Thursday, November 30, 2017

Sleuths: European and American

We just saw the movie “Murder on the Orient Express.” I found it quite entertaining. The cast included Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer and other luminaries. It received curiously mediocre reviews, both by the audience (IMDb) and by “experts” So be it. To me, it was lovely. Maybe I am prejudiced because I remember fondly taking the Orient Express as a child.

So then, I began to think about the whole genre - crime-fiction, the whodunit, and its central character, the sleuth, the detective, the private eye, the guy who solves crimes and chases down criminals.

I grew up devouring detective novels in Europe. One of my favorites was Commissaire Maigret. He was the quintessentially European detective, created by Belgian author Georges Simenon, who published over one hundred novels featuring this character. Maigret was with the Paris Sureté, the French national police.

Of course, I was also familiar with the all-time prototype sleuth - Sherlock Holmes, having read several of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, including unforgettable classics like the Hound of the Baskervilles.

And then there was the great private eye revived in the current Orient Express movie - Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. This creation, too, was eminently European - a Belgian private eye invented by a British author.

But I wasn’t partial. I was also an avid reader of American crime fiction, especially Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, the private eye who appears in at least twenty-six novels.

There were also the movies and (much later) television. I didn’t start watching TV until the 1960s. At no time did my family ever own a television before I moved out.

I never missed a film about Lemmy Caution: He was a tough and charismatic French private eye played by Eddie Constantine, an American expatriate who became hugely popular in France.

Later came Inspector Clouseau, the French buffoon-detective enacted by Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther series.

And then, there were all the American private eyes, beginning with Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart, The Maltese Falcon) and followed by Columbo (Peter Falk), Magnum (Tom Selleck) and countless others.

There is a distinct contrast between the two types of sleuths - European and American:

Take Poirot, brilliantly enacted by Kenneth Branagh in the recent  “Murder on the Orient Express.”: He is such a European type of detective, and he contrasts so much with his American counterparts. The two can be summed up in two words: brain vs. brawn!

The European sleuths tend to be cerebral, intellectual, chess-player types. The American private eyes are muscular, physical, hard-hitting, whiskey-guzzling, womanizing, fist-fighting toughs.

Simenon’s Maigret is an utterly bourgeois, long-married, aging house husband. He solves crimes through cunning, not fist fights. Same with Sherlock Holmes of course. Was the great British sleuth ever involved in a fist fight? I doubt it. When these men solve crimes, they approach the problem as if it were a game of chess - as does Hercule Poirot.

There are exceptions: Lemmy Caution, the Franco-American hero, does get into many fights and makes love to many women (a preview of James Bond). His most amusing characteristic is that he invariably comes out of the fiercest fights looking spic and span, without the slightest crease in his impeccable suit and tie. But he is a fighter.

Despite some cross-overs, I do believe that my point is valid: When it comes to the whodunit, murder/mystery genre, the European tradition tends to be that of the cerebral problem-solver, whereas American sleuths are much more physical.

In fact, there is now an increasingly popular subgenre within crime fiction, called Cozy Mysteries, which downplays sex and violence and focuses more on the problem-solving aspects. Is it a coincidence that this is happening at a time when more and more whodunits are written by women? 

But this is not a polemic. I’m not putting Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Commissaire Maigret above Mike Hammer and Sam Spade. How can one not give tough guy Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) an A+? I am just being a sociologist, noting a difference between European and American popular cultures.   leave comment here

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