This section of “Good-bye Magnum PI” seeks to provide the teacher of detective fiction with “personality profiles” of various fictional detectives as well as an annotated bibliography of the shorter introductory works. Various ideas for introductory lesson plans are also included.
Little needs to be said regarding Holmes for all are probably familiar with the character through film. It is important to point out however, that some of the Holmes’ films were not derived from Arthur Conan Doyle’s works. Students might be interested in learning that many Holmesian adventure films were created during World War II, and served as anti-Nazi propaganda. While these works cannot be considered as classic detective fare, they serve to illustrate the tremendous popularity of the character; indeed, the public has continued to clamor for Holmes in any form. Most recently at least two authors have recreated the character of Holmes in their own fiction.
The idiosyncratic nature of Holmes has caused the character to be emblazoned in the minds of many readers. A. Conan Doyle was able to create a character who is fantastic enough to capture reader interest and, at the same time, realistic enough to provide reader identification. Holmes is the quintessential intellectual. Through methods of deduction, induction, and an acute sense of the power of observation, Holmes is able to come to grips with stimuli whose dimensions would overwhelm most. I believe that readers are able to identify with Holmes because he exhibits qualities relative to the human condition. Holmes is not a superman, but rather the pipe-smoking master of a sardonic wit which belies an essentially lonely man.
: “The Speckled Band”. This relatively short story provides many clues for the detective/reader. While the denouement may be surprising for the neophyte reader of detective fiction, students will readily agree that the author has played fair. There is at least one “red herring” in the story, yet logic points to the only possible culprit. Many specific clues are provided as to the way the murders were committed. This is not a “who done it” but rather a “how did he do it” story.
“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”. The gimic of this plot has been rewritten in many mysteries, for it features a murder which, in fact, never happened. A blackmailer stages his own murder, and Holmes, once again, solves the mystery through shrewd observation of physical detail. As with “The Speckled Band” the title offers a clue for the detective/reader.
Agatha Christie created her prissy, yet charming Belgian detective soon after World War I. There were many Belgian refugees living in England during the war, and Christie probably created Poirot with this in mind. Poirot is certainly a memorable character, and the foreign element seems to add to his appeal.
Christie wisely bestowed Poirot with comic qualities of manner and appearance which allow the reader a superior stance in relation to the character. Who cannot help laughing at, and yet secretly loving, a little man with an egg-shaped head, a ridiculously long mustache, and a host of personal eccentricities which render him flamboyant and essentially human?
Poirot’s mode of operation is not unlike Holmes’s. Both rely upon a superior intellectual ability, and both are contrasted with men of average ability (Watson, Hastings). Yet, Poirot is essentially a warm character while Holmes is cold. Poirot, as clown, match-maker, and all-around mother hen, becomes involved with other characters. The reader must regard him as affectionate, humorous, and wise.
“Four and Twenty Blackbirds”. Poirot solves this case through an interest in things gastronomical and a knowledge of human behavior. Poirot’s interaction with a complaining maid adds a touch of humor to this tale of family squabbles, greed, and murder.
Jane Marple is the precursor to Mrs. Pollifax and the Snoop Sisters. She might be characterized as anybody’s grandmother. While she exhibits an interest in things one might assume the elderly care about (flowers, knitting, gossip), she is also a cracker-jack detective. Readers take delight in this sometimes dithery, old woman’s interest in murder and her uncanny ability to out-fox those younger and more physically able.
Miss Marple is essentially provincial—if provincial means living in one place all of one’s life. Yet, St. Mary Mead has provided her with essential (though in some cases vicarious) experiences with various emotions and/or examples of human interaction and reaction. Thus Miss Marple is able to draw upon past experiences and a working knowledge of the human condition in solving her cases. Many readers are fond of Jane Marple because she appears to be average; she exhibits the qualities of simplicity and humility.
: “The Tape-Measure Murder”. Miss Marple solves this case on the strength of a piece of “mundane” evidence—a dressmaker’s pin. While there are many “red herrings” in this story, the reader is soon cognizant of Miss Marple’s reasoning through her many comments on human nature. (A widower, who does not weep openly, yet appreciates the beauty of a flower, cannot be the murderer.) The motive in this case is a spinster’s jealousy.
Nero Wolfe is indeed a character, and many readers have been mesmerized by his unique personality. He is an egotistical, cantankerous, lazy, fat woman-hater whose verbal repartee annoys many a character of lesser intellectual capacity. His tastes are elitist; his interests include orchids, gourmet food, and “good” rugs. Perhaps the long list of Wolfe’s dislikes sum up his character best: all haggling and quibbling, anything that moves (except his elevator), being touched, gin-drinkers (they’re all barbarians), television, paper cups, restaurants, being read to, coarse talk, diamonds, etc.
Surely Wolfe is idiosyncratic to the extreme. He is opinionated, snobbish, and. Like Holmes, particularly cerebral. He is also extremely honest. Readers are often impressed by this honesty. They are literally astounded by such statements as, “I carry this fat to insulate my feelings. They got too strong for me once or twice and I had that idea. If I had stayed lean and kept moving around, I would have been dead long ago.”
: “Fourth of July Picnic”. This detective story depends upon the amusing and then forceful, qualities of Wolfe’s personality. When the story opens we are privy to his usual refusal to be coerced outside of his townhouse. Flattery and an appeal to his gastronomical side finally insure that Wolfe will attend the Independence Day Picnic of the United Restaurant Workers of America. His attendance proves to be most important as the celebration is marred by the murder of one Philip Holt.
Wolfe’s superior intellect enables him to figure out who did it, and his intimidating nature serves to entrap the culprit—as usual—at West 35th Street, in Wolfe’s own study.
Travis McGee, an unabashed beach bum, who does “salvage work” (recovering stolen goods, rescuing lost souls, avenging murders, etc.) reflects in some sense the restlessness born of recent cultural and societal changes. He is clearly sickened by a society whose technology has grown faster than its wisdom to put it to good use, and he often questions the morality of the materialistic “fun-lovers” of his world.
His outward cynicism belies an essentially romantic quality, however. He is the adolescent within us who knows he can save the damsel in distress from the evil of a corrupt world. Though he is tough, brutal when necessary, and physically resilient, he admits to emotional trauma, and therefore is believable.
Nightmare in Pink
. Travis is asked by an old friend, a hospitalized veteran, to locate the man who killed his sister’s fiance. In the process, Travis uncovers an embezzlement scheme, puts an insane doctor out of business, and saves a girl from a life of bitter loneliness. As usual, the action is taut. McGee overcomes incredible odds through brute strength and streetwise savvy.
Ideas for Introductory Lesson Plans
1. An opening discussion of current TV detective series (“Magnum PI” et al.) would probably prove useful in introducing this unit. Detective series have always been a part of TV’s offerings, and it is likely that students would be able to come up with reasons for their continued popularity. Undoubtedly, the discussion will focus on the series plots, which are usually action-packed and therefore vicariously thrilling. the glamour which usually surrounds the main character, and the broad theme of good vs evil. After recalling a typical series plot, students should be encouraged to create an original story-outline complete with a brief character sketch of a “hero” of their choice. Such a project should be assigned only after much brain-storming. It should be treated lightly by the teacher, and viewed as “fun” by the students. for its primary purpose is to encourage students to begin to think about the genre and their reaction to it.
2. Experience has taught me that visual stimuli usually provide students with an interest in a subject area and a spring-board for discussion. At this point students will be provided with photographs of the series heroes we will be studying. An ensuing discussion will include student responses to each character (reaction to dress, physical attributes, as well as much surmising as to personality). Students will also be provided with “personality profile sheets” (see end Part I) for each detective. (They will simply check off adjectives which they think pertain to each personality.) These sheets may or may not prove accurate; students will refer to them again after they have become acquainted (through reading) with each character.
3. Prior to reading each of the shorter selections, students should be advised of the setting of the story. and, as the teacher deems necessary, particular information about the detective. Teachers may want to use material from
The Annotated Sherlock Holmes
Nero Wolfe on 35th Street
, for example. Both books are fun to peruse as they include pictures of the detectives’ residences, family information, and descriptions of the detectives’ acquaintances, outside interests, etc. The teacher should keep in mind, however, that students must be allowed to come to their own conclusions about each character; in depth discussions of personality should come after reading.
4. Following the reading of each story, students will write reactions to setting, plot, and character. The teacher may wish to write specific study guide questions to provide direction. Many of these questions should deal with the series hero, for students will be asked to make their later reading choices based on their reaction to character.
5. At this point the teacher should provide students with additional information about the personalities of each detective. (See Part I—profiles and suggested readings for teachers—teacher bibliography) Specific idiosyncrasies of character will prove interesting, if not amusing, to students, and may cause them to get excited about renewing acquaintance with their own particular detective.
6. Students will choose a particular series hero. They will describe his/her personality and tell why they chose him/her.
7. A Study of the Development of the Genre through Comparison/Contrast of Series Heroes
A. In what ways are Holmes, Poirot, Wolfe alike? Did Christie, Stout refer to Holmes in creating their own characters?
B. What are the differences between Holmes, Poirot, Wolfe? Did these differences change the tone of the stories in any way?
C. How are Poirot/Marple alike/different?
D. Why might a reader choose Marple stories? Is Chrisite making a point about women? elderly people? Do you like the way Marple is portrayed?
E. Contrast Travis McGee with all of the aformentioned characters. How is the genre changed? How does the author (John D. MacDonald) feel about his character? Is Travis John D. MacDonald?