The pleasure of the period-piece detective

poirot-suchetI think my interest in what might be called ‘period piece detectives’ started many years ago, when I watched the big screen version of ‘Death on the Nile’ featuring the wonderful Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot.  I stunned my wife (and myself) by actually solving the murder pretty early on.  Since then, I’ve been rather a sucker for TV series such as Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Miss Marple, Inspector Alleyn – those wonderful amateur sleuths (OK…Alleyn was a policeman but very much one of this crowd!) who seemed to outfox what Holmes would call ‘the official constabulary’ whilst inhabiting their particular period of history. 

And that’s where part of the attraction lies for me – the settings as much as the detection work.  If we leave Holmes out for this article – after all, the fellow is such a phenomenon that he deserves his own blog item at the very least – these detectives all work in the late 20s through to the early 50s.  In his excellent essay ‘Boy’s Weeklies’, in which he discussed the popular boy’s comics of his day, George Orwell wrote about the atmosphere used for some of the ‘School Stories’ in these magazines:

“…There is a cosy fire in the study, and outside the wind is whistling. The ivy clusters thickly round the old grey stones. The King is on his throne and the pound is worth a pound….Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same for ever and ever. That approximately is the atmosphere.”

And that’s how it often feels to me in the worlds of Marple, Poirot and Alleyn.  Murder most foul may be committed, but there’s almost always the return to status quo pro-ante– the situation that we started with.  Poirot, supported by Hastings, will use his little grey cells to apprehend the killer and deliver him in to the arms of Inspector Japp.  Miss Marple will intuit her way around the crime; Alleyn and Fox rely on good old fashioned detective work.  Murders have motives – no matter how strange they may appear to be.  Even in Poirot’s ‘The ABC Murders’ or ‘Curtain’, where it appears that there is a random serial killer on the loose, the murders are not what they seem.   Apart from the victims meeting their grisly end, violence is not common.  There’s no soul-searching, alcoholic detectives with deep emotional crises that will impede the investigation, very few shoot-outs.  The denouement delivers the criminal in to the arms of justice, and justice, not law, is seen to be served.

It’s hard to believe that there are wars and depressions happening, fascism is on the rise, then the onset of the cold war at the end of this period.  But that’s fine – I’m after a detective story to keep me engaged for an hour or two.  I have the real world with all these issues to come back to, after all!

In TV detective series that are set more recently, the closest is probably the popular ‘Midsommer Murders’, followed by ‘Inspector Morse’, although these both feature professional detectives rather than the gentleman (or lady) amateur.  But the ‘feel’ is the same – and long may these series continue to take me away from the modern, day-to-day world.

2 thoughts on “The pleasure of the period-piece detective

  1. “…There is a cosy fire in the study, and outside the wind is whistling. The ivy clusters thickly round the old grey stones. The King is on his throne and the pound is worth a pound….Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same for ever and ever. That approximately is the atmosphere.”

    I think that sums up the enduring appeal of the period-piece detective story perfectly.

    Watching one is like being transported to a different time and different place, where the world was somehow more orderly, despite the odd murder or two. The reader / viewer is secure in the knowledge that any wrong-doing will quickly be sought out, exposed and punished in an efficient and just manner by the detective at hand. The story will end with the world put to rights, both in the story itself and in the emotions of the reader / viewer.

    The period detective story is a safe haven, a gentle harbour from the realities of today’s uncertain, frightening and unjust world, with its troubling fears that the world is in total chaos with no-one in control of anything.

    Hercule Poirot will make everything ok again

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