In 2017 crime and thriller books outsold general and literary fiction titles in the UK. This could be partly because of television adaptations that bring in more readers. But there is also the theory that in troubled times people turn to murder mysteries which are, notwithstanding the twists and turns in the book, predictable. After all the deductions, the culprit is apprehended and sent off to be punished. At the end there is the guarantee of justice being handed down and a closure for the reader. The predictability also comes from the detective in a series who becomes a familiar character, the inner workings of whose mind the reader comes to understand and appreciate, despite the story itself being different in each book. The reader of a murder mystery will always identify more with the detective than with the victim, purely because none of us want to be victimised but do like to see ourselves as crusaders of justice. This combination of familiarity, admiration and desire to do the right thing probably explains why the persona of the detective quite often ends up overshadowing the will of the author.
But then, what makes a good fictional detective? What are the characteristics that the readers will feel invested in and proprietorial towards? TS Elliot who was a fan of detective fiction felt that “the detective should be highly intelligent but not superhuman. We should be able to follow his inferences and almost, but not quite, make them with him.”
For writers however, a popular detective can sometimes become a double edged sword. On the one hand the popularity of the character sells more books, but on the other hand , the public’s admiration invests the detective with a real persona and takes the character out of the control of the writer. And some writers just end up feeling haunted by the characters they create and cannot get away from.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was possibly the first writer of detective fiction who felt the pinch of his character becoming too popular. He actually said ‘I weary of his name’ and killed him off in the Adventure of the Final Problem, which appeared in The Strand magazine. People were so upset that more than 20,000 people cancelled their subscription to the magazine. And of course, as we all know, Sherlock Holmes was resurrected and through the ages has had many avatars on film and TV screens. But no one remembers Doyle’s other works which he felt Sherlock Holmes distracted him from.
Then there was Agatha Christie, her detective Hercule Poirot has made as many appearances on screen if not more than Holmes. But the author once described him as a ‘detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego centric little creep’! As admirers of Hercule Poirot we feel offended for him. Christie, after having created him, felt that he limited her work. She very much wanted to get rid of him except her publishers would not let her because his popularity sold books. Finally in 1975, one year before Christie’s death, she published Curtain, the last Poirot novel, in which he dies. He is the only fictional character to have received a front page obituary in the New York Times. If anyone knows if the author herself received the same honour a year later, please let us know.
Although Dorothy L Sayers did not dislike her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, she stopped writing detective novels after thirteen books as she felt she was done with him. She instead wrote extensively for radio and stage and even carried out a scholarly translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy into English. But she is still known in the public’s mind primarily as the creator of Peter Wimsey. And as with all of them, the books are known by the detective’s name.
But as always, the grass is greener on the other side. There have also been popular authors who switch genres and start writing detective fiction/murder mysteries and would probably be very happy to have their detective become more famous and known independent of the author’s persona. Figure that one out for yourselves.