About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Sleuths Without Families

A week ago Margot Kinberg, in her blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist (a wonderful blog with daily meditations on the world of mysteries), wrote a post called From a Distance in which she discussed: 
Sleuths have to keep a certain amount of distance between themselves and others because it protects them from what they see and sometimes have to do.”
She discussed a number of sleuths who prefer to live alone. The post set me thinking about sleuths and families. I am going to be posting a trio of posts on the issue over the next 10 days.
            It is my observation that mystery series written before the 1990’s will generally have sleuths without families. Not only were they single the personalities of several major sleuths were clearly suited to the single life.
            The Sherlock Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle had a brother, Mycroft, but neither spouse nor children. It is a challenge to see the demanding impatient imperious Holmes being either a husband or a father.
            In this generation Laurie R. King has written a different Holmes. He is entranced by the brilliant young Mary Russell and eventually marries her. They share adventures and solve mysteries jointly. More surprisingly Holmes finds he has an adult son, Damian, and most surprisingly he has a granddaughter. The Holmes of King credibly displays paternal and grandparental affection.
            Moving forward the sleuths of the Golden Age were usually without families and, if they had a spouse, rarely had children.
            As Margot points out Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot live alone without spouse or children. Each character, especially Poirot, lives a life in which a partner and children would cramp their lifestyle. It is hard to see the vain Poirot sharing his apartment with a wife.
            P.D. James in Talking About Detective Fiction states about writers from the Golden Age:
“Subsequent writers tended to agree with Dorothy L. Sayers that their detectives should concentrate their energy on clues and not on chasing attractive young women.”
On this side of the Atlantic Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin made it through over 40 years of novels and stories without getting married or having children. Once again the personalities were not conducive to matrimony. In particular, no woman would put up with the irascible Wolfe with his rigid routines.
In Australia, Arthur Upfield was writing the Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte mysteries over almost exactly the same time period as the Wolfe mysteries. He has a variation on the single theme. Bony has a wife and children but, in the mysteries I have read, Bony investigates and solves crimes far away from home. In the Bushman Comes Back he actually buys a wife but does not keep her.
P.D. James, in Adam Dagliesh, created a remarkably likeable character. Yet, when starting her series almost 50 years ago in 1962, Dagliesh is without family. She said:
“So I decided to begin with a less egregiously bizarre character and ruthlessly killed off wife and newborn son in order to avoid involving myself in his emotional life, which I felt would be difficult successfully to incorporate into the structure of the classical detective story.”
However, 47 years later in The Private Patient Dagliesh becomes engaged to Emma. We shall see if the Baroness is as ruthless with Emma. I hope not.
      It is my proposition that it became common in the last 20 years for the sleuths of crime fiction to have spouses and children. I shall have a post next week on the subject.


  1. Bill - First, thank you for the kind mention and your even more kind words about my blog. Both mean a lot to me. And what a thoughtful and interesting post you've written about the development of the sleuth's family. It is fascinating how over the years it's become more and more acceptable for sleuths to have spouses and now, children. Perhaps today's crime fiction fans want their sleuths to be more like them, and lots of people have families. A really interesting set of points you've made here, and you've got me thinking... Thanks :-)

  2. Margot: Thanks for the comment. No mystery blog has more thought put into it than your blog. I look forward to seeing where your thoughts on sleuth families takes you on your blog.

    I have added a link back to your story. I meant to do it when I made the post.

  3. Albert Campion met his wife and fathered a son over the course of his series of books,and he wasn't alone in this. There is, in fact, a whole sub-genre of domestic sleuths which seems to have begun in the 1930s with Christie's Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and Hammet's Nick and Nora Charles. If you want more...Peter and Iris Duluth (Patrick Quentin)Pam & Jerry North (Richard Lockridge)Pat & Jean Abbot (Frances Crane)Jeff & Haila Troy and for one book Connie and Steve Barton (Kelley Roos)or Dave Brandsetter and Cecil Harris, who are a gay couple, in Joseph Hansen's novels which date back to the 1970s.

  4. I didn't make it entirely clear in the previous post, but all bar one of the detectival couples I mentioned are pre-1970s.

  5. Sextonblake: Thanks for the comments.

    Am I correct that the sleuth, Sexton Blake, remained single and without children during the 75 years (1893 - 1968) novels and stories were published featuring the character?

  6. Absolutely. Not only that, but Blake, his side-kick Tinker, and his Landlady Mrs Bardell seemed to have remained exactly the same age from the first story to the last!

    In a vaguely serious vein, I have to say that Blake, Sherlock Holmes, Dupin, Poirot and the rest represent the original idea of the Great Detective who is above normal human considerations; the superior being who descends from the Heavens to solve the problem of we lesser mortals. Lord Peter Wimsey starts off as a more conventional Great Detective, but gradually turns into a more human, vulnerable person who can fall in love, get married and father children. He doesn't exactly become a 'normal' person, but he starts to experience something of the concerns that the rest of us do. This has led us to the more modern 'tecs, who, whilst they are more recognisable as real people, do miss something of the grandeur of their predecessors. I think that this is something to do with the movement of the the 1920s Detective Story from being a completely distinct genre with its own rules, to a movement during the 1930s to make the detective story something closer to conventional literature.

  7. Sextonblake: Thanks for your further comment adding to the discussion. I continue to believe it took most of the 20th Century for authors and readers to accept there could be good mysteries involving sleuths with families. Certainly you have provided examples of earlier sleuths with families.

  8. There's no doubt that the adoption of sleuths with families was a gradual thing. I suspect that one of the influences was the increase in the numbers of 'realistic' policemen. If you look at John Creasey's output you will find that two of his series characters Inspector West (1942 onwards) and Commander Gideon (1955 onwards)are both married with children. In the USA there is Steve Carella in the 87th Precinct novels who is on honeymoon in the second novel in 1956. Inspector Ghote, who was introduced in H R F Keating's THE PERFECT MURDER in 1964, has a wife and son. Giving a policeman a family background was one of the methods of humanising them and moving them from the more iconic idea of the great detective.

  9. Sextonblake: Thanks for the further comment. I will be discussing more recent sleuths and families in a post later this week.