Friday Five: 15 Dashing Detectives
Friday, August 05, 2011
We realized early on that we hadn't devoted much time on Friday Five to crime. So we tasked ourselves this week with listing our favorite detectives, in any medium. Predictably, however, the conversation soon devolved from "detectives we like" to "detectives we'd hang out with" to "detectives we'd do." As if we needed more proof that we're base and perverted people.
Join us after the jump in discussing the style, abilities, and general shagability winningness of our favorite snoops, shamuses, gumshoes, PIs and, uh, dicks.
With the exception of one choice (The Continental Op), my detectives all stem from the same ten year period (well, at least for their first books... all four wound up investigating for decades). This should be no surprise, especially since three of my five also come from the same publishing imprint, the immortal Fawcett Gold Medal.
John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee: My love-hate relationship with Travis McGee is well-documented, so I can keep it short. Travis is alternatively emo and macho, brave and disgraceful, tender and self-absorbed... but he's always an absorbing character to follow. Were I ever to need a sensitive document destroyed or wedge of dodgy cash recovered, he'd be my man (as long as he stays away from my female friends...)
Dashiell Hammett's The Continental Op: Sometimes the classics are classic for good reason. The unnamed, middle-aged, stodgy, balding, grumpy Op is the ultimate detective. Always caught in the crossfire, always getting clonked on the head by some bad guy or another. He's the best there is at getting out of a sticky jam (especially when said stickiness involves six or seven different parties, an inept blackmailer and the decadent rich).
Stephen Marlowe's Chester Drum: Stephen Marlowe's globe-trotting private eye took cases big and small. He foiled communism, battled terrorism and smuggled a billionaire's sexy fiancée across a closed border (yes, he also shagged her, but don't tell the client). What I really like about Drum is - like Travis McGee - there's a subtle (but important) character arc across his dozens of books. He starts as an eager international rogue and hardens into a more world-weary soul as his friends (and ladyfriends) come and go.
Ed McBain's Meyer Meyer: Honestly, I'd choose the entirety of the 87th Precinct if I could. But if I'm forced to pick one, the oh-so-patient Meyer - he of the shiny bald head and terrible sense of humour - would be the one. Steve Carella may have the more dramatic cases, but the plodding, ever-vigilant Meyer always gets his man....
Richard S. Prather's Shell Scott: Towering well over six feet with his linebacker build and infamous shock of pale-white hair, Shell Scott is one of the goofiest detectives of the paperback era. But he sold tens of millions of copies, and for very good reasons. Scott certainly romped about in some goofy adventures (he's invariably naked at some point in every book) but the slapstick humor always had a pleasantly gritty edge to it and a wonderfully deadpan style. Plus, Scott's responsible for delivering some of the best lines in detective fiction: "He was dead, all right. He had been shot, poisoned, stabbed, and strangled. Either somebody had really had it in for him or four people had killed him. Or else it was the cleverest suicide I'd ever heard of."
By the end of Law & Order: Criminal Intent's run, the writers and producers had soaped up Vincent D'Onofrio's Robert Goren into a trembling jelly of a man - his father was revealed to be a serial killer, his mentor an unstable sociopath who offed Goren's drug-addict brother and love-interest/nemesis and gave Goren her heart in a box, his childhood friend a copycat serial killer who tortured and nearly killed his partner... the list goes on and on. But at its best (the first couple of seasons), CI had everything I really like in a detective show: a Holmes-inflected lead (deeply brilliant; deeply weird; social ineptness; sliiiight problem with authority), a sensible partner, a supportive chief and a regular butting of heads with his (hot) DA. Ultimately, however CI was made by D'Onofrio's manic performance, and rightly so.
You've read The Thin Man, right? And you've seen the films, right? So you don't need me to tell you how flat-out fucking awesome Nick and Nora Charles are. Dashiell Hammett famously based his quippy couple on Lillian Hellman and himself, and the deep-seated affection with with the fictional couple banter over cocktails makes the novel really special, especially in contrast with the grim plot and secondary characters. The films are similarly brilliant, and we should all knock off work and watch again them right now.
I would be remiss if I left my other favorite detective couple off this list: the father-daughter team Veronica and Keith Mars. He's a former sheriff-turned PI; she's a high school student from the wrong side of the tracks with a chip on her shoulder and a taste for very, very bad boys. Great writing, great acting, and especially the relationship between Keith and Veronica kept Veronica Mars true to its noir roots while anchoring its modern sensibilities. Despite miserable ratings, the show hobbled along for three seasons, one of which (the first) is one of the best seasons of tv ever produced.
The original armchair detective, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe is awesome in a completely different way from my other picks. He never leaves his house. Clients come to him, and he sends his partner (and the real hero of the books) Archie Goodwin out into the great wide world to romance the ladies, collect bloody noses, and generally amass clues. (Aside: we named our family dog Archie Goodwin.) But it's Wolfe who, from the comfort of his greenhouse, puts the case together. If he can drag himself away from his orchids and his books and his omlettes long enough, that is. Stout wrote the Wolfe titles without reference to chronology or character development; they can be read in any order, but they're always fun.
At the opposite end of that spectrum lies Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey. The Wimsey books are almost wholly character-driven; read them out of order and you miss about half of what makes them so special, which is watching Wimsey's story unfold. They're also, unlike the Wolfe books, enormously interesting as products of a specific time and place - England between the wars. The prose is gorgeous and the stories are fascinating, but the centerpiece of the novels is Lord Peter himself: he's a shell-shocked WWI vet with a flair for language and a lot of spare time and income to devote to hanging around Scotland Yard and digging up nasty little mysteries. That the later novels are also deeply thoughtful examinations of life and love and faith and stuff? Total bonus.
What, no Philip Marlowe? Are you both insane? The Continental Op (and Sam Spade, c’mon!) defined the hard-boiled clichés, but Marlowe moved the genre beyond them. And unlike Hammett’s characters, he’s someone you might actually enjoy sitting down for a whiskey with.
Helen Mirren’s performance as DCI Jane Tennison is brilliantly uncompromising. She never asks you to like her, and you really don’t, but you absolutely understand how she wins the respect of the piggishly chauvinist men under her. Even at her schlockiest, Lynda La Plante knows how to tell a ripping good story, and Prime Suspect was the peak of her career.
The Wire’s a greater work of art than The Shield, but The Shield is perhaps the purest, most brilliant cop show ever made. And detectives Dutch and Claudette brought brains and integrity to a series that was usually about brawn and dirty compromises.
I love Dirk Gently. I loved the books and I loved Stephen Mangan on the TV adaptation – and they’re making more of them. Hurrah! Detective novel spoofs are a dime a dozen, but it took Douglas Adams to create a sleuth this weird and wonderful.
Nobody seems to have seen Zero Effect, which is a shame, as it updated Holmes long before Sherlock and did it flawlessly. Bill Pullman as Daryl Zero has never been better and Ben Stiller’s a surprisingly good Watson substitute.
Jared: There's NO WAY that Marlowe would be more fun to hang out with than the Op. Plus, there's a greater than 50% chance you'd be dead by the end of the meal... shot in the back by a figure in a black overcoat (IT TURNS OUT TO BE THE DAME).
Bex: Wait, if I'm choosing someone from our list to hang out with, I'm definitely going the Mars family. And if Keith's out on a case, all the better.
Anne: You're both wrong. Nick and Nora Charles. We'd drink and quip and drink more and then play with Asta.
Bex: Actually, I think Dirk Gently would be the most fun. You kind of know what all the rest of them would say, but he'd be all over the place.