What makes a great (fictional) detective?

Who solves the whodunnit? That’s the mystery the Club is getting to grips with presently.
We’ve established that a detective story consists of a logical puzzle, but a GOOD detective story has a puzzle plot AND interesting characters, setting and writing. When done right detective stories can delve into issues of the day, commenting on society and holding up a mirror to ourselves, albeit a bit bloodier than average. The Detective club aims to use the structure of a detective to explore the people and community of contemporary St Helens, the way only an insider can.

First things first, the detective. Who are some of the great investigators in literature, and can we learn from them?
It would be too difficult to create a top ten list without setting the criteria, so let’s start to limit our scope. Although we are exploring the Golden Age, there’s no need to limit ourselves to that period when researching fictional detectives. However, our group is interested in amateur detectives, either the ‘consulting’ or accidental. In Agatha Christie’s Partners In Crime, bright young things Tommy and Tuppence open a detective agency and try out different methods of detection based on other fictional detectives. They adopt the methods of the greats – from Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Thorndyke, The Old Man in the Corner and even Hercule Poirot (Christie commenting on her own creation).

Fictional detectives referenced in other fictional detective worlds is nothing new. In a 1945 essay about British crime fiction, Agatha Christie expresses her views about her peers, their fictional detectives and her own creation –

“Poirot has made quite a place for himself in the world and is regarded perhaps with more affection by outsiders than by his own creator! I would give one piece of advice to young detective writers. Be very careful what central character you create – you may have him with you for a very long time!”

After studying and trying out Sherlock’s methods during the first meeting, members of the Detective Club started thinking about our own sleuth. We decided it would be good to have an amateur who falls into solving the crime alongside the official investigation.
As one group member said “I liked the idea of it being someone on the edge of society – so how about one of the elderly people who use the library to keep warm and occupied during the day. Maybe it could be an ex-Policeman, fallen onto hard times. Some case in his past that went wrong meant his life spiralled downwards – drunk, divorced, homeless. This character would have the skills of a detective but without the restrictions. And also have the ‘anonymous’ quality allowing him to delve deep into the mystery without anyone really ‘seeing’ him. It would be easy for him to explain his presence ..”

We’ll develop this further and start seeing how they move around their environment in the second meeting where we will look at the scene of the crime.


First meeting review

Late last Monday afternoon the St Helens Detective Club held its inaugural meeting with seven plucky members. The crime a-fiction-ados were mostly (deceitfully?) sweet-looking older ladies (6:2 = ♀:♂) from various backgrounds and tastes – all with an interest in detective fiction. This is not too surprising as crime genre has been consistently on the best borrowers list for awhile, (especially in Scotland). I’m not sure of the gender spilt in library lending trends, but most of the best writers of crime are women.

First meeting of the St Helens Detective Club

The round table-less introduction revealed that most had the common experience of Agatha Christie as the gate-way into detective novels, but have moved on to more grittier, ‘hard-boiled’ and psychologically complex works of Sue Grafton, Ian Rankin, James Patterson, Carl Hiaasen and Val Mcdermid. Golden Age (GA) alumni Edgar Wallace did get a mention, though!

One member asked if this was the right group, as she didn’t like the books of the GA. But as someone who likes mystery reading and creative writing, this is the perfect group as the main objective of the St Helens Detective Club is to create a murder mystery set in contemporary times, in contemporary settings (St Helens Library and surrounding area). The GA rules and formats provide a structure and framework, but it will be the club who create the characters and crime to explore life in St Helens – today. We aim to use the format of a detective story to explore the world we live in now.

The session continued with a whistle-stop tour of crime fiction, culminating in the Golden Age. We then tried our own skills in deduction amongst ourselves. Passing out blank white A4 size envelope, the group were asked to drop in three personal items. These were then shuffled and re-distributed. The task was to examine the inanimate objects and build a picture of the owner à la Holmes.

The image on the top of this post are exhibits A – G. The group busily examined the contents and started giving shape to the absent person, reading the trail of articles left behind. After writing in the exercise books, we went round the circle to propose their theories and guess the owner. It was a bit of a hit and miss, but we learned a few interesting things along the way. One person deduced by smell and touch, another by examining the wrists of the group to guess the owner of the watch. We also learned that crime readers love cats, and it would be fatal to write about cat abuse. (Seems children and dogs are okay). Here’s a brief summary of the deductions.

  • A: Busy tech-fetish male arsonist who likes privacy
  • B: Cat burglar just back from Venice, also has contact with children
  • C: Frequent traveller with sensitive eyes
  • D: Highly organised with tech and germ phobia
  • E: Recent victim of a mugging with a soft spot for stray cats
  • F: Health conscious asthmatic who might be smuggling poison
  • G: Female with a sweet-tooth, and a generous lover who’s been in hospital

After this we started thinking about OUR detective and the cast of characters we would write about. I’m afraid I can’t tell you more about that, as we’ve all been sworn to secrecy. You’ll just have to come along to the next meeting if you want to take part (2nd June) or wait till September time, when you can try to solve the crime!

Detective Tree of influence

Concise history of the Detective novel

There is some speculation to which is the very first detective novel, depending on how one sets the criteria. Generally most scholars would point to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1845) with the first appearance of C. Auguste Dupin, and his powers of ‘ratiocination‘ (before the term ‘detective’ as coined) as the first fictional detective. Although, most known for his horror stories and fascination with the macabre, the three short stories featuring Dupin have set the framework and conventions future detectives stories to come. As Conan Doyle once wrote, “Each [of Poe’s detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed… Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

The conventions set by him can be seen as

  • Locked Room Mystery (The Murders in the Rue Morgue)
  • Gentleman detective (Dupin is a Chevalier)
  • Arm-chair detective (The Mystery of Marie Rogêt)
  • Superhuman thinking machine, the chronicler of the detective (Watson type) & the slightly dim-witted police

Another writer working in the crime genre was Wilkie Collins, with The Moonstone (1868) recognised as the first detective novel, and still regarded as one of the finest of its type. He introduced some now standard stereotypes such as

  • red herrings
  • Bungling local constabulary
  • Large number of false suspects
  • The “least likely suspect”
  • A reconstruction of the crime

Based on these foundations, writers of the next wave would build on these roots to create some of the most famous private investigators – including Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. Poe’s influence on Doyle can be seen from his passage in  A Study in Scarlet (1887). Doctor Watson compares Holmes to Dupin, to which Holmes replies: “No doubt you think you are complimenting me … In my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow… He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appears to imagine”. 

Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is so synonymous with detection, he’s methods, manners and characteristic traits (including his sidekick Watson) are woven into the general consciousness of the public that it is almost impossible to find detective novels that do not reference him in some way. Either in homage, parody or sly references he is constantly being re-imagined and re-introduced to modern audiences.

With the general framework refined, the Golden Age gave fruit to the pinnacle of detective novels, with four women leading the field. The stories had a format, and conventions which were further codified by the Detection Club, formed around 1930 by a group of British mystery writers – still running today. The club included all the big name writers of detective fiction of the time ( including Agatha ChristieDorothy L. SayersRonald KnoxFreeman Wills CroftsArthur MorrisonJohn RhodeJessie Rickard,Baroness Emma OrczyR. Austin FreemanG.D.H. ColeMargaret ColeE.C. BentleyHenry Wade, and H.C. Bailey). Not all have past the test of time, but the amount of activity and stories generated were mirrored by the public’s appetite to consume them. As well as writing some good whodunnits, they also set out rules, conventions and wrote with the idea of ‘fair play to the reader. Reigning Queen of Crime Dame Agatha Christie cased a minor furore when it seemed she broke one of the cardinal rules in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).

Famous sleuths from this age include Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence (Christie), Lord Peter Wimsey (Sayers), Albert Campion (Allingham), and rare to the form – a policeman (but from gentry) Roderick Alleyn (Marsh).

Although the Golden Age is commonly set as inter war, all of these women (and others) published new stories well in the 70’s. Although some kept the detectives in contemporary settings, they still revolved around an time before the Second World War. At it’s heart, a Golden Age story is a puzzle that can be solved or explained through logical deduction, where the reader is invited to play along with the investigating detective. The main idea was to amuse the reader through ingenuity and sometime that led to pasteboard characters with a pile of clichés. The backlash came as more psychological novels and ‘hard-boiled’ noir books to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

The best stories are a balance of plot and characters, the basic elements for any good story – whether murder is involved or not.



Detective_Club Star

The Star coverage

Last Monday (May 12th) we sat down with a reporter and photographer from the Star – the place for all of the latest news for St Helens. Not only are the the best source for local happenings, they are only a few stone’s throw away from the Central Library.

Big EyeMany fictional detectives have contacts within the news world, at times using them to find witnesses, flush out criminals or find interesting cases (during a slow patch). Some fictional news hounds who rub elbows with the sleuths are Salcombe Hardy of the Morning Star (frenemy of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane) and Nigel Bathgate (journo friend of Roderick Alleyn).

But what’s the Star saying?

IF YOU fancy yourself as a super sleuth the newly-formed St Helens Detective Club is the perfect place to hone your skills.

Central Library users came under the magnifying glass when our photographer called round to find Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple getting set to explore the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction.

“Technically Sherlock is not from the Golden Age,” said artist and club leader Hwa Young Jung, doffing her deer stalker hat.

Read the full article here.

There’s still time to join! Look forward to seeing you then – and Happy Hunting!

who's whodunnit

Who’s Whodunnit

To get into the mood for murder, the Detective Club played dress up with the wonderful librarians at St Helens.
Can you guess who’s who?

Remember! You can borrow all of the books from the reading list from ANY of the libraries of St Helens Council.

While you’re down at borrowing (or returning) your books check out the latest activities from the Arts in Libraries programme.

There are three fictional detectives posed in this photos (of the five people), and one has had her knitting covered so, you might not know who she is.

They are Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple (who’s pink fluffy knitting you can’t see).