Humanity and crime have co-existed forever, as you see from Biblical stories to post-apocalyptic thrillers. We also admire the superhuman intellects who solve the crimes. The ingenious unraveling of crime by a detective has established this genre’s ‘mass’ appeal. The uniqueness of crime fiction is that the detective is the focus of the story. Elana Gomel, an American Studies professor, argues that “the detective story is a narrative of restoration in which the temporary disturbance of social order is rectified through the disclosure of a secret” (1).
Crime fiction reflects the socio-political, historical and cultural aspects of society. While criticising societal norms, it also reports on events which make up history.
Crime fiction is a good staple in my literary diet, and I have come to admire the detectives for their style, sharpness of their minds, and single-mindedness in solving crime. They feel that an unsolved crime is an anomaly that has to be corrected for the well being of the universe.
Since his emergence, a century back, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has mesmerised readers across the English-speaking world. Despite his quaint mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, his intellect and understanding of the criminal mind are unsurpassed.
Poirot’s moustache has an identity of its own. Its magnificence precedes Poirot into a room. While most sleuths ferret around the floor looking for clues, Poirot uses his extensive knowledge of human psychology to isolate and identify the criminal. While evidence of a physical nature is important to him, you get the impression that his intellect and method have prevailed. Poirot concludes his case with a flashy denouement which is important for his ego and to declare to the world that he is “the greatest mind in Europe.” (2)
Adam Dalgliesh, a detective from New Scotland Yard, is the creation of Dame P.D. James. The uniqueness of Dalgliesh among the ranks of fictional detectives is that he is also a poet of great distinction with many publications to his credit. Encountering death after gruesome death while being a sensitive poet is a dichotomy that makes Dalgliesh unique.
Dalgliesh arrived at the crime fiction scence in 1962 and the medium was ‘Cover Her Face’. P.D. James would continue her craft with more than a dozen books. Her last book was The Private Patient, which appeared in 2008. Adam Dalgliesh’s career progresses from the rank of a Detective Chief Inspector to the Commander of an elite squad specializing in “sensitive” cases. In the professional journey what remains invariant is Dalgliesh’s cerebral approach to solving crime. The progress of technology in the form of mobile phones and computers does not come in the way of the intellectual way of problem solving that is his speciality.
We meet the aristocrat-turned detective inspector Thomas Lynley in Elizabeth George’s crime novel, A Great Deliverance. Her novels are remarkable for their intricate plots, multi-dimensional characters and realistic but chilling explorations of the criminal mind. Lynley matches these characteristics of the story perfectly. He is complex, aristocratic, multi-dimensional and the the eighth Earl of Asherton. Oxford-educated Lynley comes from a circumstance of privilege. Intensely emotional, he immerses himself passionately in his cases. In addition, Lynley has an absolute commitment to his job, which makes him do reckless things and get into conflicts with his superiors.
Precious Ramotswe, a private detective, is one of the most colourful fictional characters to have come out of Africa, Botswana, to be precise. Mma Ramotswe (pronounced “Ma,” a term of both endearment and courtesy) is the creation of Alexander McCall Smith, a writer from Scotland. She is the main character in the stories featured around the №1 ladies detective agency.
Mma Ramotswe’s modus operandi is based on intuition, wisdom and a deep understanding of her people rather than cold facts and evidence. She understands the distinction between human frailty and evil. Most of the people she meets in her work suffer from the former, thus bringing out her tolerance, humour and kindliness. On encountering evil occasionally, she concedes her incapacity to change it. Her ability to look at life positively inspires people around her through her empathy and generosity. She shows integrity, compassion and forgiveness, and by her moral judgement and attention to interpersonal relationships, she highlights essential dimensions of human experience.
As a detective, she’s a maverick and depends primarily on her intuition. She is more concerned with ethical values than with the law, and hence she’s reluctant to be involved with the police and prefers customary law, in all its guises. An outstanding feature of Mma Ramotswe is her great humanity. She has great empathy for people and believes that people often make mistakes without being harmful. But unfortunately, many factors can lead a person down the wrong track, and quite often, what is not needed is a legal outcome.
We may like to compare Mma Ramotswe to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple from St. Mary Mead (3), another remarkable female sleuth. Miss Marple’s brilliance is because of her innate wisdom. Behind that calm façade, there is a brilliant intellect at work, absorbing events and assessing facts quite like a professional detective. The pastoral settings may make one forget that she has seen more examples of human deprivation than experienced police officers. Miss Marple’s capacity for solving complicated cases is because, on occasion after occasion, she finds examples of the evil that is part of human nature in St. Mary Mead. She finds a parallel precedent in the village for every case brought to her, enabling her to look at the crime with a clear perspective.
Miss Marple was past sixty when we meet her the first time in 1930. Time stops for her throughout her detective career, perpetually remaining at 65. Marple’s modest self-assertion is that she has picked up great insight into human nature through her association with St. Mary Mead. Considering Marple’s phenomenal success in solving crime, this is indeed an understatement.
Miss Marple always remained sophisticated and refined, even as she engaged in what we may take as activities unsuitable for ladies. The contrast to her is Bertha Louise Cool in The Bigger They Come(1939) by A. A. Fair alias Earle Stanley Gardner. Bertha is a larger than life character including in her physical appearance. Her partner, Donald Law, focuses more on the cerebral side of solving crimes, reversing the stereotype of the strong male and demure female. .
Literary critics have generally regarded the genre of crime fiction as one supportive of patriarchy. The distinguished novelist Dorothy L. Sayers (4) complained about the depictions of women detectives in fiction when she wrote the introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime (1928). Sayers maintained that a “really brilliant woman detective” was yet to be created. The women detectives I wrote about above have indeed proven her wrong.
1. Mystery, Apocalypse and Utopia: The Case of the Ontological Detective Story: Elana Gomel, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 22, №3 (Nov. 1995), pp. 343–356 2. https://www.agathachristie.com/characters/hercule-poirot 3. https://www.agathachristie.com/characters/miss-marple