Twists on the gentleman sleuth genre
Gentlemen who solve crime don’t appear much in modern fiction. The Second World War seems to have killed them off thoroughly. Perhaps they all starved, for want of appropriate valets to cook their breakfasts? Perhaps it’s because we, the modern reader, find them annoying? Some of them did seem to think that all the world’s problems could be solved by teaching people to play cricket.
One way to enliven the genre, as noted by writers at the time, is to have gentlemen who play against type. This week I’ve been reading books which are satires of the gentleman detective.
The Campion series: The first Campion book was written as a satire of, and a reaction to, the Lord Peter Whimsey stories. Over time Campion grew to have a distinctive alternative appeal, however. The library has a few of the books, but if you’d like a quick sample, we also have the DVDs, starring Peter Davison. He plays a good Campion, able to switch from gormless to comical to decisive with a flicker. He does particularly well, considering how fluid the character was in the original books, growing from a satire into an eccentric, to a purposeful character using superficiality as a disguise.
A. J. Raffles is a gentleman by day who, by night, steals things. He is not a Robin Hood figure: he is not stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Similarly, he is not stealing from horrible people who deserve it (like the crew in Hustle). I’ve been following his adventures with some audiobooks from Librivox. His Watson, Bunny, is a weird choice: brave, but morally vacilitating. The author of the books spent some time in Australia, and it must have impressed him powerfully.
When his stories were released separately in magazines it may not have been apparent, but when collected together like this, the statistically improbable flock of Australians who turn up in Raffles’s stories are an interesting datum concerning how the British reader viewed the colonies.