Wanted dead or alive: Why do fictional sleuths keep coming out of retirement?

With something like 600 new crime novels and thrillers published in the UK each year, including a seemingly endless supply of Viking invaders from the Scandinavian countries, you might have thought there would be no shortage of fresh and innovative (though naturally quirky and vulnerable) fictional detectives. Yet it seems that readers – and perhaps more importantly writers – are harking back to the past and reviving some of the great characters from the genre’s highly impressive backlist.

Fictional detectives rarely go gently into the night, despite their creators trying to kill them off.  Sherlock Holmes may have taken a fatal dive off the Reichenbach Falls, but Arthur Conan Doyle was forced by public demand to bring him back. Even after he   retired to Sussex and bee-keeping and his creator died in 1930, Holmes’s career continues prolifically at the hands of others – many, many others – as well as the official “continuation” by Anthony Horowitz. In the past year, the thriller writer Robert Ryan has continued the career of Dr John Watson, putting him centre stage, sans Holmes, in two best-selling crime novels set during the First World War.

James Bond, of course, keeps on serving Queen and country. Almost three times as many Bond books have been written since the death of Ian Fleming in 1964 than were written by Fleming himself, and they are today an annual event, penned by a series of high-profile guest authors.

The most recent revival is that of Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye Philip Marlowe in The Black-Eyed Blonde by the Man Booker Prize-winner John Banville, writing under his crime-writing alias Benjamin Black, but now Marlowe faces stiff competition from not one, but three of the great heroes from Britain’s Golden Age of detective fiction.

Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot cracked his first case in 1920; Dorothy L Sayers’ aristocratic amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey floated elegantly on to the crime scene in 1922; and Margery Allingham’s even more aristocratic (as the author cheekily hinted) gentleman adventurer, Albert Campion, debuted in 1929.

These heroes, created by the three “Queens of Crime”, are all undergoing revivals in their sleuthing careers. Lord Peter Wimsey (now the Duke of Denver) is still investigating crimes and misdemeanours in an Oxford college in 1953 in The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh. Albert Campion is contemplating retirement as well as mysterious goings on in a quaint Suffolk wool town in 1969 in my novel, Mr Campion’s Farewell. And Hercule Poirot will no doubt be exercising those famous little grey cells in a new novel sanctioned by the Christie estate by Sophie Hannah, to be published in September.

Sequels, prequels and updated “re-imaginings” are not new phenomena in publishing, and certainly not confined to crime fiction, but the current crop of “continuations” of the careers of much-loved fictional detectives illustrates the importance of the series hero in the genre. Is it possible that the series characters of 60 or even a 100 years ago are more attractive and accessible than today’s fictional heroes and heroines? Is it nostalgia and a rose-tinted view of life before Twitter and texting made alibis rather more difficult to hack into? Or could modern technology be fuelling the revivalist movement?

The crime writer and critic, Jessica Mann, believes that, thanks to new ways of reading via electronic downloads, “people are discovering books and series of books that might have seemed fusty and time-expired in a public library or second-hand bookshop, and enjoying them because they are good. Also, I’d guess, because they are such a welcome contrast to contemporary crime fiction’s ever-increasing sadism.”

Devotees of crime fiction – the most-borrowed category from public libraries – are undoubtedly devotees of the long-running series, and dedicated fans never want to feel that “their” characters have come to the end of the line with the demise of the author. They like to hope that there is a life for them beyond the canon. Indeed, fans speak reverentially of “the Holmes canon” or “the Christie canon”.

On the announcement that she was to continue adding to the impressive Poirot canon (more than 30 novels and dozens of short stories), Sophie Hannah said: “I know some people will say, ‘Once a writer’s dead, leave their characters alone.’ But so many famous dead writers are having this done – James Bond, Sherlock Holmes – it becomes a kind of weird omission if Agatha Christie doesn’t have that done for her. It almost feels it needs to be done. I think it is great that beloved characters from fiction don’t have to die.”

Yet reviving much-loved characters can be a tricky business for the “continuation” author.

“It’s not so much that endearing characters aren’t being created today; it’s an abiding affection for characters that, perhaps, were influential in your own reading history,” says Rob Ryan, who is now establishing a Dr Watson series. “The downside is that many readers want their favourite character to be set in aspic – you play about with him or her at your peril. Rather than pastiche the originals I feel I have been able to bring something fresh to the character without, I hope, alienating the Holmes and Watson aficionados too much.

Pastiche, or “literary ventriloquism”, as it is sometimes rather snobbishly termed, is a sensitive topic among continuation authors, who all declare a personal affinity with the original source material.

“It’s not ventriloquism,” Benjamin Black/John Banville told the BBC’s Front Row last month. “I don’t parrot the style [of Chandler], I try to write in the spirit of it.”

He is not the first to try. In 1989, the late Robert B Parker adopted the Chandler/Marlowe continuation mantle, but clearly felt happier dealing with his own characters, and especially his Boston private eye series hero Spenser. Today, his Spenser series is itself being continued in America by the crime writer Ace Atkins.

Evelyn Waugh advised aspiring writers never to kill off a good character, as good characters are so difficult to create.  But can contemporary crime fiction be so bereft of good characters that readers are turning back the clock to enjoy the continuing exploits of their now ageing heroes from a more gentle age? True, much of today’s crime-writing is plot-driven (though no longer simply “whodunit?”) and very violent in comparison, and it is difficult to see where the next generation of Wimseys, Campions and Poirots is to come from.

Is it feasible that in 50 or 100 years somebody will be continuing the adventures of Jack Reacher or Inspector John Rebus? Well yes, it probably is. After all, you just can’t keep a good character down.

Mike Ripley is an award-winning crime writer who has completed the unfinished Albert Campion novel left on the death of Youngman Carter (Margery Allingham’s widower) in 1969. Sophie Hannah, Jill Paton Walsh, Robert Ryan, and Mike Ripley will discuss the appeal of continuing crime fiction at this year’s Crimefest convention in Bristol on Friday 16 May

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot