Merry Murder Makers
Saturday, October 20, 2012 at 11:09AM
Raven Nightshado

Note: this work was originally produced for a Literature course at Eastern Oregon University. Previously unpublished.

  Unlike most people, who simply look at something and assume that everything is the way it seems, the detective looks at what is and sees something hidden. Since the word “detective” was first applied to a literary figure, this aim of the detective has remained constant, even as successive generations of authors have incorporated the most modern methods of scientific reasoning and investigation available to them into their stories. The detective is one who wants to, needs to, must uncover the hidden truths of our universe, but his or her methods change with the times. The detective is not simply a character—he is a literary archetype. Though his setting and his science may change, he remains true to his own form. Many authors have added an element or changed the nature or presentation of the detective in some way, but the following six creators, and their creations, can be said to exemplify a particular aspect of the evolution of the detective and his medium—the genre of crime fiction.

Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” featuring C. Auguste Dupin, is almost universally acknowledged as the first detective story (Demko). Dupin further appears in two other Poe stories “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter” (Poe). Dupin’s method hinges on his great intelligence and his ability to think like the criminal. The most prominent scientific theories of Poe’s time, as could be applied to criminology, were based on witness identification, which is why the police in “Rue Morgue” arrested the last man seen with the victims. Looking for evidence, like the “Ourang-Outang” hair found at the crime scene and evaluating it was a new method which Poe chose to incorporate as part of his detective’s method.

Building on Poe’s work, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published “A Study in Scarlet,” the first story featuring Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’ motive for solving crimes is his insatiable curiosity. “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life,” he says, “and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it,” (Conan Doyle, 23). Conan Doyle’s main contribution to the character of the detective is that after Holmes subsequent detectives are more likely to rely on clues gleaned from observation and are often amateurs who are compelled to solve crimes because they are intrigued by puzzles.

Conan Doyle also introduced inductive reasoning into crime fiction, and Holmes uses a version of the scientific method as introduced by Charles Sanders Pierce in his 1878 article for Popular Science Monthly “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” (Pierce). The steps in Pierce’s method are: ask a question, research the situation, construct a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, analyze data drawn from experimentation, and finally, communicate results. Applying this method to a crime, Holmes starts with a question or crime, for example “Who killed Lord Pratt?” Next, he researches by using his own keen observational skills and by questioning the witness or client. Third, he constructs a hypothesis (which he at that point keeps to himself), and tests the hypothesis, often in the field with Dr. Watson. Finally, Holmes reveals the murderers of Lord Pratt (Lady Pratt and her lover, Mr. Bollocks the driver).

Modern adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes story, such as the BBC production Sherlock, also use the most modern science available. The character of Holmes and his observational methods are the same as written by Conan Doyle in Victorian times. However, the production is set in modern-day London and Doctor Watson is a veteran of the current war in Afghanistan, instead of being a veteran of the Second Afghan War as the original Watson was. Instead of publishing accounts of his adventures with Holmes, he is writing a blog at the insistence of his psychiatrist who feels it will help him work through his post-traumatic stress disorder. The series incorporates modern science and technology, such as DNA, cell phones, closed-circuit surveillance cameras, and the Internet to help Holmes solve crimes (BBC One). In the original stories, Holmes often sends Watson into the field to observe things and then report back to Holmes on his findings. In the updated version, Holmes sends Watson out with his laptop, and Watson uses the built-in webcam to let Sherlock observe from their flat at 221B Baker Street. Even though the character has been moved into a Twenty-first Century world, the detective archetype survives intact.

The next iteration of the detective is the father confessor. This type of detective is exemplified by Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. In Murder on the Orient Express Poirot employs methods used by both his predecessors Holmes and Dupin to solve crimes. However, Poirot also affects the personality of an unassuming and docile man. He is small, not physically imposing at all, and he makes himself available for people to talk to. Because he seems so docile, people say things to him they might not say to a more daunting stranger. Poirot often solves cases merely by interviewing all the involved parties and comparing their stories in his orderly little mind to determine what pieces do not fit. This skill continues to be popular in crime fiction, especially on television where shows like Perry Mason and Murder She Wrote owe Agatha Christie’s tiny Belgian a great debt, since they use his method almost exclusively. A scientific development of Agatha Christie’s day was Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, and it may be that Poirot’s tactic of getting people to talk to him is rooted in Freud’s idea that people inadvertently reveal their true inner nature when talking.

Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye features Phillip Marlowe, a hard-boiled crime solver who employs a multitude of methods including those mentioned above plus following people and spying on them, taking photographs, pillow talk, and fingerprinting. It is in this iteration that crime stops being quaint and charming and begins to resemble real crime: dark, dirty, and dangerous. Other scientific advances featured by Chandler include looking for traces of blood, hair, or other physical evidence of the crime around or on the murderer. Much like the era in which noir became popular, the world was going through many changes such as the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War, where reality was harsh and unavoidable. Guns became a standard of crime fiction at the time, and since Chandler most detectives seem to carry a firearm, and the criminals are carrying them, too.

Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote features Police Detective Harry Bosch trying to solve his mother’s murder in modern day Los Angeles. Since the crime took place in the 1960s, Connelly is able to make a nod to the Noir thrillers he relied on to create Harry Bosch, a hard-talking and no B.S. cop who has seen things that would make Phillip Marlowe’s skin crawl. Bosch, as a modern detective, is set firmly in a gritty, realistic world almost indistinguishable from the non-fictional one. There are no hokey plots here: motive, means and opportunity are a must for the killers he catches. Scientific advances Connelly incorporates into the Bosch novels include DNA, the use of the Internet as a research tool, and criminal databases like IAFIS (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System) and CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) that help real and fictional cops track down criminal histories across jurisdictional lines.

Finally, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon introduces Takeshi Kovacs. Though not the first science fiction detective, Kovacs may be one of the most outstanding examples of this blended genre. Morgan tackles the unknown future, and invents his own scientific breakthroughs to give his detective an arsenal of tools. Morgan postulates how scientific rationalization and “detecting” will evolve when humans are spread across the known universe, when the world as we know it now no longer exists. Morgan does an excellent job of projecting a future that is technologically advanced from our own but shows how the basic nature of humanity hasn’t changed since the days of E.A. Poe. His detective is an amalgam of all the previous styles rolled into one extraordinary being who sets out to know the truth and uses all the tools at his disposal to find it.  Morgan’s scientific advances include needlecasting—the ability to electronically transmit a radio frequency of a personality from one physical location to another, resleeving—placing a human being’s stored memories and thoughts into another physical vessel, and the political entity known as the Envoy Corps—a military and diplomatic organization that uses special training to condition its members to be elite fighting, reasoning, and thinking machines. Kovacs, as a member of the Envoy Corps, is able to recover rapidly after being resleeved, so he is called upon to solve the “murder” of a man who is not technically dead by current standards, because he too has been resleeved. In an ironic twist, Kovacs, with all the technological advances available to him that Morgan could possibly dream up, is forced to use simple methods introduced by his forefathers of detection—Dupin’s imagination, Holmes’ logic, Poirot’s interrogation, Marlowe’s pillow talk, and Bosch’s physicality—to solve what is essentially a locked room mystery.

                Crime fiction has developed from being a genre that started from a handful of gruesome stories into a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry encompassing literature, film, television, and the stage. The creators of this media have presented the world with a series of sleuths who charm and thrill us with their wit and wisdom. Though the science these detectives use may change to keep current with the times, the spirit of the detective is universal. As proven by the modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, such characters are so interesting on their own that they may be removed from their original settings and thrust into a new environment without diminishing their interest or their story-worthiness. Essentially, all these authors built on the work of the previous authors in such a way that each detective could be seen as merely a new incarnation of his predecessor. The detective as a literary archetype is likely to change with the times, but is unlikely to disappear any time soon. They’re just too much fun to stop revisiting—for authors and readers alike.





BBC One. “Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss interview – Sherlock – BBC One” You Tube

Chandler, Raymond. The Long Goodbye. New York: Ballantine, 1982. Print.

Christie, Agatha. Murder on the Orient Express: A Hercule Poirot Adventure. New York: Harper, 2011. Print.

Conan Doyle, Arthur. “A Study In Scarlet.” The Complete Sherlock Holmes. New York: Doubleday, 1986. Print.

Connelly, Michael. The Last Coyote. New York: Orion Press, 1995. Print.

G.J. Demko, G.J. Demko’s Landscapes of Crime. Web. Accessed 24 May, 2012

Montgomery, David J. “Interview with Michael Connelly (April 2002)” Mystery Ink.

Morgan, Richard K. Altered Carbon. New York: Science Fiction Book Club, 2002. Print.

Pierce, Charles S. “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly. January 1878, 286-302.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Complete Tales and Poems with Selected Essays. New York: Creative Space Media, 2011. Print.


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