When I was supposed to be reading fairy tales in the Children’s Room of my local library, I wandered into the grown-up department and stumbled upon a row of Charlie Chan novels.
Of course, even as an innocent child of nine, I knew about Charlie Chan from the movies. I nailed a book and told the inquisitive librarian it was for my dad. I went through all the Charlie Chan books on hand and of course, they being in the mystery and detective section, I ran into many others. Sherlock Holmes of course, Ellery Queen, Hércule Poirot, Rouletabille, etc. Over the years I ran the gamut of fictional detectives from Philo Gubb to Philo Vance and I’m still going.
I’m occasionally asked which is my favorite fiction character, or even more explicitly, who is my favorite fictional detective.
Now if I were asked about my favorite real-life detective, I’d have to go with Eugène François Vidocq. You may or may not know that this ex-con began his own detective agency in Paris, hiring other ex-cons to work for him. He felt they had the advantage of “inside knowledge” of the criminal element. He was right. This has been “clinically proven” to be true. A penitentiary is a wonderful school for those interested in a criminal career.
M. Vidocq was doing so well — to the chagrin of the jealous police of the time — that eventually the city fathers allowed Vidocq to form an official group which became known as the Sûreté. This unit lives on today in France, known presently as La Police Nationale.
And that wasn’t all. For better or for worse, M. Vidocq also set up the world’s first credit reporting agency. As we all know, credit reporting today is a vast business empire.
But back to my favorite fictional detective. I’ve given this considerable thought, because there have been so many great fictional detectives. I love Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Lord Peter Wimsey is a favorite as is Hércule Poirot. I’ve enjoyed all the Philo Vance and Charlie Chan novels and getting into TV I loved Rockford as well as his unforgettable part time buddy, Richie Brockelman. Fletcher and Columbo are unforgettable as well.
I liked Hildegarde Withers, Nero Wolfe and Malone…Ah, there have been so many neat detectives, and so many more to come.
Poirot, while a wonderful detective, was so vain as to be sometimes intolerable. Philo Vance was such an unforgivable snob, but we had to admire his acumen. The hard-boiled guys are great too, but in the end, they’re so nearly alike that they’re just about interchangeable. Philip Marlowe could’ve been dealing the Gutman while Sam Spade could’ve been dealing with Moose Malloy. Okay, maybe Spade “fooled around” a little more than Marlowe, but other than that nobody would’ve noticed the difference.
As I say, I’ve given the matter considerable thought, and in the end I’m a little embarrassed, being a man, not to have come up with Mike Hammer or some other tough guy like that and instead of going all soft over…Miss Jane Marple.
Okay, it’s out of the closet. I admit it. I can’t get enough Jane Marple. In films we had some very unlikely Marples. Not bad actors, just bad scripts and bad casting.
In the end, for me, Joan Hickson embodied the perfect Jane Marple. She looked exactly like the Miss Marple of my imagination. She, and the TV productions were first rate. Of course the books by Agatha Christie were right on the money. Not everybody would like Miss Marple, obviously. She was admittedly a nosy parker. She was forever sticking her nose where it was not appreciated. She baffled the police by her perception but they were forced to admire her. For a person to live around her, life might not have been so pleasant. She didn’t go out of her way to curry favor with anyone.
But there it is: I’m stuck with it and I admit it. Now everybody knows.
Yay for Miss Marple.
Joan Hickson, “Me? A nosy-parker? Well, yes, I suppose I am.”