Perhaps no sleuth is a better example of a cultural icon than Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The star of fifty-six short stories and four novels, Holmes became popular immediately. In fact, he was so popular in his day that when Conan Doyle tried to end Holmes’ career in The Adventure of the Final Problem, the public wouldn’t let him. Since that time, there have been numerous Holmes societies and fan clubs. There are Sherlock Holmes tours of London, and of course, a large number of television and film adaptations of the Holmes stories. Holmes has been played on stage and screen by a wide variety of actors, and he’s so popular that there’s lively debate about who’s the best Holmes (um – it’s Jeremy Brett ;-) ). Agatha Christie mentions this “cult of Holmes” more than once. For instance, in Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon pokes fun at “grown men behaving like children” as she describes Holmes enthusiasts.
Christie’s own sleuths Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple have also become, you might say, cultural icons. Christie became one of the best-selling authors of all time, and her sleuths, too, have been portrayed by several talented actors. There’s quite a lot of debate about who is the best Poirot (Just so you know – it’s David Suchet ; - ) ) and the best Miss Marple (My vote? Joan Hickson). There are many, many Christie fan clubs and societies, too. Poirot would actually probably be quite pleased that he’s become an icon, as he certainly wastes no energy in false modesty. His trademark expressions (e.g. “using the little grey cells”) and his eccentricities have made him a very distinct character. It’s ironic, too, that Poirot became such an icon, since Christie herself is said to have gotten quite fed up with him. We can see her view on that coming through in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead In that novel, Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny to solve the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional detective novelist, is visiting the same village to work with a local playwright to adapt one of her novels for the stage. She expresses her dislike of her sleuth Sven Hjerson this way:
“If I met that bony, gangling, vegetable-eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.”
Some sleuths, of course, don’t come quite as close to being icons in popular culture, but they have become iconic in the crime fiction-loving community. For example, there’s Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Legendary for his love of words, his “liquid nutrition,” his trouble with women and his flashes of brilliance that take him leaps ahead of the other members of the police force, Morse is at once compassionate and thorny. He’s testy and impatient, but sympathetic, too. Love him or hate him, most people don’t feel neutral about Inspector Morse. He’s also been brilliantly portrayed on television (John Thaw was Inspector Morse if I may say so) and crime fiction fans have taken to his character decades after the novels featuring him were first written.
And then there’s Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell’s talented, morose, alcoholic sleuth. He has a very complicated personal life, but he’s a hardworking, sometimes brilliant and always very dedicated detective. Wallander, along with Maj Sjöwall and Per Whalöö’s Martin Beck, epitomises the iconic “troubled detective.” There are many others, of course, and I’m sure all of you could list more than I could. But these two are classics.
So is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Complicated, troubled, yet determined, ethical and compassionate, Bosch is a symbol, you might say, of the “lone good man” who fights for what he sees as justice against corruption, even in his own police force. Bosch is interesting, too because he’s not just an icon among crime fiction fans who love him, he’s also an icon in his own fictional L.A.P.D. His reputation for going his own way and not “playing the game” is widespread. Even in the early novels that feature Bosch, we learn that’s there’s talk on the force about him. As Assistant Police Chief Irvin Irving says of Bosch in The Black Ice,
“You don’t play for the team. You play for yourself.”
That’s the reputation Bosch has, and it moves with him as he’s transferred to different departments and given different assignments in the course of the novels.
Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn has become an icon among the Navajo Tribal Police with whom he’s worked. In fact, he’s known as “the Legendary Lieutenant.” Leaphorn has a lot of intuition, a deep knowledge of the Navajo Reservation and solid police skills. In fact, when Sergeant Jim Chee, Hillerman’s other sleuth, meets Leaphorn for the first time, he’s a little intimidated. Chee’s younger and less experienced, and has the traditional Navajo respect for those who are older. Interestingly, as the novels move on, Chee gains his own reputation and develops some of his own wisdom.
One of the other icons among his own, so to speak, is Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel. Known as “The Fat Man,” Dalziel has a widespread reputation for being impatient and sarcastic, hard on his team, and sometimes, even harder on witnesses and others involved in a crime. Oh, and woe betide those who mispronounce his name. Dalziel is also a smart, shrewd detective whose success rate and ability to get to the truth has won his team’s respect.
There are lots of other icons in crime fiction – more than I have space to mention in this one post. They become icons because they are unique as well as successful. They’ve risen, you might say, above the crowd and they’ve got reputations for being great detectives as well as for being, at times, eccentric. Which are your favourite icons? How do you think a sleuth becomes an icon?
This post is dedicated to the memory of John Lennon, a true icon who was murdered on 8 December 1980. Imagine…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carly Simon’s Legend in Your Own Time.