The Three Greatest Detectives — A Literary Family

With the earth melting down at this rate, we’ve had a longstanding policy of providing diversions. This is one of our attempts in that direction.

Let’s define terms here. The mystery genre was invented, along with science fiction and horror, by the most overlooked of all American literary geniuses, Edgar Allan Poe. He was his own prototype of the brilliant analytical detective who solves crime by observation rather than brutality, legwork, smart remarks, or seductions.

Meet Auguste Dupin, aka, E. A. Poe.

Meet Auguste Dupin, aka, E. A. Poe.

The three stories Poe wrote about Dupin set the template for the greats who followed. Dupin had a sidekick, unnamed, whose purpose was to make us realize how brilliant Dupin was.

Pierre de Pueur, constant companion of Dupin.

Pierre de Pueur, dense but well dressed companion of Dupin.

Thing is, Poe had other fish to fry. He chose not to make a career out of Dupin. Maybe why he died in a gutter in Baltimore or wherever. But the three great detectives of mystery literature all have Poe’s DNA in their prodigious brains.

The first who saw the opportunity was Arthur Conan Doyle, who gave us a brilliant eccentric genius named Sherlock Holmes. Millions and millions loved the stories, including me (not one I haven’t read at least twice), and then Hollywood moved in to do it badly at great profit until the BBC decided to do it right.

Jeremy Brett was perfect as the great detective.

Jeremy Brett was perfect as the great detective.

David Burke was fine as the well dressed sidekick Watson.

David Burke was fine as the dapper sidekick Watson.

Then, of course, thanks to the Special Relationship that exists between the Yanks and the Brits, both sides of the Atlantic conspired to destroy Holmes in two series called “Elementary” and “Sherlock.” Oh well. Moving on. Just wanted to make clear this crap is no part of the canon. Cumberbunch may be a cute gay Oxbridge Spock, but he’s no Sherlock Holmes. I knew Holmes. From the age of ten on.

Back in time again. Dame Agatha Christie had the most warped mind of any mystery writer ever, God bless her heart. But she also had herself a case of professional jealousy. Like all valiant overachievers she wanted to outdo the competition of the past. You think Sherlock Holmes was eccentric? Try Hercule Poirot. The exact opposite in every respect but the genius of Agatha Christie. Holmes was a slob, Poirot is a dandy. Holmes was always on the go, Poirot stays home unless he has to go out. Who was it, the BBC (?) who actually got this right. Maybe the best detective series ever.

David Suchet is perfect, even more than perfect, as the great detective.

David Suchet is perfect, even more than perfect, as the great detective.

Hastings. The ultimate dimwit sidekick. Brave, loyal, moral, and possessed of a Lagonda to kill for.

Hastings. The ultimate dimwit sidekick. Brave, loyal, moral, and possessed of a Lagonda to kill for.

Would Poe be happy? Thinking he’d like an American heir. Where the third of the great three comes in.

Nero Wolfe. If you think about it, the concatenation of Holmes and Poirot. The third but by no means the least. Rex Stout was the best pure writer of the three. His detective was the most eccentric, a 300 pound orchid fancier from Montenegro who lived in a New York brownstone and only entertained the police by appointment.

Nero Wolfe. The greatest of them all.

Nero Wolfe. The greatest of them all.

He had the best sidekick too. Archie Goodwin was not only as well dressed as all his forebears, but he carried a gun and always tried to save damsels in distress. He also wrote like a gumshoe Hemingway, better (truth be told) than a lot of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, lean clean prose that’s still fun to read. Timothy Hutton followed his instincts and produced a classic series.

Archie Goodwin. Perfect sidekick for the perfect detective.

Archie Goodwin. Perfect sidekick for the perfect detective.

What am I going on about? These three detectives have multi-season series that cycle through Netflix. Look for them. They’re all marvelous, clever, filled with attention to temporal detail. The only one on Netflix at the moment is Hercule Poirot, which is as much monument to the Art Deco period as it is a mystery series. But the same could and should be said of Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. The former is a view of Victoriana and the latter of New York in the fifties.

The family I’m talking about is civilization. If you miss it, look for these artifacts of it.

How we rise from the doldrums of Obamatopia.

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