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Friday, September 9, 2011

The Adventure of the Rising Detective

Last night I gave my talk to the English Speaking Union, Cincinnati branch, on "Sherlock Holmes and the Development of Detective Fiction."

Nobody threw anything.

In discussing some of the conventions of the detective writer's craft that began with Sherlock Holmes, I mentioned the dying and rising detective. By that I mean the resurrection theme that is so popular in the life cycle of fictional detectives.

It began with Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls – or rather, with “The Adventure of the Empty House,” in which Holmes returns from the dead. Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Father Brown each underwent a resurrection of sorts. Even James Bond and Inspector Clouseau had funerals while they were still alive. Nero Wolfe wasn’t reported dead, but he might as well have been – he disappeared and was gone for half a novel while fighting his own Moriarty, a villain named Zeck.

I could hold forth here on the theological and mythological echoes of the dying and rising god here, but I won’t. The important thing is that Holmes set the pattern for detective fiction.

In order to do away with Holmes in a fitting manner, Conan Doyle invented a new fictional archetype almost as a side-effect – the criminal mastermind. Holmes needed a worthy opponent, and he got one in the person of Professor James Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime – “organizer of half that is evil and almost all that is undetected in this great city.”

Just as Holmes had a real-life counterpart in Dr. Joseph Bell, Moriarty was based on but exceeded a real-life 19th century criminal, Adam Worth. In fiction, however, he had no antecedent. Dupin, Lecoq and Wilke Collkins’s Sergeant Cuff never faced such a bent genius. Plenty of their successors have, however. Denis Nayland Smith had Dr. Fu Manchu; Bulldog Drummond, Carl Peterson; Nero Wolfe, Arnold Zeck; Superman, Lex Luthor, the 87th Precinct, the Deaf Man; and James Bond, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

None of these villains rises to the stature of Moriarty as an iconic figure, and it is likely that none of them would have existed if he had not come first.

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