Sunday, October 07, 2012

A juicy detective fiction mystery anyone?

There are thieves and murderers and then there are the police to catch them. And then there are private detectives. And there is detective fiction. Books from this genre have been on the best-selling charts, second to only perhaps romance, for decades and the trend seems unlikely to change. I find no greater pleasure than sinking my teeth into a nice unputdownable ‘juicy’ mystery with plenty of suspense on a lazy afternoon.

Types –
There are two types of mystery writings that are usually used in detective fiction –

1. Whodunit This genre of writing has spawned thousands of books and mysteries. The first instance of a great mystery novel in the western world is considered to be The Moonstone by Charles Dicken’s protégé Wilkie Collins written in 1868. The Moonstone which contains most of the ideas in the present day Whodunit is considered to be the pioneer of these ideas. Some characteristics are –
  • A crime (mostly murder) is committed
  • The police usually are a bumbling force who usually jump to hasty conclusions. 
  • A celebrated detective is consulted
  • The job is always an inside job
  • A large number of suspects are presented with varying motives
  • The scene of crime is usually one that is accessed by all the suspects or is a locked room from outside.
  • There always is a twist in the tale
  • The detective chides himself midway in the book before something unexpected that his sidekick says puts him on the right track
  • The murderer is usually the least likely suspect although the solution makes him the most plausible!
  • The mystery keeps you turning pages till you find the solution at the end!
2. The inverted detective story - The second kind of novel is one in which the perpetrator of the crime is known. In this kind of story, the reader finds clues that will unravel how the perpetrator did what he did and get a plausible solution. I recently read an example of this in a book I recently reviewed –‘The Devotion of Suspect X’


The local Police - The police usually are a bumbling force who usually jump to hasty conclusions.  From the puffed up but foolish Mr Goon in Enid Blyton’s Five-find outers to Inspector Lestrade in Sherlock Holmes, the police usually always end up catching the wrong guy with much confidence. 

The side kick- The detectives in the fictional world are usually a superior species, usually accompanied by a loyal but not as bright sidekick. . An important role that the sidekick plays is that of the narrator of many of the stories.  The sidekick usually helps them think or saves them in the nick of time in times of distress. The sidekick also engages in frivolous talk and activities such as falling in love. From the famous Mr Watson, the roommate of Sherlock Holmes, Captain Hastings of Hercule Poirot to Bess Marvin, who was Nancy Drew’s best friend, they usually have similar characteristics.

Suspects – A motley of characters is thrown in. There usually is a romantic angle also put in. The suspects either hate the murdered person enough to be a suspect, stand to inherit something or have a long standing grudge that nobody else is aware of. 

The Detective – This character is painted differently by different authors. They are typically unmarried, celebrated and are professional or amateur.

Private investigators Their methods could vary vastly between using the 'little grey cells' (Poirot) or the 'science of deduction' through powerful observation (Holmes)  My favorites are the most popular private investigators of all times- Agatha Christie’s- Hercule Poirot, and Conan Doyle’s -Sherlock Holmes.  Other private investigators include Auguste Dupin by Edgar Allen Poe, Philip Marlowe by Raymond Chandler. Marlowe was the inspiration for characters in several radio and tv shows. A sub-genre of private investigation was based on court room dramas of which an attorney Perry Mason created by Erle Stanley Gardner solved cases based on investigation of hired sleuths. John Grisham, an author on similar lines, continues to dish out crime and court room dramas.

To elucidate on my favorite two –
Hercule Poirot –Hastings describes all the typical Poirot qualities and methods in the The Murder on the Links as – ‘An extraordinary little man! Height five feet four inches, egg-shaped head carried a little to one side, eyes that shone green when he was excited, stiff military moustache, air of dignity immense! He was neat and dandified in appearance. For neatness of any kind he had an absolute passion. To see an ornament set crookedly, or a speck of dust, or a slight disarray in one’s attire, was torture to the little man until he could ease his feelings by remedying the matter. ‘Order’ and ‘Method’ were his gods. He had a certain disdain for tangible evidence, such as footprints and cigarette ash, and would maintain that taken by themselves, they would never enable a detective to solve a problem Then he would tap his egg-shaped head with absurd complacency, and remark with great satisfaction:
‘The true work, it is done from within. The little grey cells – remember always the little grey cells, mon ami’.

Sherlock Holmes – Holmes strikes an opposing countenance to the dandy Poirot and differs in his methods.  Sherlock Holmes has the best observation powers in the world and ‘the science of deduction’ is his specialty. Clues such as footprints, tobacco ash and cigarette butts combined with his vast knowledge have enabled him to crack many a case. In ‘A Study in Scarlet’ Watson describes Holmes as - Holmes was over six feet and very lean. His ‘hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision.’ Watson also hints of a narcotic addiction in several books.

Amateur detective fiction is another genre of detective fiction. Agatha Christie, the queen of mysteries wrote several enjoyable books on the amateur detectives Miss Marple, the frail old lady with a razor sharp intellect and the feisty couple Tommy and Tuppence. Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Three Investigators caught the attention of teenagers as amateur detectives.  As a kid, I immensely enjoyed all the amateur detective fiction penned by Enid Blyton – Fatty from the Five Findouters was my favorite of the lot back then.  However I hugely also enjoyed other mystery series by Enid Blyton including the Famous Five, Secret Seven, Snubby-Loony series and the young adventurers.

In comics, TinTin by Herge is the most popular mystery and investigation series in which TinTin is the investigative journalist with sidekicks, his dog Snowy and the alcoholic Captain Haddock. Carland Cross was another popular British investigator in comics.

Television - Detective fiction has trickled down to the television world for a long time. Some popular non-police investigators I particularly enjoy are Patrick Jane, the ‘consultant’ of the California bureau of investigation (CBI) of the Mentalist and Castle, the detective fiction writer who investigates with Kate Beckett. The latest Sherlock Holmes BBC series that features a modern day Holmes using the latest technology gadgets such as smart phones while still applying ‘the Science of Deduction’ is very interesting too.  As a kid, I enjoyed Remington Steele and Laura Holt although I don’t remember much of it now!

Wikipedia says the Golden age of detective novels was in 1920s and 30s when several popular writers emerged, the most famous being Agatha Christie. Four female writers of the Golden Age are considered the four original "Queens of Crime"- Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham.  All except Ngaio Marsh who is a New Zealander are British.  Other British writers include Anthony Berkeley, Austin Freeman, Michael Innes and Philip MacDonald.  More known for the British writing, this period also had the Georges Simenon  who wrote in French and the American John Dickenson Ellery Queen and SS Van Dine. For an exhaustive list of writers refer to

Agatha Christie
Writing a detective novel, is still big business and almost every weekly best seller list I see contains a mystery novel.  It is interesting to note that Mystery writing in English has also evolved in India over time. Byomkesh Bakshi, a Bengali detective was one of the popular detectives created in the 1930s. After several crime writers in regional languages, in English there are more Indian writers turning towards this genre and steering away from the chick-lit novels.  Amitav Ghosh’s  The Calcutta Chromosome and Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games are significant leaps forward in the area of serious mystery literature.  I find it immensely hard to turn away from the genius of Christie or Doyle, but would welcome more such page turners in the Indian literary scene. 

I am walking off to sink my teeth into that nice juicy mystery novel! What mystery book do you want to pick up to read next?