The Detective in British Crime Fiction

Detectives who feature in long-running series have long been a staple of the genre. Fictional detectives fall into three broad groupings: amateurs, private investigators and the professional police. Categories overlap: many amateurs are lawyers, journalists, or have other business connections that bring them into regular contact with crime. In the Golden Age between the two world wars, amateur sleuths reigned supreme; today the professionals are ascendant. Originally, detectives tended to be memorable for their eccentricities; now the emphasis is on in-depth characterisation. The field has become crowded, with detectives of many different kinds, operating in a wide variety of places and periods.

Real-life policemen inspired the first major detectives in British fiction. Charles Dickens based Inspector Bucket, of Bleak House (1853), upon Inspector Field, while his friend Wilkie Collins modelled Sergeant Cuff, who investigates in The Moonstone (1868), on Sergeant Whicher, famous for his work on the ‘Road Murder’ of 1860. Neither character is the main protagonist of the book in which he features, nor did Bucket or Cuff return for further adventures. Dickens and Collins did not regard themselves as detective novelists; crime and mystery were incidental to their wider concerns. Not until Sherlock Holmes made his debut in A Study in Scarlet (1887) did the professional private investigator come into his own.

Holmes, like Edgar Allan Poe’s Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, was a supreme reasoning machine and Arthur Conan Doyle equipped him with characteristics that, although sometimes bizarre, transcended gimmickry and ensured his ranking as the most famous of all characters in British fiction. He is introduced as a strange, anti-social depressive, given to moody silences and taking cocaine when he is not playing the violin or firing shots into his landlady’s wall. As the years passed, the portrayal softened and Holmes’ drug habit was explained as a reaction against monotony. Throughout he remained a genius among detectives, alert to ‘the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumb-nails, or the great issues that may hang from a bootlace.’ He outshone Lestrade and other policemen time and again, while Dr. Watson proved a doughty and devoted (yet not uncritical) friend as well as an ideal foil.

Conan Doyle’s imitators dutifully copied the pairing of detective and admiring sidekick-narrator, without capturing the unique flavour of the Holmes-Watson relationship. R. Austin Freeman’s Dr John Thorndyke was aided by Christopher Jervis and Ernest Bramah’s blind Max Carrados by inquiry agent Louis Carlyle. In an intriguing variation, Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law E.W. Hornung created the amateur cracksman A.J.Raffles whose exploits were recorded by the adoring Bunny, who had fagged for him at school. Hercule Poirot’s early cases saw him partnered by Captain Arthur Hastings until Agatha Christie retired Hastings to the Argentine; he reappeared in the last book in the series, Curtain (1975). Like Holmes, the Belgian Poirot was an outsider, unmoved by sentimentality when investigating a crime and, above all, capable of thinking the unthinkable – recognising in one of his most celebrated cases that murder might have been committed not just by one or two of the suspects, but by all of them. Such daring touches helped cement his legendary reputation, second only to Holmes.

G.K.Chesterton’s Father Brown (modelled on a cleric from Bradford) was unusual not merely in his calling but also for drawing morals from the cases he investigated. For the first thirty years of the twentieth century, however, the prevailing fashion was for ingenious mysteries to be solved by upper class detectives of independent means. The trend was initiated by E.C. Bentley’s Philip Trent, and by Antony Gillingham, created by A.A. Milne, whose fame today rests on books about Winnie-the-Pooh.

Some detectives of the Roaring Twenties boasted a proud military record. Colonel Lysander Gore appears in novels by Lynn Brock, characterised by puzzles so elaborate that the explanations were exhausting. The reputation of Philip Macdonald, creator of Colonel Anthony Gethryn, has survived better than Brock’s, because he wrote with panache. Gethryn first appeared in 1924 and made his final bow as late as 1959 in The List of Adrian Messenger, a novel which in style and spirit belongs to the Golden Age. Anthony Berkeley’s vain, erratic yet irrepressible writer-sleuth Roger Sheringham, Nicholas Blake’s Nigel Strangeways, and Edmund Crispin’s breezy don Gervase Fen are notable for the ingenuity which they bring to solving a string of elaborately contrived murders.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ debut, Whose Body? (1923), Lord Peter Wimsey might have escaped from the pages of a P.G. Wodehouse comedy. But soon Sayers became frustrated by the superficiality and constraints of the classic form. Previously, detectives’ characters had scarcely developed during a series – with a few largely unsatisfactory exceptions, such as Raffles’ late metamorphosis into a hero during the Boer War – but once Wimsey met the love of his life, Harriet Vane, he embarked on a journey towards becoming that Golden Age rarity, a three-dimensional character. Unfortunately, his detective work suffered in the process; Gaudy Night (1935) and Busman’s Honeymoon (1937) are, despite their prolixity, much admired by Sayers fans, but when judged as mysteries must be counted as inferior. A critical cliché is that Sayers made the mistake of ‘falling in love with her detective’. It is more accurate, and less patronising, to conclude that the transformation in the portrayal of Wimsey simply too ambitious. If Sayers could have conceived a fresh hero, she might not have become so disenchanted that she abandoned the genre.

Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion, like Wimsey, grew more serious as the years passed, but he tends to be more of an observer than Lord Peter, less central to the novels in which he appears. In common with many amateur sleuths, he enjoyed excellent connections with the official police. Wimsey’s brother-in-law was a chief inspector; Campion was on close terms with the Cockney Scotland Yard man Charlie Luke.

Female detectives appeared from the 1860s onwards but few showed staying power until Christie introduced Miss Jane Marple. Christie’s master-stroke was to focus on the universal nature of human frailties, and to have Miss Marple draw endless parallels between misdemeanours in a small village and the events in the murder mysteries she began to encounter with startling regularity in her twilight years. Yet for all her self-deprecation, Miss Marple benefited from a first-class network. Her nephew Raymond is a novelist rich enough to send his aunt on holiday trips which inevitable result in close encounters with murder, while her insight is much admired by Sir Henry Clithering of Scotland Yard. Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, consultant psychiatrist to the Home Office, is a lively but improbable character who first appears in Speedy Death (1929), only to commit murder and be duly tried. Acquitted, she confesses her guilt to the defence counsel, who happens to be her son. Compared in appearance to a pterodactyl, she pursued her investigations for a further fifty five years, before becoming transformed by the magic of television into glamorous Diana Rigg – like Mrs Bradley, a Dame of the British Empire.

One of the first policemen to take centre stage, rather than playing second fiddle to a talented amateur, was Inspector Joseph French. The title of his debut, Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1925), suggests that Freeman Wills Crofts failed to anticipate the eventual length of his career. But French’s methodical style suited the meticulously constructed narratives and he continued to eat heartily (this was almost the limit of Crofts’ attempts at characterising his hero) and dismantle seemingly unbreakable alibis until the late 1950s. Raymond Chandler damned Crofts with faint praise for his mastery of ‘plodding detail’ and Julian Symons rated him as foremost of the ‘Humdrum’ school of writers, members of which included John Rhode, creator of the humourless mathematics professor Dr Lancelot Priestly, and the eminent Fabians G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, whose Superintendent Henry Wilson is a contender for the dubious accolade of dullest series detective.

Sir Basil Thomson drew on experience as head of the CID at Scotland Yard to write about the cases of Richardson, a Scot who advanced with amazing speed from the rank of PC to Chief Constable. However, Thomson lacked the literary skills of the under-rated Henry Wade, whose sound understanding of police work (he was a Justice of the Peace) was allied with a flair for plotting and characterisation. Many of his finest books featured the Oxford graduate Inspector John Poole; Lonely Magdalen (1940) offers an impressive blend of detailed (but never tedious) police procedure, moving characterisation of a murdered prostitute and a sophisticated narrative structure.

Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn and Michael Innes’ John Appleby were well-bred senior police officers who owed much in conception to the tradition of the Golden Age sleuth. More believable is Cyril Hare’s stolid Inspector Mallett, who initially worked solo, but grew in stature after developing a mutually respectful relationship with the unlucky barrister Francis Pettigrew. The pair’s first encounter is in Tragedy at Law (1942), a masterpiece of legal mystification. The collaboration of professional and amateur is much more credible than in, say, the cases of Rupert Penny’s Inspector Beale, whose stock-broker friend Tony acts his Watson. Penny’s enjoyable books, written in a quick burst between 1936 and 1941, represent the last gasp of the Golden Age. Hare pointed the way ahead.

After the Second World War, the ‘police procedural’ novel was developed in the UK by writers with personal experience of routine police work, such as Maurice Proctor, whose DCI Harry Martineau’s cases included the excellent Hell is a City (1954), and John Wainwright. John Creasey’s books about George Gideon of Scotland Yard are among the best of hundreds of novels produced in an extraordinarily busy life. The most successful police series have, however, featured detectives as memorable as, if rather more realistic than, their illustrious fictional forebears. P.D. James’ Adam Dalgleish, who rises to the rank of Commander in the Metropolitan Police, beguiles his leisure hours by establishing a considerable reputation as a poet. Devices and Desires (1989) is amongst the most finely wrought of all novels in the tradition of the conventional detective story. Ruth Rendell’s Reginald Wexford is a devoted if sometimes irascible family man, whose wife and daughters play an important part in the stories. The early Wexfords are relatively orthodox, although praiseworthy for plotting that is as incisive as Rendell’s prose. Later books address contemporary social issues such as racism within the whodunit framework in a way that Innes and Crispin never contemplated. Yet utilising a series detective imposes constraints on a writer and many of Rendell’s finest novels, under her own name and as Barbara Vine, dispense altogether with an investigating police officer.

Reginald Hill’s duo Dalziel and Pascoe relish their sparky relationship; the contrast between the coarse superintendent and the intellectual sidekick is as cleverly depicted as their concealed but deeply felt mutual respect. The well-realised Yorkshire setting adds depth to the books; rich humour and literary fireworks enable them to succeed on several levels. The development of Colin Dexter’s Oxford pairing, Chief Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis, was influenced by the success of the television series which made them household names; again, the grudging regard that exists between the gifted, if often fallible sleuth and his loyal second-in-command is skilfully conveyed. John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick (Nottingham) and Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks (Yorkshire) are appealing examples of that increasingly common figure, the regional cop; no longer do local forces faced with complex murder inquiries routinely call in Scotland Yard, let alone a gifted and idiosyncratic amateur. Ian Rankin’s best-sellers about Edinburgh-based DI John Rebus have achieved even greater heights with their blend of taut prose, sharp characterisation and an in-depth depiction of a society in the throes of change.

The private eye sub-genre has always enjoyed more popularity with American writers than with their counterparts in the UK, and such beguiling home-grown gumshoes as James’s Cordelia Gray, and Liza Cody’s Anna Lee, flourished for relatively short periods. So did Duffy, who appeared in four books written by the celebrated novelist Julian Barnes under the pseudonym of Dan Kavanagh, and James Hazell, created by P.B. Yuill, a name concealing the identities of Gordon Williams and the former England football manager Terry Venables. Hill’s black shamus Joe Sixsmith cannot match Dalziel and Pascoe for popularity. The definitive British private eye has yet to emerge.

Oddly, the amateur detective has continued to flourish. In the 1950s Beverley Nichols introduced Horatio Green, whose exceptional ‘olfactory sense’ was an aid to his detective work. The twin Shaffer brothers, Peter and Antony, both better known as playwrights, created Mr Verity (also, confusingly, called Mr Fantom in one book), who investigated three ingeniously contrived mysteries. V.C. Clinton-Baddeley’s elderly academic, Dr Davie, meddled with five recorded cases in the sixties and seventies, while the actor Charles Paris nearly drank himself to death in the course of solving crimes entertainingly concocted by Simon Brett. Ann Cleeves began with books featuring an elderly pair of ornithologists with a penchant for stumbling across mysteries in rural Britain, before concentrating on a variety of police detectives: Stephen Ramsay, Vera Stanhope and Shetland’s Jimmy Perez. Series characters with professional links – albeit sometimes rather tenuous – to murder investigation have continued to proliferate. Amongst the lawyers with a taste for crime are Michael Underwood’s Rosa Epton, my own Liverpool-based Harry Devlin, and Frances Fyfield’s Helen West. Journalist-sleuths include Lesley Grant-Adamson’s Rain Morgan, Jim Kelly’s Philip Dryden, and Mike Phillips’ Sam Dean. Dean is one of the few notable ethnic minority detectives so far created by a British crime novelist, but his appearances are infrequent. Merchant bankers Mark Treasure and Tim Simpson encounter mysteries in novels by David Williams and John Malcolm respectively, while the lecherous antique dealer Lovejoy, created by Jonathan Gash, developed an appreciative audience, initially among the reading public and later through television adaptations. During the past decade, forensic psychiatrists and pathologists have become more prominent and Val McDermid’s profiler Tony Hill has also made the transition from page to screen.

Julian Symons noted that the law of diminishing returns applies to comedy crime series. The same applies to detectives in those series. Among the most entertainingly drawn are Tim Heald’s Board of Trade investigator Simon Bognor and Peter Guttridge’s journalist Nick Madrid. Humorous series about professional cops include Joyce Porter’s featuring fat and lazy Chief Inspector Dover and Colin Watson’s about DI Purbright.

Historical detective stories were written from time to time before the 1970s, but only after Peter Lovesey created the Victorian policeman Sergeant Cribb, and Ellis Peters the medieval herbalist Brother Cadfael, was the potential of the past for crime fiction fully recognised. An advantage of history-mysteries is that authors are not fettered by the complications, and intermittent tedium, of modern police routine and investigative techniques. Another is that, especially in the days before professional police forces, the amateur detective can operate more plausibly than in the present day. The enormous success of the Cadfael books opened the floodgates; almost all historical periods have now seen a good deal of fictional sleuthing – frequently by characters created, either under his own name or a pseudonym, by the astonishingly industrious Paul Doherty. Leading detectives of bygone days include Rome’s Marcus Didius Falco, the 14th century Cambridge physician Matthew Bartholomew and Tudor London’s hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, created by Lindsey Davis, Susanna Gregory and C. J. Sansom respectively. Two different series, by Bruce Alexander and Deryn Lake, centre on the same real-life historical figure, the blind magistrate John Fielding, while both Keith Miles and Andrew Martin have followed the example of Victor L. Whitechurch a century earlier by writing about specialist ‘railway detectives’. A recent trend has been the setting of books in the relatively recent past. Andrew Taylor, whose first series detective was the amoral William Dougal, has more recently focused on stand-alones and the Lydmouth series, which derives as much strength from its evocation of austere post-war Britain as from its setting in a small town on the Welsh borders and the complex relationship between DI Richard Thornhill and journalist Jill Francis.

H.R.F. Keating, with India’s Inspector Ghote, James Melville with Japan’s Superintendent Otani, and Michael Dibdin with the Italian Aurelio Zen, led the way in setting detective series overseas. But there is a never-ending tide of UK-based police detectives. Lovesey has switched successfully from Cribb, and three books in which the future King Edward VIII detects murder mysteries, to contemporary crime with Bath-based Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond. Mark Billingham’s DI Tom Thorne is one of the most popular of the relative newcomers, but many worthy names could be added to the list.

Inevitably, readers will tire of detectives with personalities drawn from formula or cliché – such as the maverick loner with a drink problem who carries on investigating even when his unsympathetic boss throws him off the case. In the 1990s, the novel of psychological suspense gained in popularity. Like Rendell when writing as Barbara Vine, Minette Walters proved that it was possible to match critical acclaim with high sales by writing well-plotted and sophisticated stand-alone novels; several writers of high calibre have followed this lead. Nevertheless, the attractions of series to both readers and writers remain strong and crime novelists will undoubtedly continue to conjure up fresh and intriguing mystery-solvers. The detective is a character with enduring appeal.

(A version of this essay appears in The Harcourt Encyclopaedia of Crime Fiction)