What I like in a detective story


I read and watch detective stories a lot. I think it is because they are essentially puzzles to be solved and I am a puzzle solver at heart. I enjoy all kinds of puzzles. A ‘puzzle’ for me is any problem for which I think there should be a solution that lies within my grasp and ability. This is also the likely reason I was drawn to science because much of that also involves puzzle solving. In my spare time I do cryptic crosswords and I also play the card game bridge where each hand is essentially a puzzle where a task is set and you have to figure out the best way to reach it.

Over time, I have found that I have clear preferences as to the kind of detective story. They should be lean and spare, where the focus is almost exclusively on how the solution to how the crime was committed is worked out. I prefer that any violence be avoided, or if there is any, for it to take place off-stage with as little graphic detail as necessary. There does does not even need to be a murder. In some Sherlock Holmes stories, not only is there no murder, there is not even a crime but just a mystery to be solved.

I also like the detective to be someone who does this for a living so it should be someone who works for the police or is a private detective whom people consult, like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. The idea of amateurs who keep finding themselves at the center of serious crimes (like Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher) strains credulity and becomes annoying.

I also do not want the detective to be encumbered by having a family or even a private life that gets entangled with their work. Especially recently, there is a tendency to give the detective an elaborate backstory with partners and children and, over time with a recurring series, you know that in order to give those characters screen time, they will get entangled with crimes and complicate matters for the detective, again straining credulity. This is a problem with (say) Midsomer Murders or the Alleyn Mysteries.

However, the detective having a sidekick or an assistant is fine, as long as the role of the assistant is to aid the detective in their work and not complicate things by becoming part of the crime in other ways. So Poirot’s Hastings and Holmes’s Watson and police detectives who have a subordinate assisting them can work well. However, I prefer that interpersonal drama and office politics be kept to an absolute minimum. There are some stories where the detective has to deal with departmental conflicts or bosses who interfere and even try to thwart investigations. That should be avoided unless as a one-off that is absolutely necessary, as in the boss being involved with the crime.

I also find an excessive focus on the detective’s personality quirks to be annoying. I quickly found Monk‘s obsessive-compulsive personality traits tiresome, enough to make me stop watching. This is not to say that the detective need be totally bland. It is just that any idiosyncrasies should be in moderation. Holmes undoubtedly has distinctive quirks but never to the extent of becoming irritating. Poirot’s preening fussiness can be overdone and annoying at times, especially in the films and TV series, but is usually not overdone.

Having said all this, I think it should be clear why I find the detective series Columbo to be one of my favorites. The plots are not always that great and sometimes the way he manages to get the culprit is preposterous. But in all the other respects, the series meets almost all my criteria.

For starters, he has almost no private life at all. While he talks about his wife and other family members often and tells anecdotes about them in conversations with suspects, they never appear in the show. While it appears that his character does have a wife and children, some of the stories he tells seem to be made up to encourage his suspects to talk. The only family member who appears is his dog who is called Dog. This parsimony with names extends to his family. His wife is only referred to as ‘Mrs. Columbo’ and his children’s names are never mentioned. (That site has an exhaustive listing of Mrs. Columbo trivia.) Neither is his own name spoken, though on rare occasions when he flashes his badge (as in season 1, episode 3) his first name is seen as ‘Frank’. As for personality quirks such as his constantly disheveled state, absent-mindedness, constant returning to ask “Just one more thing …”, his searching for his notes and other items in his pockets, and his rambling non-sequitur anecdotes, they all manage to avoid becoming distractions because one is never sure if they are genuine or an act designed to disarm the suspects by getting them to underestimate him by thinking that he is incompetent.

As for office politics, there is none. He has no assistant. He is almost never shown at police headquarters. I don’t think I have ever seen his office. The only police associates of Columbo we see are those initially at the crime scene. He may talk to others at the precinct when he needs information but only on the phone. He is always out in the field and his superiors seem to give him all the leeway he needs to work on his cases.

There are no explosions or car chases or foot chases or even any attempt by the killers to personally harm or even threaten him, even when they suspect that he is onto them. Given that he works alone, it would make sense for a murderer who would get away with the crime other than for Columbo would try to get rid of him. But they never do. When he confronts them with the fact that he knows they are the killers, they simply give up and confess. It is all very neat and tidy. There was a crime to solve and he solved it. Everything else is superfluous. Sometimes the desire to avoid violence and gore is carried to absurd lengths as in one early episode where a character is shot dead and his body is dragged across a carpet by the killer but leaves absolutely no trace of blood.

The series in undoubtedly formulaic but I find it refreshing that it avoids encumbering the story with unnecessary personal dramas and intrigues involving the detective and his private life. It is the visual equivalent of comfort food, where you know what you are getting.

Comments

  1. moarscienceplz says

    “I also do not want the detective to be unencumbered by having a family or even a private life that gets entangled with their work.”
    I think you actually meant to write “encumbered” here.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    I pretty much agree with you, Mano, although my sense of credulity is pretty elastic for most fiction. If Miss Marple’s fourth cousin twice removed finds a body in her petunias, of course she would contact Miss Marple before the local constabulary. Inspector Morse is a professional police detective, but even so, how many puzzling murders does Oxford see in a year IRL? Far less than one, I would guess.
    Columbo was a show my dad liked a lot, but as a kid I found it boring b/c you knew the identity of the murderer right away. Nowadays, I can appreciate the character quirks and the psychological cat-and-mouse game being played. I also like that Patrick McGoohan appeared on it several times. I find his performances endlessly fascinating.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Mano, have you tried the Guardian cryptic crosswords? I do the weekday cryptics and the Saturday Prize.

    My favourite detectives: Holmes (though not the execrable Benedict Cumberbatch* version), Morse (old and new), Marple, Poirot (preferably Suchet), Robert Goren, Maigret, Nick Charles, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe.

    *Love the actor, hate the show.

  4. JM says

    I mostly agree with you on preferences as long as you realize these stories are also hideously unrealistic just in different ways then the ones where a mystery writer stumbles across a dead body on a regular basis. Real cases are usually not so neat and don’t involve puzzles. In the real world the ones that involve deep puzzles mostly go unsolved and talking suspects into confessions rarely works against actual organized murderers because they lawyer up immediately.

    I always liked Law & Order because it spared some time for messed up cases. The detectives had too many cases at once to investigate all of them properly so some with no obvious line of investigation are just dropped. Cases where the officers own prejudice causes them to focus on the wrong suspects. A couple where murders clearly get away with it because there isn’t any clear evidence that can be used in court.

  5. mnb0 says

    You should try the eight detective novels written by Leo Bruce, with Sergeant Beef, who’s the anti-Holmes/Poirot..
    You should also try The Stately Home Murder (aka The Complete Steel) by Catherine Aird.

    You should not read Margery Allingham’s brilliant The Tiger in the Smoke (halfway the book she tells the reader who’s dunnit), nor the socially engaged Sjöwall and Wahlöö series (they were marxists), who do everything to disapprove of.

  6. KeithRB says

    Note that Monk is a comedy, not a straight detective show. From Wikipedia: “Monk is an American comedy-drama detective mystery television series”. While Columbo is considered “is an American crime drama television series”. However, I do agree that sometimes Monk is painful to watch because of his disability.

    The one office related sub-plot in Columbo is when he has to renew his pistol re-certification, and he gets another cop to do it for him.

  7. moarscienceplz says

    “My favourite detectives: Holmes (though not the execrable Benedict Cumberbatch* version)”
    I have seen it declared that Sherlock Holmes is the most famous character in all of fiction. Whether this is literally true, IDK, but he is undoubtably very famous and there have been many, many interpretations of him, many of which I find very unsastisfying. Nevertheless, I hereby declare my opinion that, like ice cream, there are no bad Sherlock Holmes depictions. A Dairy Queen vanilla soft-serve is very sad when set next to a dish of Bryers Vanilla Bean, yet I will find enjoyment in each individually, same with any well-intentioned Sherlock Holmes story. So, I reject out of hand the adjective “execrable”.
    That being said, there’s no accounting for taste. Perhaps Rob found a 21st century Holmes too jarring. I quite liked Basil Rathbone’s Hound of the Baskervilles, correctly set in the 19th century, but when the rest of his movies mysteriouly transported him to the middle of the 20th century, I had a tough time swallowing that (also Nigel Bruce’s Watson as a blithering idiot still sticks in my craw).
    IMHO the BH Sherlock stories took everthing that Sherlockians love and cranked it to eleven. The hyper pace, the embrace of technology, the amping up of Sherlock’s personality quirks, even implying that Mycroft could be confused for Moriarty, was just a delight to me.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Perhaps Rob found a 21st century Holmes too jarring.

    Nope. The writing is crap, like the rebooted Doctor Who (with some of the same writers). Barely coherent plots, over-the-top* and inconsistent (to the point of self-contradictory) characters. Yech. I also disliked the Rathbone films; most of them were WWII propaganda. The best Holmes? Peter Cushing in the Hammer version of Hound of the Baskervilles. Jeremy Brett’s portrayal in the TV show was also quite good.

    *Moriarty is portrayed as a fucking raving loon, rather than the cold calculating sociopath of the books.

  9. Reginald Selkirk says

    @8 I have seen it declared that Sherlock Holmes is the most famous character in all of fiction. Whether this is literally true, IDK…

    That may depend on whether one regards religious scriptures as fiction.
    I have read all of the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout and enjoyed most of them.

  10. blf says

    Two possibilities from the world of science / alternative fiction: Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcey books, and Glen Cook’s Garrett P.I. books (totally unrelated despite the common “Garrett” name — in my comments, “Garrett” refers Cook’s character / books, not the Darcy author Randall Garrett).

    Whilst both happen in worlds-with-magic (Lord Darcey on an alternative-history Earth, Garret… well, somewhere, an invented world), the magic just sets the scene (and misdirects the reader), both are genuine mysteries whose solutions do not rely on magic. Randall Garrett’s Darcy books are perhaps fairer to the reader, Cook’s Garrett books can be uneven in quality. Some of the stories are loosely-inspired by other fictional detectives (especially, perhaps, the Darcy books).

    Mostly from memory, both series seem to generally met Mano’s preferences (again, perhaps, especially the Darcey books): Lean & spare & focused (the Garrett books can meander a bit); professionals; helpful assistants (somewhat reversed in the Garrett books where P.I. Garrett can be said to be the assistant, and Darcey’s assistant is something of an advisor or co-equal); both have some interpersonal drama / family life (Darcey’s is mysterious like Columbo’s, Garrett’s is known (and in at least one story, his girlfriend is the victim) but I don’t recall it ever being a distraction). Garret is full of quirks, which keeps him (and others) from being bland, he does a good line in deprecating remarks. Lord Darcey himself (as I recall) is somewhat bland, it’s his advisor who is, or at least seems to be, quirky, albeit like Columbo, it’s perhaps more mannerisms that aren’t distracting.

    Not all of the Garrett stories are murders, and although there can be some violence (including by Garret), it’s not dwelled-on. My memory is almost all the violence in the Darcey books are “off screen”, so to speak.

       Randall Garret didn’t write all of the Darcy books (he died after the first few), so they are usually referred to as “Randall Garret’s Lord Darcy” or similar.

  11. Mano Singham says

    I think that how well the Sherlock Holmes portrayals succeed also depends on the way that Watson is portrayed. In the books, Watson is not the brightest of people but he is dignified, brave, and loyal. While I liked Basil Rathbone as Homes, I agree with moarscieceplz @#8 that Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of Watson as a blithering idiot was an absolute travesty.

    I think that Martin Freeman and Lucy Liu were good Watsons but to my mind the best of them all was the first Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Holmes, played by David Burke. As a pair, I think they were the best.

  12. flex says

    If you haven’t found it already, Project Gutenberg Australia has a section dedicated for mysteries:

    https://gutenberg.net.au/crime-mystery.html

    You can read some of the lesser known, older, mysteries. Many of them meet the requirements you prefer.

    Like Arthur Gask’s detective, Gilbert Larose; or
    R. Austin Freeman’s detective, Dr. Thorndyke.

    Gilbert Larose starts in Australia in the 1920’s, and is a master of disguise ™. Which allows him to get close to suspects and investigate them without the suspect realizing what is going on. Larose actually gets more pulp-like as the series continues. He eventually ends up in England, and the mysteries end up with him against supervillains who want to rule the world. Something like the Poirot novel, “The Big Four”. Really not worth it at that point. I’d suggest only the first few novel are really any good.

    R. Austin Freeman was one of the most popular, arguably the most popular, mystery writer in the first half of the 20th century. Dr. Thorndyke is actually a medical-jurist, i.e. a lawyer with a medical degree who acts as an expert witness for courts. I think this series is well written, with more than 20 novels and a dozen short stories featuring the character. Regrettably, Freeman was a middle-class doctor who accepted the prejudices of his time. Overall, Freeman is fairly progressive, but he does touch on anti-Semitism at times, which is not uncommon (Christie did the same), but jarring today. Some of the medical ideas, like cranial size being a predictor of intelligence, are accepted unquestionably. But that was the generally accepted medical belief at the time. Freeman also invented the inverted mystery, where the criminal and crime are described first, like Columbo, and the story is about how the investigator finds the clues and puts them together.

    Other authors whom you might enjoy might be Arthur W. Upfield’s series about Australian detective Napoleon Bonaparte. Ngaio Marsh’s series with her Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn (often in theatrical circles, if that’s your thing). And, of course, Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant. But if you like mysteries I’m certain you have already encountered Tey.

    Outside of authors, I’ve been tending to the opposite conclusion about detective. I’m not saying I want to learn all the details of their private lives, or the idiosyncrasies of their personality. Nero Wolfe’s refusal to leave his house would be infuriating in a detective series if Stout hadn’t partnered him with Archie Goodwin. It becomes an eccentricity rather than an encumbrance.

    But beyond that, for the detectives whom I enjoy reading about the most, that is their only life. They don’t have working hours, they are working on the case all the time. Holmes and Poirot don’t seem to care if a client arrives at six in the morning or midnight. Solving mysteries is what they do, and the only thing they do. We are told of Dr. Thorndyke that early in his career, before he started getting clients, he would think of a circumstance which would result in a death, and explore all the possibilities which could cause that circumstance and how to differentiate between them. He would then write all this down, so that more than half the time when a mystery comes his way, Thorndyke has already thought through what could be the possible causes. What a life!

  13. flex says

    I had another thought….

    If you haven’t already read them, you might enjoy Isaac Asimov’s “Black Widower” mysteries. They are very formulaic, there is no inspector, but a group of friends sitting around a dinner table discussing a problem. I don’t know if there is ever a murder, but all the clues are provided during the conversation, and at the end of story they are fitted together to explain something which appeared inexplicable at the start of the story. There are apparently six collections of these short stories, I’ve only read three of them. But they were all pretty good, in a locked-room mystery kind of way.

  14. KeithRB says

    I guess because I am in New Mexico, I have to mention Tony Hillerman’s stories. I guess Skinwalker’s Is the best known. I haven’t yet read them (shame!), so I cannot say how well they exactly meet your categories. I guess there has been at least on PBS version.

  15. DonDueed says

    KeithRB @15: I have read all the Hillerman mysteries (usually described as the Leaphorn -- Chee series). They are all excellent, at least up until the last two or three written when the author was ailing. His daughter is carrying on the series but isn’t quite the writer her father was. I would recommend “Listening Woman” or “The Dark Wind” as good places to start. They meet most of Mano’s requirements, and have the bonus of putting you into a very different cultural setting.
    I also like Ellis Peters’ “Brother Cadfael” stories, set in medieval England. The detective is a cloistered monk who led a very worldly life until taking the cowl. Those should probably be read in order as they form a continuous narrative (though each book is an independent mystery). The first is “A Morbid Taste for Bones”. Like the Hillerman books, these put you in a very alien culture.

  16. Deepak Shetty says

    No Perry Mason ? I think the books meet most of your criteria -- with the added benefit of some legal twists -- Not sure about the shows but my mom who likes the books did like the old show. I think I did prefer the Donald Lam ones written by Gardener under a pseudonym (A A Fair)

    +1 for the Hillerman series.
    If you like the mixing of a nu unknown culture with a detective series you might also look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judge_DeeT

  17. Rob Grigjanis says

    DonDueed @17: Derek Jacobi portrayed Cadfael in a decent TV adaptation in the 90s.

    For medieval murder mysteries, there is also Umberto Eco’s excellent The Name of the Rose.

  18. says

    John Mortimer’s “Rumpole Of The Bailey” is not to be missed. Horace Rumpole is a defence lawyer at the Old Bailey in London, so he’s never directly involved in any crime. Each book in the series contains six to ten short stories, the first giving details of the characters (for new readers of the series) while subsequent tales in the same book leave them out and consequently have more meat to the mystery. The TV series (featuring the wonderful, late Leo McKern) are worth watching. There is the occasional murder, but most of the crimes are burglaries, assaults, civil cases, libel, etc.

    The most overlooked things about the regular characters is that they’re all ethical, even the inept Claude Erskine Browne and Sam Bollard. And aside from those two, every character is always smarter and/or more ethical than someone else. There is no pecking order of intelligence and decency other than two at the bottom.

    Encyclopedia Brown is a children’s mystery series about a ten year old detective, son of the local police chief. Brown had a “Watson” named Sally Kimball, almost as smart and the muscle of the pair. The books were written for children so there isn’t any violence beyond rare fist to the face. Donald Sobol does the same thing as “Rumpole”, more detail in the first story then gradually less in the last nine.

    Sobol also penned “Two Minute Mysteries”, a book containing 150+ mysteries of two to three pages you can read in a few minutes. Call it “casual mysteries”, as compared to “casual gaming”. Adults knowledge is required, but violence is minimal.

    -- -- -- -- --
    There were many good made for TV detective series in the 1990s and thereabouts: Jeremy Brett’s definitive “Sherlock Holmes”, “Inspector Frost”, “Prime Suspect”, “Inspector Morse”, “Inspector Alleyn”, “Kavanagh QC”, and several others (the aforementioned Cadfael, Miss Marple, Poirot, etc.), all worth tracking down.

    There are two things most of these detectives have but no one seems to notice: nearly all are atheists or never mention religion; and, most are celibate or asexual, rarely involved in relationships (or often failing miserably, such as Inspector Frost).

  19. flex says

    @Intransitive #20,

    I would classify Inspector Frost as a police procedural rather than a proper mystery. However, that reminds me that the books are very different than the TV series. The books are fascinating to me because of their structure. I don’t know that I’ve read any other author who interleaves as many independent plot threads as J.D. Wingfield in his Frost books. Sometimes the plots do entwine with each other, but mainly they are separate crimes all being investigated (usually poorly and with many shortcuts) by Inspector Frost. In some books Wingfield starts with a crime that is resolved in the first third of the book, but another four crimes have been committed by then, so we have to get to the end of all of them. At other times a new crime is introduced in the last fifty pages, and wrapped up by the end. And, of course, there are books of a more traditional style where there is a crime introduced at the beginning, and while other crimes occur and are solved, the solution to the opening crime is where the book closes.

    Throughout the books, Frost is a sympathetic character. But a lot of the sympathy is due to large parts of them being written in the first person, from Frost’s perspective. He doesn’t like his job, he doesn’t like his boss, he doesn’t like much of the world and his internal monolog whines about it constantly. At the same time, he has nowhere else to go. He might not like what he is doing, but he has no idea of what else to do. HIs personal life is in shambles, and he doesn’t know where to put the effort into making things better. He doesn’t feel he has a future. So he spends all his time on his job, generating antipathy from his partners who have to be on the job with him even if they see the job as 9-5 work.. He is basically a good person. He regularly gives up credit to co-workers who still believe they have a future. But at the same time he covers-up minor crimes made by other officers, and tries to keep the uniformed men from getting in trouble. In other words, he feels a great deal of loyalty to the force and is willing to lie or destroy paperwork to keep other officers out of trouble. In return, he receives the benefit of other officers aiding and abetting him in avoiding punishment for crimes like drunk driving or minor theft. If you look at Frost’s actions outside of knowing what his own thoughts are, he becomes quite a bit less sympathetic.

    They are also very depressing books, set in the mid-1980’s in the English town of Denton. I do not know if Wingfield’s Denton is fictional or based on the English town near Manchester of the same name. In the books Denton is a run-down, post-industrial town with a mix of (collapsing) council houses, high unemployment, prostitution, and crime. At the same time Denton is close enough to a prosperous city for it to be an attractive location for rich arseholes to build rural mansions within driving distance from work, and ritzy clubs to take advantage of lower properly values.

    I’ve only seen a few episodes of the television series, and they are very different from the novels. Considering that each novel may have between four and eight crimes being worked on simultaneously, I understand why the scriptwriters wanted to change the pace. In the books, tall, thin, shabby, and unkempt Inspector Frost lurches around, chain smoking while wearing a filthy mackintosh. In the books Frost follows hunches which don’t pan out, and often get him into hot water. He generally solves the mysteries more through his understanding of human nature rather than by picking up clues. The books are frantic in pace, with the occasional whiplash from changing which crime is being focused on. But Wingfield uses the changes in focus extremely well, the reader is never confused and the changes in focus help create the frenetic atmosphere. There are a number of authors who should study how Wingfield manages this because they try the same thing, and fail.

    I find the novels fascinating, and I’ve re-read them a number of times. But they are not cozy mysteries, or riddle mysteries. They are novels to read when you are feeling that the world is going to hell, and you might as well enjoy the ride.

    The television adaptations are more traditional mysteries.

  20. Silentbob says

    I liked Wycliffe

    Wycliffe is a British television series, based on W. J. Burley’s novels about Detective Superintendent Charles Wycliffe.
    Each episode deals with a murder investigation. In the early series, the stories are adapted from Burley’s books and are in classic whodunit style, often with quirky characters and plot elements. In later seasons, the tone becomes more naturalistic and there is more emphasis on internal politics within the police.

    and Vera

    Vera is a British crime drama series based on the Vera Stanhope series of novels written by crime writer Ann Cleeves. It was first broadcast on ITV on 1 May 2011, and to date, eleven series have aired, with the latest debuting on 29 August 2021. The series stars Brenda Blethyn as the principal character, Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope. Vera is a nearly retired employee of the fictional ‘Northumberland & City Police’, who is obsessive about her work and driven by her own demons. She plods along in a constantly dishevelled state, but has a calculating mind and, despite her irascible personality, she cares deeply about her work and colleagues. She often proves her superior skills by picking up small errors in her team members’ thought processes.

    although both are probably too much like real people with real lives and relationships for Mano’s taste. 😆

  21. Mano Singham says

    silentbob @#22,

    You certainly read me right, at least a far as Vera goes! I watched a couple of episodes and stopped because she was too grating a character to stomach.

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