The Wunderkinds.

The child is father of the man, at least that’s what Wordsworth wrote. (Wasn’t he a loquacious so-&-so?) That means the things we love as kids often influence our tastes as adults.  I am (unfortunately) old enough  to acknowledge the truth in this observation, but I wonder if writers deliberately trade on this idea. After all, how do you create adult readers who’ll love Fantasy/Science Fiction?  Wait until they’re old enough to vote and then give them a copy of Dune?  No, you introduce them to the genre while they’re young, with kid’s stories written by great SF authors like Heinlein  and LeGuin.

But creating under-age Mystery readers is a slightly more difficult proposition.  After all, Mysteries almost always involve Violent Crime, and we don’t want the Little Darlings to have nightmares.  (Well, we may, but we won’t sell as many books if they do.)  So how do you create the next generation of Nero Wolfe and Alex Cross fans? By giving them mysteries with juvenile detectives, of course![amazon_link asins=’0448466759′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’eaafff07-9e68-11e8-ba3f-fd27745ad13e’]

Early Juvenile Detectives

When I was first learning to read, there were three fictional superstars of kid-lit whodunits.  Well,  seven characters but three detective teams: Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys. On the page, they were the Wunderkinds.

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Contemporary Juvenile Detectives

 

A whole raft of fictional juvenile detectives have followed these prototypes from Encyclopedia Brown through Flavia deLuce and the newer heroes have more of a real-life kid’s feelings and issues.  But the essence of the juvenile detective hasn’t changed: youth’s zeal and integrity, mixed with a world-class intelligence and the emotional maturity of an adult whenever the chips are down.  Come to think of it, that’s winning combination at any age.[amazon_link asins=’0385343493′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’37a07fab-9e69-11e8-b694-cb88c90ad15f’]

The Subversives

Hang around book-nerds types long enough and you’ll hear them mention the word “subversive.”  Subversive themes, subversive protagonists, subversive…well, you get the picture.  Now, before you decide all English professors and book-club members need to be on some government watch list, what they’re talking about are the aspects of a story that make you rethink your assumptions. Part of this rethinking is part of any mystery or detective story. But some literary detectives succeed because they subvert the assumptions other characters make about them.  Like that lovely old snoop, Miss Jane Marple.

Early Detective Subversives

In Agatha Christie’s stories, Miss Jane appears to be the quintessential English Spinster.  She gardens, she bakes, she wears nothing but tweed (I think) and she lives in a small, English Village. The kind of lady most people expect is sweet and rather naive.  But beneath those fluffy curls and an abominable hat sits an observant and cynical brain. Not much gets past that shrewd, old dame. And when she comes up with some pithy, insightful observation, she subverts the other characters’ expectations.  See what I mean?
But if Miss Jane set the standard of the unexpected detective, she’s had lots of followers since. One of my favorites is a handicapped ex-jockey named Sid Halley who other characters initially underestimate because of his small stature and background. (Stupid move, by the way) But, most of the fictional subversive detectives I’ve seen are female, which, in a chauvinistic way, makes sense.  The heroes of the “hard-boiled” detective yarns, like Mike Hammer, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe dominated the genre for years and these guys are so tough and male that testosterone almost drips from their pages.  The Hard-boiled stories are great and I have a well-worn collection of Dashiell Hammett prose to prove that I’m a fan, but those guys do set up certain assumptions.  Which the ladies then turn upside down.

Contemporary Detective Subversives

After hours with the cool-under-pressure Sam Spade, it’s a delight to see Janet Evanovich‘s klutz extraordinaire, Stephanie Plum, wrecking cars and falling over her own heels until she somehow catches the bad guy. And Sue Ann Jaffarian‘s Odelia Grey feels like my twin sister at times: she’s a middle-aged, overweight, paralegal (like me) trying to get through life without too much mess.  Bless Odelia, corpses seem to find her like so many stray kittens.  But probably the best example of the Subversive Detective today is the inimitable Mma Precious Ramotswe, founder, and head of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.  Mma Precious upends all expectations her culture has of middle-aged, single women by opening and operating a successful business, and then proving herself a skilled practitioner of her chosen profession.
And that’s the essential function of the subversive theme, to make people re-examine their assumptions. These entertaining stories have something profound to say: that intelligence, insight, and grit can be found in the most unlikely people and no one should be discounted because of their appearance.  That’s a liberating idea.  Funny that it’s still considered subversive.
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The original Odd Couple: Holmes and Watson

Detective Fiction’s First Odd Couple

There are all kinds of mystery stories, filled with all different types of detectives, but if you’re going back to the roots of the mystery series types, the Granddaddies of them have got to be Holmes and Watson.  They’re the original Adama-&-Eve, Mutt-&-Jeff, Odd Couple detective team and the template they set up is fierce.

An Early portrait of the Dynamic Duo
Thank you, Wikipedia!
The most noticeable team member is Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first and foremost consulting detective. Brilliant, acerbic, and emotionally detached almost to a pathological degree, he’s the star of the series and he knows it.  But Holmes isn’t chasing villains for glory or cash; he’s in it for the fun and the science. Believe it or not, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world (and law enforcement agencies) to the world of criminal forensics through Holmes’s obsession with crime scene details and deductive logic.

But, if Sherlock Holmes is so great, why did the author need Watson?

Simple. Watson is the person who needs to tell the story because that’s the last thing Holmes would do.  If “The Great Detective” decided to write up his adventures, what would he emphasize?  Would he capture the creepy atmosphere of the The Great Grimpen Mire or dwell on the terrifying appearance of the Hound of the Baskervilles?  No!  Sherlock doesn’t see these things as important.  A Holmes version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” would consist of long narratives about newspaper fonts, the replication of certain facial features in familial descendants and (maybe) the application of phosphorus to flesh to create an unusual appearance.  None of the Gothic Setting or chilling story would survive because Sherlock Holmes rarely notices these things.  That’s one reason we need Watson.
Another reason we need Watson is he’s our Point-of-View, the guy we identify with, our average Man on the Street. We learn to trust him implicitly.  Sherlock Holmes is a master of subterfuge and obscurity but Watson always tells us just what he sees as soon as he sees it. Which makes the story all that much better when Holmes looks at the same puzzles Watson just described and comes up with an insightful answer.  But, as much as the readers need Watson as a character, these two characters need each other.

When Opposites Decide to Team Up

It’s the chemistry of this mismatched pair that creates the architecture of each story in the series and both characters bring out the best in each other.  It’s my belief that the Holmes-&-Watson formula has been the basis of many a mystery series because it works so well.  Look at Nick and Nora Charles, Morse & Lewis, Tony Hill & Carol Jordan.  They’re crime-fighting Mutt-&-Jeffs who bring out the best in each other by being completely different people.  They’re the descendants of Holmes & Watson.

Some favorite Holmes & Watson stories

 

 

And If You are interested in more….

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