Watching the detectives

The success of many murder mystery stories hinges upon the characteristics of the person charged with solving the crime. Often, this person may not be an actual, professional detective, but an enthusiastic and talented amateur, such as Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey or GK Chesterton’s Father Brown. Even the father of them all, Sherlock Holmes described himself as a “consulting detective”, and seemed to take on cases more for the fun of the puzzle rather than from a sense of probity and justice. Whilst the mysteries at the heart of each story featuring these characters is the framework that drives the plot forward and keeps the reader turning the pages, there is also much pleasure to be derived from observing the “detective'” methods and idiosyncrasies. Such novels and the detectives within seem to relish in the notion that the professionals investigating the case are bumbling fools with outdated methods and ideas. The amateur demonstrates this by picking up disregarded clues and ultimately coming to the correct conclusion.

In real life, of course, there are few, if any, cases of talented amateurs solving major murders, and whilst most detective fiction has never been too bothered by absolute verisimilitude, this fact has led to a sub-genre of fiction, the “police procedural”, where actual detectives sole crimes using methods that the real police would employ. Lawrence Treat’s 1945 novel V as in Victim is often cited as the first police procedural, but today’s TV screens and bookshops are awash with them, and many of the detectives have become household names. It seems to be a trope that the detectives in these dramas should have some sort of quirk or flaw in order to make them interesting in themselves.

With murder mystery events, the guests themselves effectively play the detective, so the success of the story tends to be less reliant on the detective character in the story, but hinges more upon the characters of the suspects and the details of the plot. That said, particularly in stories where guests play suspects, a strong detective character can help the story to a successful conclusion and lend extra value to the plot. I work with several highly-skilled actors, and actively encourage each of them to develop their own detective characters. My own character, Detective Inspector Doe, began his career pretty early on in Murder to Measure’s story, but, over the years, he has developed a fairly comprehensive and consistent set of traits, and a backstory that continues to grow with each iteration. The name, in itself, is a bit of an embarrassment to him – but woe betide if you call him “inspector” rather than “detective inspector” – he’s worked hard for the rank and feels it needs to be respected. Another feature of his work, which often rears its head, is the fact that the rest of his squad are engaged in more pressing matters such as a flock of sheep which has broken out of a nearby field, so he will have to solve the crime unaided (saves on hiring actors).

Doe has always been a married man, even from the days before my own marriage, although his wife is very much in the mould of one of those unseen characters in so many sitcoms. She has a bit of a penchant for sprawling out and watching reruns of Taggart, but seems very keen for Doe to watch his weight and reduce his alcohol consumption. She doesn’t really approve of his profession, but seems happy to accept the comforts that his wages offer, including an annual cruise, during which she lounges on the upper deck covered in olive oil whilst trying to attract the attention of the lifeguards.

He is a far cry from those detectives of literature and TV, but I continually look forward to the next development in his backstory, which may spring from anything the suspects suggest.