Sherlock Holmes, Dirk Gently and the Case of the Eccentric Detective

With two TV shows returning Arthur Conan Doyle's creation to our screens, Sherlock Holmes has never seemed more influential. But for the good of detective fiction, it might be time to look elsewhere for our unorthodox investigators...

"Anything that happens, happens.

Anything that, in happening, causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen.

Anything that, in happening, causes itself to happen again, happens again.

It doesn't necessarily do it in chronological order, though."

-- Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams.

For your consideration, here are a few things that have happened, will happen or are currently in the process of happening:

In January, a second season of Sherlock, the BBC's surprisingly successful modern-day update of Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal consulting detective, was broadcast in the UK to near-universal praise from critics and audiences alike, managing to stand out even at a time when global culture is more suffused with Holmesian influence and detritus than any time in living memory. It was considered by most to be a smart, stylish, engaging and darkly humorous take on the character that became an archetype, and who continues to fascinate us 125 years after his first appearance in the world of fiction. PBS Masterpiece brought Season Two of Sherlock to US audiences this May.

Later this year, we can also bear witness to Elementary, a suspiciously similar American production from CBS, starring Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, which also aims to bring Holmes into the 21st century (this time with contemporary New York as its setting, so as to spare American audiences from the baffling alien complexities of London). The BBC will no doubt be watching the show very carefully, and so will its lawyers.

Additionally this year, a smaller, lower budget, superficially similar but far less noticed detective series, Dirk Gently, bravely returned to British screens for its first full season after a quietly acclaimed pilot. It also gave us insight into the thought processes of a brilliant, eccentric private investigator; it also gave us sentient robots, Pentagon conspiracies, 'Zen navigation', quantum physics and the use of brie as both a crime-solving tool and a handy portable snack. Unfortunately for American audiences, Dirk Gently has yet to receive a US air-date, but for a few of us, it was the biggest and most entertaining revelation of all.

It is sadly apt then, that 2012 is the year which would have seen the 60th birthday of Douglas Adams, the author of the original Dirk Gently novels, as well as the celebrated Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy pentalogy, who tragically died of a heart attack in 2001, aged only 49, robbing the world of his irreplaceable wit, and a unique, inspiring, endlessly humane perspective on a vast and absurd universe.

It's all to do with the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, you see.

"Every man at the bottom of his heart believes he is a detective."

-- John Buchan

A little while ago, I met up with a friend -- an old accomplice from university who knows where some of the bodies are buried, and even helped with a shovel on occasion -- so that we could complain violently at each other. It's something we do periodically, as a cathartic means of relieving the built-up frustrations of work, the absence of work, and life on Earth. We've been doing it for years, so presumably we'll both stop being angry, embittered cranks any day now. However, in what could be a subconscious attempt to disprove this, we're arguing.

"I am sick to death of 'quirky' detectives," said my friend, spitting the adjective like a gypsy curse. Looking back, I'm not sure how we got onto the subject of crime fiction, but we appear to feel strongly about it. "All I want," he continued, "is a show about a few good cops, doing their job really well."

"Really?" I asked; I am genuinely perplexed by this. "Christ. That's the last thing I want."

He gives me a pointed look that silently says, "Well, quelle bloody surprise," and the conversation moves on, so as to avoid undue bloodshed. As fans of crime fiction will be quick to point out, we are really discussing two different things: my friend is talking about police procedurals, which I tend to greet with about as much enthusiasm as the sight of the actual police appearing on my doorstep, and I'm talking about detective stories, which are an entirely different beast, indeed.

Fiction is almost always concerned with humanity, one way or another. Crime fiction is no exception; its insights and entertainments come not so much from crime itself, but through explorations of the personalities wrapped up in it -- villains and victims, police and detectives, murderers and thieves, private eyes and amateur sleuths. While there is undeniably much fun to be had in the intricate mechanics of a heist, the unravelling a grand conspiracy, or the elegant deconstruction of a mystery that is seemingly impenetrable, it's the personalities who conduct such affairs -- vivid, compelling, powerfully individual and almost always larger-than-life -- that make such exercises memorable and addictive.

"The murderer is right in this room. Sitting at this table. You may serve the fish."

-- Nick Charles, The Thin Man (1934)

As with any genre, there's no provable rule that says police procedurals cannot be good; that's simply my personal prejudice, and even I'll admit a few exceptions. Castle, brazenly formulaic though it may be, has achieved some genuine warmth and character chemistry in its portrayal of a police station where the cops are halfway human. But few would deny that the true joy of the show is Nathan Fillion, for whom it provided a long-overdue star vehicle, and whose winking, narcissistic, celebrity presence (portraying, naturally, a bestselling crime author, whose lurid imagination allows him to play detective in a world of rentacops) lights up the screen and makes my point all the better.

Characters in procedurals, by their very nature, are bound by both the rules of their profession and the nature of the genre, and seem to slide more easily into dull, show-bible stereotypes, no matter how colourful they attempt to be; if you want proof of this, look to the reliably successful, relentlessly pointless CSI: Wherever franchise, with its interchangeable casts of box-ticking nonentities. The Wire, with its near-Dickensian obsession with intricate character development, willingness to break the rules of TV drama and a refusal to show clear sympathy with one side of the law or the other, made it a rare exception to this trend.

I can appreciate my friend's earlier irritation -- quirkiness for quirk's sake can get annoying, fast. If all a fictional detective ultimately boils down to is "this one has a wheelchair, that one has a lollypop..." then eventually you stop caring about the distinctions. For a detective to endure in our minds, they must be more than a mere assemblage of gimmicks. They must stand alone, or at least apart, in whatever society that inhabit. They are brilliant, or broken, or both. They are proof that there are some things the law cannot do, and that justice can sometimes be achieved without it.

Of course, almost all considerations of realism as entirely moot; private investigators are more likely to be grungy, unprincipled characters who spy on cheating spouses or hack into the email accounts of celebrities rather than misanthropic savants identifying webs of criminal conspiracy too subtle and intricate for the proper authorities to perceive. Which just goes to show what a monumental feat of imagination a good detective story can be.

As A.A Milne put it in his preface to his 'locked room' whodunit, The Red House Mystery: "For the detective himself I demand that he be an amateur. In real life, no doubt, the best detectives are the professional police, but then in real life the best criminals are professional criminals. In the best detective stories the villain is an amateur, one of ourselves: we rub shoulders with him... It is the amateur detective alone who can expose the guilty man..."

The best fictional detectives are always vaguely illegitimate and shoddy, with odd clothes and peculiar habits, and there's something about that which appeals to that part of us which feels ill-at-ease and out of place with the rest of the world. It appeals to the outsider's vanity -- our weirdness redeems us. True, they may be financially insecure, ethically suspect or bewilderingly eccentric, but the detective, in fiction if nowhere else, is a free agent amidst the injustice and bureaucracy of modern life. They are celebrations of excesses in intelligence, which thrills us, and in personality, which bewitches us.

The best creations in detective fiction are generally the most distinctive. Nick and Norah Charles, from Dashiel Hammett's The Thin Man, in addition to flaunting the rule of society (not to mention Prohibition law), also break pretty much every rule of detective fiction, too: despite Raymond Chandler's dictum that "a really good detective never gets married", Nick is happily and wealthily settled with his wife Norah, a beautiful young heiress who shares his passion for booze and witty banter, and who is the only one who can prod her permanently sozzled husband into doing any actual detecting.

Kinky Friedman, the former country singer and fellow traveller on Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, has built a successful second career as a crime writer by creating a literary alter-ego for himself as a philosophical gumshoe, transplanted from Texas to New York, who kills time between his bizarre cases in his Greenwich Village loft drinking whiskey, reminiscing about the music business and having one-sided conversations with his cat.

The Spanish author Manuel Vázquez Montalbán invented the intriguing Pepe Carvalo, a private eye and gastronome whose complicated backstory includes spells in both the CIA and the Communist Party, and who tends to encounter crimes that cannot be solved without acknowledging dark truths about his homeland. And as recently as 2009, Thomas Pynchon triumphantly gave us Larry "Doc" Sportello, the world's first psychedelic detective, trading the fedora for an afro and a drink problem for a marijuana habit, in Inherent Vice, his brilliant, sprawling thriller of conspiracy and murder in late-'60s California.

These are but a few worthy mentions. And yet, if the past few years -- or decades, for that matter -- have proved anything, it's that the detective genre still toils in the shadow of its greatest success; in reality as in fiction, no-one, it seems, can surpass Sherlock Holmes.

"Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature..."

-- A Scandal in Bohemia by Arthur Conan Doyle

In addition to the two TV incarnations on offer this year, Guy Ritchie's overblown, cartoonish, steampunk-esque portrayals, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, have brought the character back to the cinema and enflamed the popular imagination for Holmes afresh. In November last year, Anthony Horowitz brought out his heavily publicised The House of Silk, the first Holmes book not written by the original author to be authorised by the Conan Doyle Estate, joining other such literary homages as Michael Chabon's 2004 novella The Final Solution: A Story of Detection. Even House MD, now reaching a conclusion after eight seasons, began life with Sherlock parallels woven into its entire makeup, key to understanding its irascible protagonist; the drug use, the 'Watson' figure, the antisocial genius, even the apartment address 221B.

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