each of the crimes very carefully,” ...“I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”’ (The Secret of Father Brown, 1927.) Despite this intuitive approach, the solutions to the Father Brown stories have rational explanations, and he, like Holmes, observes rather than just seeing. Father Brown is an amateur detective, with no police or PI credentials, but he is more than the archetypal amateur because he regards it as his duty not necessarily to bring criminals to justice but to bring sinners to repentance.
Father Brown also has his helper, Hercule Flambeau, although he does not act as his biographer. Flambeau appears in several Father Brown stories, in the first three as a thief whom Father Brown is trying to reform, and later as a private detective who is the priest’s closest friend and ally. In the stories, Father Brown is far from a stay at home priest, spending his life in one parish; in fact he travels to London and many parts of England, and to Scotland, France, Mexico, America and Spain.
In the fifty short stories featuring him, Father Brown made a considerable impact, and, as with Holmes, other authors have continued to write Father Brown stories. Another fascinating concept is the Italian novel by by Paolo Gulisano whose title can be translated as Father Brown’s Destiny, in which the unassuming little priest becomes Pope Innocent XIV. Father Brown’s adventures have also been dramatised on radio, film and television, notably the 1974 television series starring Kenneth More. However, nowadays most people will think of the current television cosy crime series that bears his name but has little other similarity to Chesterton’s Father Brown.
Hercule Poirot (1920-1975) by Agatha Christie
Following in the footsteps of G.K. Chesterton, Christie’s first sleuth had none of the physical attributes of Holmes or Thorndyke. ‘Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man... had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective his flair had been ~extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by ravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.’ (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920.)
In 1920s Britain, a small, penniless Belgian refugee of eccentric appearance would have to be exceptional to be taken seriously as a great detective. Poirot achieves this miraculous transition, becoming the detective that the British Government calls in when they are in diplomatic difficulties, and earning an income sufficient to allow him to live in comfort, travel in luxury and investigate at his own expense when he suspects an injustice has occurred. Despite living in Britain for many years, at times, Poirot deliberately exaggerates his foreign mannerisms and ~idiosyncratic English, as he explains to Mr Satterthwaite, a partner in investigation: ‘Poirot laughed. “Ah, I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people – instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, ‘A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much,’ That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard. Besides,” he added, “it has become a habit.”’ (Three Act Tragedy, 1934.)
Through the years, Poirot has several helpers in his investigations but his original sidekick and biographer, is Captain Arthur Hastings, although he does not appear as frequently in the novels chronicling Poirot investigations as the popular television series would have viewers believe. Hastings is the narrator of several of Poirot’s ~investigations from the beginning of his time as a refugee in England, when he discovers the murderer of Mrs Inglethorpe in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, (1920). Hastings is the opposite of Poirot in almost every way: educated at Eton and a traditional, conservative person, with fixed ideas about ‘playing the game’, he is often shocked at the things Poirot does to solve a case, such as telling blatant lies, eavesdropping and reading other people’s letters.
Because Hastings is the narrator of the novels in which he appears, we have no description of his physical appearance, save for Poirot’s insulting comment about Hastings’ moustache, ‘“And your moustache. If you must have a moustache, let it be a real moustache, a thing of beauty such as mine.”’ (Peril at End House, 1932). Hastings’ relationship with Poirot is very similar to that of Holmes and Watson; Hastings is the narrator who sees but does not observe, which serves to provide the reader with the same information as the detectives, and, like Watson, he ~sometimes comments on something that helps Poirot to solve the crime, as when he mentions Poirot adjusting a jar of fire-lighting spills in the murder victim’s room. However, Hastings never sees the relevance of his remark until it is explained when Poirot is revealing the murderer.
In the same way that Holmes often jibes at Watson, Poirot gently mocks Hastings, as when he describes the strategy by which they will catch the murderer of Mrs Inglethorpe:
‘“Yes, he is intelligent. But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”I acquiesced
There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”
I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.
Yes,” he continued, staring at me thoughtfully, “you will be invaluable.”’
(The Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920.)
Fortunately for Hastings, his self-belief means that he rarely notices that he is being laughed at, as is obvious when he is boasting about his own detective skills: ‘“I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvellous little fellow. He used to say that all good detective work was a mere ~matter of method. My system is based on his—though of course I have progressed rather further.”’ (The ~Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920.)
Despite his teasing manner, Poirot is a good and loyal friend to Hastings, and to several other people he has regular dealings with, such as the writer Mrs Ariadne Oliver, the Secret Service agent, Colonel Race, and police officers, Superintendent Spence and Detective Inspector Japp, although Poirot’s intimacy with the latter is much less than it is portrayed in the television series, Agatha Christie’s Poirot. The only woman that Poirot is attracted to is the thief and confidence trickster known as the Countess Vera Rosakoff, who only appears in one book, The Big Four (1927) and two short stories published in The Labours of Hercules (1947).
When Poirot is investigating a crime, he does not disdain physical clues, although he prefers others to go to the ~effort of collecting them. His detection technique is primarily psychological, which makes him uniquely proficient at cold case mysteries, such as that of the Five Little Pigs (1942). ‘Poirot said placidly, “One does not, you know, employ merely the muscles. I do not need to bend and measure the footprints and pick up the cigarette ends and ~examine the bent blades of grass. It is enough for me to sit back in my chair and think. It is this – ” he tapped his egg-shaped head – “this, that functions!”’
Poirot’s approach involves talking to people and listening carefully to what they said, because ‘in the long run, ~either through a lie, or through truth, people were bound to give themselves away.’ (After the Funeral, 1953.) As he explains to Hastings, the essential thing is ‘“the psychology – that is important. The character of the murder – implying as it does a certain temperament in the murderer – that is an essential clue to the crime... If you reflect sufficiently on the character – the necessary character – of the murder, then you will realize who the murderer is!”’(Dumb Witness, 1937.)
In the early books, Poirot is very fond of explaining his method of investigation to Hastings, who usually only dimly understands what the master detective is talking about. This does not deter Poirot, who is fond of the sound of his own voice, as when Poirot is explaining the value of assembling the facts, both great and small, and considering them so that in the end they made an unflawed pattern:
‘“One fact leads to another – so we continue. Does the next fit in with that? A Merveille! Good! We can proceed. The next little fact – no! Ah, that is curious! There is something missing – a link in the chain that is not there. We examine. We search. And that little curious fact, that possibly paltry little detail that will not tally, we put it here!” He made an extravagant gesture with his hand. “It is significant! It is tremendous!”
In many ways Poirot is not only eccentric but annoying, as Christie herself commented in later years. He is absurdly fastidious, vain and egotistical, but he is also a passionate believer in justice, a good and loyal friend and, in Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952) shows himself willing to endure discomfort and disorder in order to save an innocent man from the gallows. Although flattered by attentions from the wealthy and powerful, he is ultimately the champion of the ordinary man and the underdog: ‘“I am not concerned with nations, Monsieur. I am concerned with the lives of private individuals who have the right not to have their lives taken from them.”’ (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, 1940)
Like Holmes, Poirot has survived and flourished in the public consciousness, although not exactly as Christie had described him. There have been, and continue to be, many film versions of Poirot stories, the most recent being by Kenneth Branagh. There is also a series of new Poirot novels, written by Sophie Hannah. Possibly the most influential way that Poirot has remained popular, is the long-running, 70-episode television series featuring David Suchet as ‘Agatha Christie’s Poirot’, which is still being screened regularly. In Agatha Christie’s Poirot, as well as some major plot alterations and the extension of short stories to stretch to a full hour-long plot, the major deviation from the original Poirot stories is the cosy atmosphere that surrounds Poirot and his friends. While Christie had portrayed the older Poirot as a rather lonely man, bored and unhappy unless he has a case to investigate, the television series offers him a surrogate family, including Arthur Hastings, who has returned from Argentina and settled into his old role. Miss Felicity Lemon, ‘that hideous and efficient woman... a machine – the perfect secretary’, who appeared in a few Poirot stories, is miraculously transformed into an attractive, nurturing woman who often joins Poirot to aid his investigations. Detective Inspector Japp has a reasonably good relationship with Poirot in the books and, although they occasionally disagree regarding methods of detection, Japp often welcomes Poirot’s help; in the television series, they have a much closer relationship, with Poirot even inviting Japp to move into his flat for a visit while Mrs Japp is away from home.
It seems probable that far more people know Hercule Poirot from the television series than from Christie’s original novels, which, apart from the major plot deviations, may not be a bad thing, as David Suchet is an excellent Poirot. However, it seems that the popular, cosy Poirot has moved a long way from the Poirot who declared, ‘“Understand this, I mean to arrive at the truth. The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it.”’ (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, 1926.)
Inspector Furnival and Inspector Stoddard (1923-1929) by Annie Haynes
In 1923 Annie Haynes published the first of her detective novels The Bungalow Mystery, which featured Inspector Furnival, who was the lead detective for the first three Haynes’ novels, before his place was taken by Inspector Stoddard, who featured in four police procedurals. It is remarkable that Haynes and her detectives have vanished almost completely from the public consciousness, apart from a few people who study and promote Golden Age detective fiction. Following Haynes’ debut crime novel, a newspaper article ranked her as one of the most outstanding female crime writers, alongside two well-established American writers and Agatha Christie, a British writer who went on to sell more than two billion books. In 1923, an article in The Illustrated London News claimed that ‘a very remarkable feature of recent detective fiction is the skill displayed by women in this branch of story-telling. Isabel Ostrander, Carolyn Wells, Annie Haynes and last, but very far from least, Agatha Christie, are contesting the laurels of Sherlock Holmes' creator with great spirit, ingenuity and success.’ Hindsight is a wonderful thing but today it seems extraordinary that in 1923 a major newspaper regarded Haynes as one of the two most significant British female crime writers and Dorothy L. Sayers, whose first detective novel was also published in 1923, does not get a mention.
It would be easy to argue that the reason that Annie Haynes and her police detectives have been forgotten is because of her short writing career and it is true that the rheumatoid arthritis that progressively crippled her must have affected her ability to write. In the early 1920s Haynes wrote her first novels in Kensington Gardens, where, in fine weather, she was wheeled in a bath chair. However, in the last years of her life it was all she could do to move between her study and bedroom and she died in 1929. However, other Golden Age authors were not extraordinarily prolific: Dorothy L. Sayers wrote only eleven novels featuring Peter Wimsey and of Josephine Tey’s eight detective fiction novels, only five featured Alan Grant in any major role. Although prolificity can help to establish a fictional character’s popularity, it is clearly not the only factor at work. The novels featuring Furnival and Stoddard have much to recommend them, they were innovative and well researched, especially in their awareness of new forensic techniques, such as the uses and disadvantages of fingerprint evidence and striation marks, which can be used to establish which gun is the murder weapon. The novels also reveal a lively interest in recent historical murder cases, as is evident when Inspector Stoddard and his assistant indulge in a long discussion of real life murderers in Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929).
Perhaps the reason that both Furnival and Stoddard have been forgotten is that they are simply not memorable, both in themselves and due to the restrictions of their official role, which prevented the flamboyant extravagances of private detectives such as Holmes and Poirot, and the independent actions of Thorndyke, Father Brown and Peter Wimsey. Indeed, neither Furnival nor Stoddard stand out in any way, although there are indications that, despite his unprepossessing appearance, Furnival is a force to be reckoned with: ‘He was rather unlike the ordinary detective of fiction in that he was small and alert-looking. His sharp inquisitive-looking little face had earned him the sobriquet of ‘The Ferret,’ when he was lower down in the Force, and the name stuck to him still.
But there was many a crook who had learned to dread the Ferret's gimlet-like grey eyes more than he dreaded anything on earth.’ (The House on Charlton Crescent, 1926.)
In 1928, Haynes started a new series with Detective Inspector Stoddard of Scotland Yard. Stoddard was 'a slight, slim man, quite easily recognisable as a detective in plain clothes.' (Who killed Charmian Karslake? 1929.) Stoddard is assisted by his junior, Alfred Harbord, presumably a detective sergeant, although his rank is never mentioned. Unfortunately, Inspector Stoddard, often appears to be a middle-class snob. He is cultured and
knowledgeable about good food and drink but disturbingly eager to ally himself to the upper classes and contemptuous of those less cultured or of a lower class than himself. He is ruthless and in The Crime at Tattenham Corner (1929) devises a plot to disguise himself and pay court to a woman whom he despises for her coarse appearance and common manners, and is even willing to offer her marriage in order to confirm the suspicion that she knows something she wishes to conceal. He also uses his proximity to this woman to steal a photograph he needs to confirm his theories. In The Crime at Tattenham Corner it is notable that there is a strange, moral laxness in the attitudes of Stoddard and Harbord when dealing with the wealthy and influential. The beautiful and well-born wife of a lord, who is also a rich business tycoon, is treated with a respect that borders on servility, despite her extremely suspicious behaviour. At the end of the book, certain well-born and wealthy characters are lauded as heroes and heroines by the general public, including Stoddard and Harbord, despite the fact that they have broken the law, been guilty of cowardice and folly, and wasted a vast amount of police time. After all, they are very glamorous and they do contribute generously to charity.
Haynes showed great innovative skills and writing courage in using ordinary police detectives as her investigators, but it seems possible that she found the plebeian Inspector Furnival too limiting. It is possible that if she had persisted with the novels featuring Furnival she would have created a police detective who was unique at that time and would still be remembered today, but that is speculation, which can never be confirmed.
Lord Peter Wimsey (1923-1939) by Dorothy L. Sayers
Whose Body? it can be argued that Sayers had created the archetypal amateur sleuth. Wimsey is the younger son of a Duke and immensely rich, which means he is able, with the assistance of his manservant, Bunter, to indulge his hobbies, including that of investigating crimes. As Wimsey explains, ‘“I sleuth, you know. For a hobby. Harmless outlet for natural inquisitiveness, don't you see, which might otherwise strike inward and produce introspection an' suicide. Very natural, healthy pursuit -- not too strenuous, not too sedentary; trains and invigorates the mind.”’ (Unnatural Death, 1927.) Sayers once commented that Wimsey was a cross between Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster but her original description of him was humorous rather than flattering, ‘His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat . . . His narrow, rather beaky face generally wore a supercilious expression, while his arched and lean nose gave him a parrot-like profile. He had a receding forehead and a long, narrow chin, grey eyes with drooping lids, a wide and flexible mouth, and sleek, flat, straw-coloured hair.’ (Whose Body, 1923.)
Wimsey took a First Class Honours degree at Oxford but he usually conceals his undoubted brilliance beneath a camouflage of casual banter, ‘“I always have a quotation for everything--it saves original thinking.”’ (Have His Carcase, 1932). He is a musician, scholar; linguist, connoisseur of fine wines, collector of rare books and manuscripts, and skilled enough to make scientific experiments, such as testing for arsenic. His taste, as well as his wealth is evident from this early description of his London flat: “Lord Peter's library was one of the most delightful bachelor rooms in London. Its scheme was black and primrose; its walls were lined with rare editions, and its chairs and Chesterfield sofa suggested the embraces of the houris. In one corner stood a black baby grand, a wood fire leaped on a wide old-fashioned hearth, and the Sèvres vases on the chimney piece were filled with ruddy and gold chrysanthemums. To the eyes of the young man who was ushered in from the raw November fog it seemed not only rare and unattainable, but friendly and familiar, like a colourful and gilded paradise in a medieval painting.” (Whose Body, 1923.)
One of the things that makes Wimsey unique in detective fiction heroes of this time is that he is a man tortured by the memories of the time he had spent as an officer in the trenches during World War I. His nightmares and his instinctive shrinking from responsibility recur frequently in the novels, especially when his actions bring a murderer to the gallows. As a supremely intelligent and clear-sighted person, he is aware of his own shortcomings and the importance of overcoming them. ‘Facts, Bunter, must have facts. When I was a small boy, I always hated facts. Thought they were nasty, hard things, all nobs.’ (Clouds of Witness, 1926.)
Wimsey does not have a single sidekick who fulfils the Watson or Hastings role, but he has got several friends and helpers, notably Mervyn Bunter who came to Wimsey as a servant straight after the Great War and was largely responsible for Wimsey’s recovery from shell shock, ‘“It’s that wonderful man of his who keeps him in order”’
(Strong Poison, 1930).
As well as keeping his master’s clothes in perfect order, Bunter has an important role helping to trail suspects and talk to servants who may be witnesses and, on at least one occasion, he saves Wimsey’s life. Also, Bunter is a proficient photographer, a valuable skill for solving many cases. Wimsey also has a useful friend at Scotland Yard, Detective Inspector Charles Parker, who does all of the routine tedious work while Wimsey makes suggestions based on inspiration and observation. Of course, even good friendships have their ups and downs, as in Strong Poison (1930) when Parker charges novelist Harriet Vane with murder. The case against Harriet is convincing and it is only because the jury contains a strong-minded woman who believes Harriet might be innocent that she escapes the death penalty. Wimsey has fallen in love with Harriet and is determined to prove her innocence before the retrial and, distressed at the thought he might have made a mistake, Parker co-operates with his investigation.
Wimsey does discover the real killer and Harriet Vane is acquitted. It takes some time for Wimsey to convince her to return his love but, in the end, he becomes one of the first Golden Age detective heroes who successfully moves from eligible bachelor status to happily married man. As the Wimsey novels continue he develops into a many-layered, fascinating character, with greater depths than he had first exhibited, until in Gaudy Night the faithful lover at last wins his lady. Sayers only wrote one more full-length Wimsey novel, which was adapted from a play. Busman's Honeymoon (1937) has a tender but sombre conclusion but Sayers' last portrayal of Wimsey and Harriet is much lighter. In Talboys, the final short story by Sayers that features Wimsey, he is shown as a happily married man with three sons, enjoying the gentle exercise of detecting the villain who has stolen a neighbour's peaches the day before the Horticultural Show.
There have been few film versions of Peter Wimsey stories and those were altered from the original in a way that made them totally unrecognisable, but television series have been more successful. One series starred Ian Carmichael (1972-75) and later adaptations of Strong Poison, Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night starred Edward Petheridge. Both interpretations were critically acclaimed, although they were very different from each other and, as the latter adaptations focused on the novels featuring Harriet Vane (played by Harriet Walter) she played a much more prominent role than in the series starring Ian Carmichael. Also there were several successful radio adaptations of Wimsey stories. When she died, Sayers left an unfinished manuscript, Thrones, Dominations, which was completed by Jill Paton Walsh, who went on to write three more Peter Wimsey novels.
When considering the first six detectives on our list: Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown are household names and Peter Wimsey is still generally remembered. It seems that television, film and radio have an important role in maintaining a fictional character’s fame, although in many cases the characters may be distorted out of recognition. In our first sample of six detectives, consulting and amateur detectives appear to be more popular and more easily adapted to whatever formula the television producers believe will attract a large audience. One interesting point about the private and amateur detectives is that Holmes, Poirot, Brown and Wimsey are all idiosyncratic characters with their own unique selling points but they have one thing in common, they are likely to take the law into their own hands, sometimes allowing a criminal to escape official trial and punishment, either by letting them go free, allowing them to work out their own penitence, or by conniving in their suicide.
As we look at later Golden Age fictional detectives it will be interesting to see what traits they have in common with the first six, some of whom are still famous while others have been almost forgotten.
All of the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle are available in paper books and Kindle.
Most of the Dr. Thorndyke novels and short stories by R. Austin Freeman are available in paper books and Kindle.
All of the Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton are available in paper books and Kindle.
Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher. She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames. Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times. The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts
click on the title.