Regular readers will be aware that this month the Tuesday Night bloggers are looking at crime fiction firsts and so far we have had a great selection of posts with bloggers looking at first novels in series and their own first encounters with a writer as well as looking at the origins of detective fiction itself. This week’s contributions are no less varied. If you have missed any of the posts you catch up with the links below:
And here are this week’s contributions:
Bev at My Reader’s Block: A Very Screwy Beginning
Brad at ah sweet mystery blog: Who’s on first? A Man, a Mug, and a Da Vinci, That’s Who!
JJ at The Invisible Event: First Steps into the Woods with Orion’s Crime Masterworks
Moira at Clothes in Books: First Use of Some GA Tropes
For my own contribution this week I decided to look at some of my favourite sleuths and their first outings in fiction and see what they tell us about them. The three I am going to look at are Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in the short story ‘The Tuesday Night Club’(1927/1932), G K Chesterton’s Father Brown in ‘The Blue Cross’ (1910) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891). I am aware with Holmes his actual first outing was in the novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887), but time pressures meant the short story was more convenient. Equally I still think the short story is an introduction to Holmes.
Synopsis: Father Brown essentially thwarts the famous thief Flambeau in his designs to steal a valuable religious relic.
Father Brown’s first appearance in the story doesn’t give the most favourable of first impressions. Seen through the eyes of a French policeman named Valentin he is said to have had ‘a face as round and as dull as a Norfolk dumpling’ and his eyes were said to be ‘as empty as the North sea.’ Valentin does not value him highly, pitying him at best, likening him to a disinterred mole, ‘blind and helpless.’ The fact that Father Brown does not ‘seem to know which was the right end of his return ticket’ and also ‘with a mooncalf-simplicity’ keeps on telling everyone about the valuable relic he is carrying,’ means Valentin’s low estimation does not appear so ridiculous. Yet since my copy of the story is in the complete works of Father Brown, part of me on first reading this was waiting for Valentin to be proved wrong. Nevertheless the expected reversal does not come quickly and instead we are faced with the information that two clergyman (one we presume to be Father Brown) are causing a series of bizarre events: throwing soup in a café, upsetting a grocer’s apple cart, acting drunk in the street and even breaking someone’s window. In short it all seems rather unreasonable. But when we catch up with Father Brown and the other clergyman it is reason which Brown defends and from there on in the remainder of the story is controlled by Father Brown. It is like he has set up a long line of dominoes and he finally knocks the first one over, causing a chain reaction. The way he thwarts Flambeau appears mad, yet when explained seems perfectly logical. Like Valentin, Flambeau dismisses Father Brown, calling him a ‘celibate simpleton.’ Yet Father Brown is able to turn the tables on him and actually point out how much he knows about the darker side of human nature in comparison to Flambeau – a world famous thief: ‘has it never struck you that a man who does next nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?’ Flambeau and Valentin may have started this story assured of their abilities, but it is to Father Brown they take their hats off to at the end and Valentin actually says ‘Let us both bow to our master.’
Synopsis: There is a gathering at Miss Marple’s home in St Mary Mead comprised of her nephew and other local friends such as an artist named Joyce, a former Scotland Yard commissioner called Sir Henry Clithering, a clergyman named Dr Pender and Mr Petherick a solicitor. They decide to share real life mysteries they have encountered or heard of and the others have to guess the solution. In this story Clithering tells the first mystery, featuring Mr and Mrs Jones, as well as Miss Clark, the latter’s companion. At supper one night Mrs Jones dies and it is initially assumed to be food poisoning but was actually arsenic poisoning. The group begin to suggest theories but unsurprisingly it is Miss Marple who hits the nail on the head.
In looking at Miss Marple second I realised the number of similarities between her and Father Brown. Both are underestimated by others due to their external appearances and they are often perceived in stereotypical ways. Yet they both use this to their advantage and this makes them all the more deadly. Furthermore, characters often think Brown and Marple have led sheltered or narrow lives and therefore do not know much about the world and life in general. For instance Joyce says ‘I know life as darling Miss Marple here cannot possibly know it’ and here Joyce is underestimating the power of observing village life, after all as Marple says ‘very painful and distressing things happen in villages sometimes.’ However, despite appearances Marple and Brown have a deep understanding of human nature and use their long experience of observation to solve cases in the present. Finally both these sleuths initially seem to take a back seat role in their first stories, as although mentioned at the beginning, the middle of both stories are dominated by characters who think they know better or are more equipped to solve the case at hand. This of course makes the endings when our sleuths reappear more impressive.
One thing which occurs in Marple’s first outing but is not really continued much further is the way she is dressed. In the opening pages it is said that:
‘Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in round the waist. Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair. She was knitting something white and soft and fleecy.’
I think this was definitely an aspect Christie could afford to lose in her character as such a style of dressing would have made more of an eccentric sleuth and make her stand out more, rather than blend in with the background picking up useful information. I think the less antiquated style of dress Marple goes on to be wearing also makes it easier to take her more seriously as a sleuth and less comical.
Synopsis: Holmes is called into help the King of Bohemia when he is unable to retrieve a compromising photo of himself with Irene Alder. She has the photo and could potentially cause a great scandal as the King is soon to be married. Holmes’ task is to get the photo back.
In contrast when I came to Sherlock Holmes I found that he was the odd one out of the three. His everyday appearance does not lead to characters undervaluing or underestimating his abilities. Instead in this story he often has to resort to disguises to hide his real self. I also think Holmes is much more of a performer in his detective work. He loves to astound and startle Watson, clients and criminals alike with the brilliance of his mind. What also makes our first encounter with Holmes different to our encounters with Brown and Marple is that the story is written in the first person from a friend’s perspective. This I feel gives us a very different impression of our sleuth. Equally the other two detective are more sociable and their detective skills actually benefit from their social activities and interactions. After all it is all the more opportunities to observe human nature. Whilst Holmes on the hand is said to have ‘loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul.’ Moreover, Miss Marple and Father Brown have a greater warmth and kindness about them. Holmes for me has a harder, colder side to him and it is not surprising that ‘he never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer.’ Conversely in our first encounter with Miss Marple she espouses the view that ‘many people seem to me not to be either bad or good, but simply, you know, very silly.’ For me this reveals a greater generosity of spirit towards human foibles and I think it is one of the things which makes her easier for other characters to confine in. Finally unlike the other two detectives, Holmes’ first short story case badly doesn’t go to plan, with his ‘best plans’ being ‘beaten by a woman’s wit.’ I always thought this an unusual way to start Holmes’ short story career. Perhaps as a white male he has less to prove. Would it have been more fatal for Brown and Marple if their first cases did not go so well, coming from disparaged/stereotyped social groups? There is also the fact that he is a detective famed for being unfeeling and possibly even bordering on inhuman. Maybe this was a way of Doyle showing a more human side to his nature. I guess also he had solved two cases successfully already in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four (1890), so readers expectations may have been less thrown.
Though I will say that there are perhaps two things which unite all these detectives. The first is the difficulty others have in reading them. For instance Watson says when he first sees Holmes after a long absence that ‘his manner was not effusive… but he was glad, I think, to see me.’ Whilst with Father Brown, Valentin thinks his eyes are empty, but I wonder if this is deliberate on Brown’s part, after all Shakespeare did say that ‘the eyes are the window to the soul.’ All three of them play their cards close to their chest. Secondly I think all of these sleuths value reason and rely heavily on their observations of others.
I guess a sneaky third parallel, would be that for all their similarities and differences, they are detectives who have stood the test of the time to varying degrees and have been loved and read and even re-read countless times and it doesn’t seem like this will change any time soon.