It is funny how rarely my viewing tastes and my reading tastes coincide. There is nothing I like more on the television than a serial detective with some real character – my absolute favourites being the late great, gruff Warren Clarke as the grumpy Dalziel and kindly, untidy David Jason as Jack Frost. Yet when it comes to reading I find that I rarely go for serial detectives – somehow the balance between plot, detail and character often fails to excite me. However, there are three who have managed to get right under my skin. So let me share my favourites with you by starting, in reverse order, with the famous Sherlock Holmes.
I grew up on Conan Doyle’s tales of this inimitable man. A man so analytical and observant that he could ascertain your domestic status, profession and place of residence, simply by the condition of your clothes and ‘toilette’. His experimentation with chemistry, his encyclopaedic knowledge and his acute observation made him brilliant in my eyes, but it was the solace he found in playing the violin together with his occasional, less socially acceptable behaviours, that revealed him as a man at odds with his own feelings. As a child I realised from these stories that it is often the flaws a character displays that makes them more appealing. At over 120 years old his many adventures with Watson have truly stood the test of time. They have been recreated numerous times through films, series and plays. Sherlock’s character has been discussed, analysed and re-invented endlessly and each depiction of the great man has something creditworthy about it. However nothing beats the ‘mind’s eye’ and I would recommend that you keep a volume of the original short stories on a shelf – for those occasions when you are short of time but want a complete read.
A couple of years ago I would have put this next detective in first place. The Jackson Brodie series, by Kate Atkinson had me hooked straight away, but just like marmite it seems these books are either loved or hated. If you read detective novels because you like a clearly defined plot then these definitely aren’t for you! Brodie is an ex policeman turned private detective who has a chequered past. Divorced and rather a poor judge of women his attachment to his daughter is key to his softer side. I always get the feeling that he is a man who grew a conscience later in life and now feels compelled to act although he knows it will inevitably go wrong. The storyline mixes up seemingly random incidents and apparently unconnected crimes. Various characters, some skilfully drawn and some deliberately clichéd, are thrown into the mix. In the later books these other characters hold the stories together and sometimes it seems that Brodie is little more than a walk on part. Life is portrayed as messy, often bleak and sometimes brutal and occasionally the tone of a book veers too closely towards the malicious and depressing despite the touches of humour; but somehow I always admire Brodie’s moral compass – even when I don’t particularly like him!
The television adaptations avoided much of the darkness in the books and Jason Isaacs portrayed Brodie in a likeable way that I was quite comfortable with.
My all-time favourite literary detective turns out not to be British but Canadian. Two years ago I picked up a second hand copy of ‘Bury your Dead’ by Canadian writer Louise Penny. I hadn’t read any of her previous works and was unaware that there were several earlier instalments in this remarkable series. Her writing is fluent and evocative and captures the beauty of Quebec, the piercing cold of the Canadian winters and the timelessness of the old village of Three Pines in haunting detail. Before I had finished that one book I was hunting down the rest of the series.
Our hero is Chief Inspector Armande Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Wise, worldly and honest, he longs for a simple life, but it isn’t the homicides he has to investigate that prevent him from enjoying one, it is the Sûreté. Gamache’s loyal team are as important to the stories as he is and they reveal more of their characters, their strengths and their failings with each case they investigate, and their personalities are gradually rounded out by their reactions to the forces that threaten them. Gamache comes across as a deep thinker who says little but feels much and who has incredible compassion for the eccentrics, the forgotten and the damaged, he most definitely doesn’t judge a book by its cover. My image of Gamache, his team and the village of Three Pines is so detailed that I could not bear to have it ruined and I have avoided all links to the film that has been made of the first novel.
Penny has written 11 books in the series, each one focusing on a different murder or disappearance. The books have a strong timeline and woven subtly through the series are references to a subplot that gradually takes shape and which ultimately explodes seriously damaging the Sûreté, Gamache and his team. I would rate each novel in the series as a minimum 4 bite and several as the full 5 bite.