Thursday, November 10, 2005

Who's on the Case?

The little gray cells, Hastings, they have never let me down. -- Hercule Poirot

Sunday is my day to veg out, which I do quite well, thank you. After all, everyone is good at something. At any rate, the Biography Channel shows mystery shows on Sundays*, and this week was a feast of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's dapper Belgian sleuth. Having watched so many episodes, I decided it was time to actually read the stories, so I got online and ordered a couple of Christie's Poirot short story collections.

Of course, this got me to reminiscing about arguments I used to have with an old college buddy about great fictional detectives. Larry was a big admirer of Nero Wolfe, while I was (and am) a devoted follower of Sherlock Holmes. Neither of us cared for the other's choice, for reasons that bear explaining.

It wasn't the detectives that were the bone of contention, it was their sidekicks. Nero Wolfe has Archie, and Holmes has, of course, the redoubtable John Watson, M.D. Actually, I thought Wolfe was pretty cool, sitting in his office or fiddling with his orchids while deftly weaving together the threads of the web that would trap the murderer. But, Archie ... well, some of us remember the Lone Ranger and his faithful friend, Tonto. Every week, it seemed, poor old Tonto had to go into town to eavesdrop on the locals, which generally meant going into the local saloon. Trouble is, the saloons never seemed to cater to the Native American trade, so they would ask Tonto to leave. They would do this by having five or six large individuals beat the snot out of ol' Tonto.

That seemed to be Archie's job: Go out and get beaten up, or, at the very least, hit on the head with a gun butt. A flesh wound was a bonus number. Frankly, I figured after a while Archie would figure out what was happening and learn to get his feet moving before getting pistol-whipped, but no. No Wolfe adventure seemed to be complete with Archie getting assaulted and battered.

Now, Larry rather liked Sherlock Holmes because of his coolly logical approach. But Watson, to him, was a pain. In Watson's case, “M.D.” evidently stood for “mostly distracted”, because Watson never saw anything. This was why, according to Larry, everyone was so amazed at Holmes' deductions. If we could see what Watson didn't seem to notice, we could be deductive geniuses as well. For instance, Larry would say, a guy comes into Baker Street, and Holmes says, “ I see, sir, that you are a Freemason.” Now Watson is absolutely shellshocked by this. He just can't imagine how Holmes could have deduced that this man was a Freemason. He can't imagine, that is, until Holmes explains that the guy is wearing a Masonic ring, a Masonic tie clip, and a sign around his neck that says, “I am a Freemason.” (Actually, if you leave off the sign, this actually occurs in one of the Holmes stories.)

Okay, he may have had a point there. But even Larry had to admit that Sherlock Holmes was the lineal ancestor of so many of the fictional detectives that would follow. Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Peter Wimsey, Wolfe, and Hercule Poirot owe much of their method to the brooding silhouette in the window of 221B.

That being said, there is the little issue of August Dupin. Dupin was the creation of Edgar Allen Poe, who appeared in The Purloined Letter and Murders of the Rue Morgue. Even though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was loathe to admit it, Dupin had to have served as one of the inspirations for Holmes. Sir Arthur even stole a bit of business from one of the Poe stories, where the detective, after watching his partner for a few minutes, makes a comment that exactly matches the partner's thoughts of the moment. He does this by watching what the other man is looking at as his eyes move around the room. Clever bit (it's better than I described it), but Sir Arthur only hints at its origin from another story.

So why don't we all pay homage to Dupin when we think of great detectives? First, there's not much of a body of work involving him (only five stories). Secondly, he is insufferably dull. As well as Poe could write horror, he didn't have the same flair with a mystery. The stories aren't awful, but most people don't read them twice.

So Sherlock Holmes is rightfully, the archetype for all detectives who use logic and deduction to bring the criminal to final justice. But there's one other detective who deserves mention.

His name is Porfiry. You may not have heard of him or of Raskolnikov, the villain he brought to justice (yes, Raskolnikov is what Boris Badenov used to say all the time on Rocky and Bullwinkle). In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, we know full well that Raskolnikov has committed the dastardly deed, and so does Porfiry. Porfiry is a likable chap, always asking questions that don't seem to be all that important, frequently asks about things that have nothing to do with the crime, and somehow is never able to end a conversation (“Just one more thing”). Eventually, he subtly tortures Raskolnikov into confessing his crime.

Porfiry was the model for a detective who always wore a rumpled raincoat, who asked how much those shoes cost, and who was always engaging and likable, right up to the point that the perpetrator was ready to throw himself off a bridge to get rid of him. Like Conan Doyle avoiding admitting Dupin's influence, Peter Falk doesn't admit it, but Porfiry surely inspired someone in the writing team that thought up Columbo.

*Well, they used to, but this was written a long time ago.

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