Tuesday, December 7, 2010

You're a Legend in Your Own Time*

Not everyone is a crime fiction fan, of course. But several of crime fiction’s sleuths have become, you might say, cultural icons. They’ve achieved so much popularity that they’re legends. And even several sleuths who aren’t necessarily legends in popular culture have certainly become legendary in the community of crime fiction lovers. Cultural icons become larger-than-life characters because they’re unique, or they’re very talented. Or both.

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?

In Memoriam….

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.


  1. Margot-when we were visiting Chinle AZ [mainly because we had read Tony Hillerman] a real life Navajo Tribal policeman came into the restaurant. I really wanted to ask him if I could take his photo, but he was working, and had a gun that made anything Clint Eastwood used look small and insignificant.

  2. Norman - Oh, I'm sure that police officer must have truly looked larger than life. I'm so glad you got the chance to visit Navajo country. It's breathtaking, in my opinion, and I believe Hillerman describes it well.

  3. When I visited London a couple of years back, the first thing I wanted to see was 221B Baker Street. Not Buckingham Palace, or Westminister Abbey, or the Tower Bridge, or anything else. Baker Street.

    Doesn't that say it all?

  4. Rayna - Oh, it certainly does! Your comment expressed it better than I ever could have :-).

  5. I guess Dashiell Hammett's P.I. Sam Spade should be in the mix.

  6. Patricia - Oh, he certainly should! Thanks for mentioning Spade. He is most definitely an icon.

  7. When I think of "Fat Man" I think of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, who loved orchids and sitting in his chair. He's an icon in my mind.

    Oh, and just so you know, I agree that David Suchet and Joan Hickson are the best!


  8. My brother lived in Chicago for a year and he still complains that the only reason I visited him there was so that I could do my own personal V I Warshawski tour of the city and surrounds. He lives in California now which means I have a home base for my Kinsey Milhone tours - my brother wonders what will happen if he moves to some place without a crime fiction icon to its name - will I never visit?

    As for how they become icons I'm not really sure - it's a combination of longevity and popularity I guess. But I also think there has to be something that keeps them interesting for more than one generation of readers and they have to be known outside the realms of die-hard crime fiction fans too. I was trying to think of an Australian crime fiction icon and there really isn't one - one of our oldest crime fiction sleuths would be Arthur Upfield's Napoleon Bonaparte or 'Bony' but he would be unheard of by most modern readers (except the real die hard crime fans). There have been several attempts to bring him up to date - including a TV series with Cameron Daddo - but they all bombed and he really couldn't be considered an icon.

  9. Clarissa - You know, Nero Wolfe could certainly qualify as an icon. He's got a memorable personality and had attracted lots of fans. I'm not surprised you thought of him.

    And yes, David Suchet and Joan Hickson really make those Christie characters come alive :-).

    Bernadette - Your brother is fortunate that he lives in "Kinsey country" so he gets a chance to see you ;-). When I read this part of your post, I was thinking about this summer, when I traveled cross country between Pennsylvania and Colorado. While passing through "Hillerman country" I was overwhelmingly tempted to stop and do a tour. I was outvoted, but still...

    You make a good point, too, about what makes a character an icon. It is certainly popularity and longevity, but I agree that it's something more. The character has to be, I think, unique and memorable. And yes, known outside the field of really knowledgeable crime fiction fans. Somehow, they have to enter popular culture in some way, and I'm not sure, either, exactly how that happens, but it does for an icon.

    I've actually heard of "Bony," but I didn't know there'd been any efforts to make a television series from his adventures. Funny how even good crime novels can just fall flat when they're filmed.

  10. For me, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe has always been a legend. He is right up there with Sam Spade.

    And what can I say about Mr. Holmes? The Sherlock Holmes fan community is even more widespread and more influential than The Freemasonry!

  11. Amey - Oh, well-put!! You are right about Sherlock Holmes' fame. It's funny, too, that you would mention both Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. In James W. Fuerst's Huge, we meet twelve-year-old Eugene "Huge" Smalls, who idolises those sleuths, and wants to be like them. And Mark Haddon's Christopher Boone wants to be like Sherlock Holmes...