Searching for sleuths

Because of the enormous popularity of the Holmes stories, many believe their author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to be the progenitor of detective fiction, but actually it was Edgar Allan Poe who wrote the first modern detective story, in 1841.

sherlock holmes 88 (photo credit: )
sherlock holmes 88
(photo credit: )
On a recent Thursday night, some 70 people congregated at the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center in Jerusalem's Mishkenot Sha'ananim to hear the first of four lectures in a new series - "The Mystery of the Fictional Detectives" (in Hebrew). For 90 minutes, a mostly middle-aged audience sat captivated as guest speaker Michael Handelzalts, former editor of Haaretz's literary supplement, delineated the rise to immortality of the archetypal fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, whose stories were first published in 1887. Because of the enormous popularity of the Holmes stories, many believe their author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to be the progenitor of detective fiction, but actually it was Edgar Allan Poe who wrote the first modern detective story, in 1841, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," featuring amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin. Like Dupin, Holmes is a remarkably astute sleuth and eccentric bachelor with peculiar habits who shares quarters with an admiring and less intelligent assistant (Dr. Watson). This sidekick, or foil, acts as an audience surrogate and chronicles the tale even as "he himself doesn't understand the real importance of the things he describes," explained Handelzalts, "so there's a game here between Holmes and the reader behind Watson's back." The detective story is distinguished from other forms of fiction by the fact that it is a puzzle, whether in the form of a mystery or commission of a crime. "Like any other plot of a drama, it starts with something being wrong and gets itself righted by the end of the book," said Handelzalts, who recently authored Sherlock Holmes: The Mystery of the Immortal Detective. "The beautiful thing is that the presumption is that in the detective story there is a solution, things can be understood, there are no mysteries and those who are guilty will be brought to justice - which is a very positivist view of the world." The tale's climax is the solution of the puzzle, and the bulk of the narrative concerns the logical process by which the investigator follows a series of clues to this solution. "The implicit idea is that the reader, if he follows the detective closely, should be able to solve the riddle himself, because he is supposedly getting all the clues needed to solve the 'whodunit,'" said Handelzalts. The literary detective's strategy for unraveling mysteries varies, whether psychological, intuitive or scientific. Holmes, for example, employs deductive reasoning from facts known both to the character and the reader. "Sherlock Holmes is the scientific detective, which means he doesn't guess, he doesn't chase - he seeks clues and reasons, and by the power of his reasoning he can solve anything. For him there are no mysteries," explained Handelzalts. "Holmes is the first private detective, which means he's not a policeman - he's his own agent. He's being hired to solve or to help the police, because the police are always at a loss." Literary detectives are often contemptuous of the police, who remain baffled by the crime at hand as their investigative methods are ineffective. The emergence of detective fiction as a popular form of literature at the end of the 19th century paralleled the establishment of the police force and its accompanying detective departments. "The basic idea behind the detective story is that within a society which grounds itself within some limits, when somebody breaks the law, the social order gets disrupted, and somebody, that is the detective, has to solve the mystery and bring the criminal to justice," explained Handelzalts. The Jerusalem Post later asked each of the series' speakers to help locate the genre's enduring charm. For Handelzalts, the appeal of detective fiction lies in the unexpected solution, which becomes logical only in retrospect. "It's a genre for intelligent readers," he said. "You are being expected to participate in the game, you are supposed to suspect everyone, especially the narrator - you can't trust a thing he tells you - you have to read very closely. You have to be a very alert reader." TV broadcaster Oren Nahari, who is set to give the next lecture on June 14, with a discussion of the American detective, specifically Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, pointed to the "violent romanticism" of the American detective, who "works the mean side of the streets against terrible odds, but still continues to fight on." "The American detective is lonely by choice, but he's a Don Quixote, he's a romanticist. He wants to be able to look at himself in the mirror in his rented room at night, drinking his lonely glass of whiskey, playing chess against himself," Nahari explained. "He wants to believe that he did everything he can for his client, for cleaning up the streets, although he knows that tomorrow for the same measly $25 plus expenses or no pay at all he will have to do it again and again if necessary, but still he has his own set of values. "This genre is unique in that it survived and that it continues to interest us, years after similar genres from similar eras disappeared because they do not connect to our world... There is something about the detective, about fighting odds, about solving mysteries that still appeals to us." TV journalist Emmanuel Halperin, whose July lecture will discuss Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret, surmised that the genre "is popular because people like to read about themselves. [Simenon's] stories deal with all of us. What's important to him is to understand humans, their suffering, their motives - why did a man murder his wife, not how he did it, but what drove him to do it. He is a psychological detective." The final lecture, in August, will be dedicated to Batya Gur and the Hebrew detective, and feature two speakers, one of whom is Haaretz literary supplement editor Dror Mishani. In considering the appeal of detective fiction, Mishani said: "It's a genre that deals with the questions that most trouble modern man - how we discover truth, who decides what is right and what isn't, who has the authority to determine what is and isn't real. This genre deals with these questions in a more obvious manner than any other literary genre. This is part of its charm. "Also, its format, of the lacuna in the past that needs to be returned to and filled in order to heal, is very similar to the structure of psychoanalysis. It could be that there's something in our spiritual makeup that operates in this manner and that the detective grasps very accurately."