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

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