Top three old-school fictional detectives
Jan 10, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I recently treated myself to something that’s been lingering on my Amazon wish list for years – the complete collection of Hercule Poirot cases, brought to life by the amazing David Suchet. I grew up on these thanks to PBS and revisiting them in adulthood has not disappointed! As I continue on through the first season, I pondered my appreciation for a good mystery (especially anything set in an English village) and wondered if I had to choose, who would be my top three old-school fictional detectives? Allow me to introduce you, dear reader, to my trio and let me know your favorites in the comments below…
What is not to love about dear Hercule? The creation of Agatha Christie, this brilliant Belgian is equally known for his dapper style (his iconic mustache is a character on its own!) as much as his extraordinary reasoning skills – or as he describes them, the “little gray cells.” His keen observations and eerie predictions keep everyone around him on their toes. Chief Inspector Japp is equally parts flummoxed and impressed by his skill, Captain Hastings (his loyal sidekick) complements Poirot’s order and method with old fashioned British charm, and Miss Lemon keeps everyone in check as she tirelessly searches for the perfect filing system. (She’s a gal after my own heart!)
Poirot was one of Christie’s most popular characters – starring in over 30 novels and 50 short stories. In each tale his unique detecting style (discreet at the beginning and trending toward the dramatic as he closes in on the culprit) and ego are center stage. His peculiar personality may have frustrated his creator, but made him endearing to readers. Christie tried to kill him off early on, but the public was having none of it. Even now, 100 years later, there is still something special about this quirky fellow.
Fun fact: Poirot is the only fictional character to receive an obituary on the front of the New York Times in 1975
Just how did the infamous detective come into being? Christie took inspiration from her surroundings – during WWI she volunteered in a dispensary and became intimately familiar with poisons. Coupling that new knowledge with the settling of Belgian refugees into her hometown, the foundation for Poirot was formed. She wanted a name that reflected his lack of humility. Hercules was her first choice, which transformed seamlessly into the detective we know today. Poirot debuted in the book The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920 and Captain Hastings described him as “an extraordinary-looking little man.” Through the years, Christie developed Poirot’s features more – highlighting his obsession with symmetry, order, and himself. As he states in the mystery Five Little Pigs, “Rest assured, I am the best!”
Poirot and his colleagues are set against the backdrop of luxurious Art Deco fashions, furnishings, art, and architecture. I can attest the PBS adaptations are a real treat for the vintage enthusiast – every detail is spot on! Yet, for as dated at the surroundings may be, cultural context is surprisingly relevant. As a refugee in a foreign land, Poirot consistently faces discrimination. He takes it all in stride, which is a testament to the devotion to his work. He sidesteps the mean comments as he soldiers on to get to the truth of the matter he is investigating. Suchet expertly portrays this hidden strength and reminds us that even the brightest can be vulnerable in the face of ignorance.
If you’re looking for the opposite of Poirot, you’ve found him in Michael Shayne! Unassuming and able to use humor as a weapon, he is the guy that everyone gravitates to. Equally comfortable with society’s elite as he is with the bum on the corner, Shayne’s fluid detecting style leaves the cops one step behind. Debuting roughly 20 years after Poirot, in 1939, he went on to become Brett Halliday’s most beloved creations.
That popularity grew with Lloyd Nolan as the title character in a series of film adaptations from the mid 1940s to early 1950s. Filmed in the noir style, the movies captured the grit and glamour of every plot twist. My favorite, Dressed to Kill, showcases that best as Shayne walks into a dinner party with two dead guests – one in a dog mask! But the movies weren’t the only venue for our plucky detective – as the star of over 70 novels and 300 short stories, Shayne popped up on radio waves as well as the small screen (and even a short-lived comic book).
Critics (myself included) point out that the use of humor and screwball comedic elements set Shayne apart. In one moment he is analyzing a long line of evidence, meticulously recreating the crime, and in the next he’s cracking a joke with the porter. Perhaps it’s the unpredictability of Shayne that keeps me on the edge of our seat. All I know is you want to stick around for the ride – no matter how bumpy. He’s less order and method, more embracing chaos and the chance discovery. Shayne is the hip cat who can land on his feet while Poirot is adjusting his spats. Could you imagine Poirot and Shayne in the same room, let alone on the same case?!
My list cannot be complete without including this dear lady (and not just because I want to be her when I grow up!). Miss Marple, also created by Agatha Christie, is perhaps the most intriguing character of our trio. As an elderly woman, having spent the majority of her life in the small English village of St. Mary Mead, she constantly astounds Scotland Yard with her worldly and poignant deductions. Using age to her advantage, Miss Marple goes anywhere and talks to anyone. As she often notes, everyone is comfortable talking to a dotty old lady and no one suspects her of having a keen mind.
Her Victorian-era charm debuted in the 1927 short story entitled The Tuesday Night Club and Christie went on to feature her in twelve novels and nineteen other short stories. Inspiration for this surprising sleuth came from Christie’s own family and while Miss Marple was kind-hearted and maternal (especially to orphan girls), she could be equally blunt and unapologetic in her criticism / judgment of others. In short – a gal who could sum you up in two moments whether you liked it or not! Her style, in contrast to both Poirot and Shayne, is so unassuming and quiet, the impact takes you a moment to fully appreciate.
While some say that the plot lines for Miss Marple’s cases were inspired by Christie’s marital woes, I prefer to look at it as Christie offering us a comforting companion as we delved into the hidden sorrows we can all relate to. Much like Poirot, Marple is a relatable character in our modern times. Quietly powerful, often underestimated, and a bit nosey – she captures qualities we can either attest to as our own or recognize as the property of someone close to us. That’s why I love a good mystery – it intersects iniquity, justice, raw emotion, and humanity (and if you’ve got Michael Shayne with you – an extra dose of humor!). So dear readers, inquiring minds want to know: who makes your list of top three old-school fictional detectives?