Elementary school

Detective fiction has a lot to teach us about old-fashioned morals

Worldwide, the novels of Agatha Christie outsell everything apart from The Bible. Meanwhile, letters from Sherlock Holmes fans all over the globe still pour in to 221b Baker Street. A recent missive from the police force in Worth, Illinois, asked for the detective's help with an unsolved murder.

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

James Rampton

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future