Detective fiction has a lot to teach us about old-fashioned morals
Saturday 15 May 1999
But why are we so in thrall to such strange figures as Poirot and Holmes with their ridiculous moustaches, deer-stalkers and tics? Why do we have bookshops such as Murder One, entirely devoted to the single genre of detective fiction? In The Great Detectives, a new four-part series for BBC2, the author Nigel Williams (right) whips out his magnifying-glass and attempts to get to the bottom of "The Mystery of The Popular Sleuth" by investigating, in turn, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Philip Marlowe and Jules Maigret.
In Williams's view, detective fiction provides a model of justice that is all too frequently missing in real life. "So often in reality, detectives don't actually catch the right people. There is a morality in detective fiction which the literary novel has forsaken. In detective novels, bad people are punished - that is satisfying. We want to see baddies get their comeuppance, and here they do. In real life, we can never actually find a policeman when we need one. It's like that sketch in Big Train where the policeman runs away when a member of the public approaches him."
To Williams, the unambi-guous resolutions in detective fiction also impose a sense of order on a chaotic world. "It's to do with fear," he reckons. "Years ago, I talked to a policeman. He said, `My job is all about calming people's nerves. People feel that everything must be all right if I'm there.' In a society which was famously declared not to exist, that's fantastically reassuring."
Holmes, the Ur-detective, brings us just such reassurance. One "Sherlockian" in The Great Detectives believes that we are comforted by Holmes's powers of deduction. The detective makes us think: "This is a terrifying place, but one where we can find a guide in whom we have confidence and belief."
"Holmes still seems to define what a sleuth, real or imaginary, is," says Williams. "He satisfies the schoolboy in all of us, hunting down facts and thinking, `Gosh, what a super wheeze'."
Detective fiction has become as British as afternoon tea. "In one of his travel books, Eric Newby stays with a family in the remotest Apennines in Italy. They welcome him by saying, `Ah, London. Fog and murder and Sherlock Holmes'," Williams laughs.
Why are we, more than other nationalities, attracted to the genre? "Martin Sherman, the American playwright, once said, `You English are so passionate', which is true," Williams continues. "Our emotion is bottled up behind a respectable facade. That's what powers British life. There is an intense morality behind that very British sense of reserve."
We are also drawn to the fact that detective fiction operates on several different levels. "It's a form that looks as if it's based on logical thought but is actually completely magical and mystical," Williams asserts. "For a scientific idiot like me, it flatters your sense of getting control over phenomena while playing the oldest tricks in the book on you."
Does our love affair with detective fiction show signs of waning? Not according to Williams. "The genre is just getting bigger. It's related to our desire for answers. We may be losing faith in religion, but we all still have to grapple with questions of morality. Detective fiction provides a simple, easily exportable form of morality. It's soon going to take over the planet."
It already has. The pipe-smoking, deer-stalker-wearing silhouette of Sherlock Holmes was recently used to advertise financial products in Japan. A most singular fate, Watson.
`The Great Detectives' starts at 8pm on BBC2 tomorrow
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The difference between a migrant and refugee, in one sentence
- 2 Miley Cyrus calls out hypocrisy of women’s nipples being taboo
- 3 Celebrity Big Brother 2015: Tila Tequila kicked off show after 'describing Hitler as a good man'
- 4 iPhone 5c to be discontinued, no iPhone 6c to replace it
- 5 Blood Moon and Supermoon: September to bring brightest – and dimmest – full Moon of the year on same night
Game of Thrones season 6: Jon Snow theorists believe Ned Stark's son may have a twin sister
Artist takes LSD, draws herself over different stages of the 9-hour trip to show its effects
These Harry Potter lipsticks are sparking all sorts of controversy with Hogwarts fans
Game of Thrones season 6: Director promises most exciting premiere yet 'starts off with a bang'
Hunted: Channel 4 to test 'surveillance Britain' by taking Big Brother to sinister new lengths
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Labour leadership: Jeremy Corbyn accused of 'deluding' young supporters with 'claptrap'
'Women only' train carriages: Jeremy Corbyn unveils radical move to tackle public harassment
Black holes are a passage to another universe, says Stephen Hawking
Iain Duncan Smith 'should resign over disability benefit death figures', says Jeremy Corbyn
Iain Duncan Smith calls for urgent ESA overhaul as part of drive to cut down welfare costs