1The present collection of essays evokes the way characters migrate from books to audiovisual media (films and TV), from one period to another (the obvious example would be an ageing Sherlock Holmes living in 1924 in Laurie R. King’s novels, or a younger one in 2012 in the Sherlock BBC series) or from one place to another (Holmes in New York City in the Elementary TV series). Instead of focusing on one specific character’s name (Sherlock Holmes) this contribution will consider a more general definition based on functions, status and expected events. The resulting figure called The Sleuth proves sufficiently stable for the analysis of its variations and permanent traits and the comparison reveals several converging characteristics within a short period (2000-2014) on the levels of gender, social status and the original position of the civil servant in Anglo-American fiction. As a consequence, the corpus under examination may seem larger than the usual ones: it is actually a “small” selection among the early twenty-first century TV series based on the character of the detective that American fiction usually calls “the sleuth”. British series offer more than a hundred and fifty episodes and American ones more than a thousand. Although one can enjoy seeing many of them, it is improbable one can see them all.
2This slightly different approach – from a specific person to a more general type‑insists on the way repetition and differences generate narration and meaning. Two typically traditional British series – Midsomer Murders (1993-2013) and Morse (1987-2013)‑provide an example of the way repetition and differences work in a series: when Chief Inspector Barnaby retires, he is replaced by his own cousin whose name is naturally the same, Barnaby. In France the series thus keeps the title Barnaby although it refers to two different men: Tom Barnaby, played by Neil Dudgeon, succeeds blue-eyed John Barnaby (John Nettles) with a new wife, a different house and a different past. But all the rest (narration, people, environment, genre, etc.) remains exactly the same and Tom and John Barnaby both seem to embody the basic British sleuth. Rhetoricians would call this an antanaclasis: the same word points to a different referent, as in the sentence “the King is dead, long live the King”, in which two different kings are mentioned, as well as two different statuses of the “king”, as a person and as an institution. Sherlock Holmes, the man, is replaced by the ever-present figure of the “Great Detective”, the sleuth.
3The second example of antanaclasis is only slightly different: this time, the same name –Lewis – points to the same man, but his function and status change drastically when Morse dies. Lewis was Morse’s assistant and he becomes Hathaway’s superior. With Morse he was the poorly educated plain cop from Newcastle used as a foil to his chief’s dilettante highbrow elegance; after Morse’s death he still is a foil to another character, but this time he valorizes Hathaway, his complex and brilliant Cambridge educated assistant in what shall be found to be a typical articulation between official power and real efficiency: same name, same character, but different context and relationships. My point here is that, symmetrically, the sleuth’s name and its embodiment are often changed but their narrative mechanics remain the same. In other words, this article will deal with differences among repetitions and vice-versa.
4In the huge sleuth story, small details standout from the expected routine. I first shall suggest a few tools to analyze sleuths in recent British and American series. Then I shall simply compare two lists of series, British and American. With a few exceptions such as BBC’s Luther, one may note a relative unity and feelgood factor which, in the context of our rather depressing period, may account for the impressive success of the theme. Finally, I shall concentrate on three aspects of these TV sleuths: social status, gender and the position of the Public Servant.
5This description may seem familiar to readers who work on crime narratives. Typically, each character can be classified according to four distinct features: a) the sleuth is a person, mostly pictured as a general type, such as the grumpy bachelor (Morse), the depressed wife, the arrogant lawyer, etc…. b) He (or she) is an agent in the story according to the whodunnit model. c) He is part of a larger saga (fiction) since sleuths are generally created by drawing on reminiscences of previous figures (Holmes becomes Patrick Jane). All these sleuths themselves are based on everyday-life (reality) experience. d) Finally, the sleuth triggers the spectator’s expectations on the level of genres and sub-genres.
6Thus, the character of the sleuth can be studied on four levels: on the first one, he is a person with the psychological attributes of the literary character. For example, Holmes is eccentric, either nervous or apathetic, a Victorian bachelor, etc… Morse is a grumpy womanizer who drinks a lot but never pays for his beer... And so on. Each sleuth is carefully created as any character in a nineteenth-century novel.
- 1 See Tzvetan Todorov, “Typologie du roman policier”, in Poétique de la prose, Paris, Points, 1971 an (...)
7On a second level, the sleuth provides a narrative structure based on the whodunnit investigation and riddle solving. All the series respect Todorov’s whodunnit square: [victim, sleuth, suspects, killer].1 A great majority of episodes start with a murdered body and they end with the identification of a killer. Here is the typical pattern of an episode from incipit to ending: the usual incipit (of more than a thousand episodes) regularly shows a body, the arrival of the investigating team, the medical collection of traces and the first interviews. Then comes the “story” itself (about 40 minutes) usually with at least a double plot (investigation plus human relationships) until its ending which includes a specific thematic closure among characters, sometimes a redemption picture, an identification of the murderer and its sanction. Usually (but not in the CSI–acronym for Crime Scene Investigation–series), the actual murderer in each episode appears physically early on among the witnesses and the viewer is thus able to identify him or her. What is amazing is that hundreds of less than one-hour episodes tell this same story again and again and that they remain among the most watched TV programmes every day.
8On the third level of the “season” arc, the ever-present sleuth belongs to a larger text, both in fiction and in real life. His attitudes, his environment or his activities closely correspond to a professional equivalent model in real life in London, Paris or Manhattan, according to the well-known descriptions of the profession (structure of their teams, everyday routine and missions). This simple imitation pattern is a very strong and stable tool for the storytelling itself.
9Lastly, each specific sleuth is himself a subgenre marker working like a label announcing the story to come. Here are two examples: George Gently’s 1964 Britain is both nostalgic and bittersweet, whereas Rick Castle’s New York City is women centered, festive and not very interested in likelihood. Gently tells a greyish all-male chronicle, whereas Castle is a glossy picture of a futile man treated as an “object” by strong competent females (mother, lover and daughter).
10Character, structural agent, real-life image and genre marker: all four levels of existence of “the sleuth” are constantly visited by the series, but each element is highlighted or emphasized differently. And, of course, film and TV sleuths are embodied by actors, with their familiar faces, objects (Columbo’s mackintosh, Morse’s Jaguar…) and voices.
11Let us now consider a list of actual series, potentially the largest narrative corpus ever. British series are very different from American ones, with a few exceptions, on both sides, such as the American Murder She Wrote, in the British Miss Marple tradition, or Case Histories, which follows the American Hammett-Chandler private investigator pattern. I shall consider ten British series and ten American ones.
- 2 One should note the difference between closed episodes (which offer a solution at the end of one or (...)
12The three recent Holmes series, namely the period piece Holmes with Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock (“A New Sleuth for the twenty-first century”, set in London) and Elementary (in twenty-first century New York City) which are more or less based on Conan Doyle’s stories; John Thaw’s Morse from Colin Dexter’s Oxford-based novels, or Midsomer Murders already provided a large panorama of the character’s migrations. But this study will also focus on even more recent post-2000 series and, of course, one cannot forget the canonic Hercule Poirot with David Suchet and Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple (Agatha Christie) as prototypes.
- 3 See David Bishop, The Complete Morse, 2002-2008, London, Reynolds & Hearn.
13The seven other prominent recent British series include the following. At first, the TV series Morse was adapted from thirteen novels by Colin Dexter.3 Then it developed into thirty-three ninety-minutes episodes which were followed by their sequel, Lewis and the prequel, Endeavour (nine episodes so far) about Morse’s arrival in Oxford when he was in his twenties. The other ambitious series is Midsomer Murders (with Chef Inspector Barnaby) from stories by Caroline Graham (nine novels) with sixteen seasons so far (ninety-five ninety-minute episodes). The detectives are quite different in the novels, particularly Barnaby’s assistant Troy, who is arrogant and spiteful. The three other series of the sample are: The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, novels by Elizabeth George, 23 episodes; A Touch of Frost adapted from novels by R.D. Wingfield, 42 episodes, and Inspector Gently, from novels by Alan Hunter, five seasons. These, again, last at least ninety minutes.
- 4 Wallander, with Kenneth Branagh, does not belong to this corpus since it is a British version of th (...)
14The above ten series remain, albeit moderately, feelgood stories. However, one can also find a second type of British sleuth which seems very American indeed, borrowed from the Chandler-Hammett tradition: I already mentioned the best example, Case Histories (BBC1), adapted from Kate Atkinson’s novels in which the bittersweet story is centered on private detective Jackson Brodie in Edinburgh (only nine episodes) and his inability to cope with women. In the same vein, in Wire in the Blood, based on novels by Val McDermid, Tony Hill (Robson Green) is a “clinical psychologist” in West Yorkshire (24 episodes on ITV, 2002-08). In DCI Banks, with Stephen Tompkinson, based on novels by Peter Robinson, Banks is obviously a Detective Chief Inspector (2 seasons, 28 episodes from 2010, set in Leeds). Even more violent and depressing, Luther (TV writer Neil Cross) may be considered an exception or a counter example in my description. It is gloomy, violent, with Luther himself proving unhappy and unable to prevent the worst.4 A first analysis of this list of popular series shows a few interesting points they have in common concerning authors, titles, real life material, official status and the sleuth’s private life. Although the character migrates, he retains a few consistent traits of character.
15Authors and feelgood atmospheres: with the only exception of Luther, all British series are adapted from successful crime novels. The novels themselves belong to a feelgood Christie tradition and the reader knows that the sleuth must succeed in the end. Incidentally, some of Caroline Graham’s Midsomer Murders prove much darker than the TV series and they can be very sarcastic indeed (viz. Faithful Unto Death).
16Titles: Midsomer Murders is the only title which does not mention the name of the sleuth as a label. All the other ones associate the detective’s name with the series. The character’s name works as a familiar label within a broader frame of whodunnit expectations.
- 5 An extreme case of hierarchy (Patta) blocking the detective’s work is at the core of Donna Leon’s A (...)
17Real life material: in the Holmes and Poirot tradition, all the series are based on teamwork with real life imitation. All official Inspectors have an assistant whose personality is part of the story, particularly because of class consciousness (Lewis, Gently and most of all Lynley). The British hierarchy is always reluctant and they will try to prevent the sleuth from investigating properly.5
18Status: older stories valued private detectives such as Holmes, Poirot and Miss Marple, whereas current ones, apart from Case Histories and its Hammett-Chandler-like Brodie, show only Civil Servants: Morse, Lewis, Barnaby, Lynley, Frost, Luther and Gently. The British Chief Superintendent is often ridiculous (particularly in Morse’s prequel Endeavour) compared with American chiefs who are difficult but respected, viz The Mentalist’s or Castle’s lady Chiefs.
19Concerning their private life, the Barnabys (Tom and John) and Lynley (albeit for a short time) seem to be the only “happily married” men, whereas all other sleuths are either bachelors (sometimes happy ones, like Morse), or more or less sullen widowers (Frost, Gently, Lewis, Patrick Jane).
- 6 In buddy movies (apparently) ill-assorted couples are bound to investigate together, such as in fil (...)
20The traditional series, like Murder She Wrote, with Angela Lansbury (Ariadne Oliver as self-proclaimed detective, the would-be mastermind who serves as a foil to Poirot) and the famous “inverted whodunnit” of Columbo with Peter Falk, seemed inspired by the British model. But the American series of the twenty-first century carefully avoid this conventional British pattern and offer two main trends: the team stories of the “cop shows” with official inspectors, and their close variation with a provocative “special advisor” in the buddy movie tradition.6 These series use both the “cop show” pattern and the private adviser as protagonist. Here is a very limited list beginning with regular Cop shows described according to the pattern already used for the British series: NYPD Blues (261 episodes); CSI Crime Scene Investigation (273 episodes); Cold Case (156 episodes); The Closer (109 episodes); Criminal Minds (186 episodes) deals with a group of FBI profilers who mostly work like any cop show team.
21In “buddy series”, instead of official detectives, the protagonists are private “advisers” in the Holmes-Lestrade tradition. It seems that British series show a team with a chief who is the actual protagonist, whereas American ones promote the assistant. “Buddy” series include Castle, with Richard Castle, the imaginative, rather vain and affluent writer, approximately 120 episodes; The Mentalist (a modern Holmes?), six seasons, about 125 episodes to date; Unforgettable (a lady assistant with a superhuman photographic memory); Bones (paleontology as a method of crime investigation), nine seasons, more than 100 episodes; Rizzoli and Isles, based on novels by Tess Gerristen, 4 seasons, 55 episodes so far, two women, Italian versus Irish, a detective plus a doctor, both public servants; Elementary, CBS, from 2012, 2 seasons, 38 episodes and Body of Proof, in which the protagonist, Megan Hunt, is the forensic expert (from 2011, 42 episodes).
22But, contrary to the Holmes pattern, all these advisers are dominated by a public servant with whom a love affair is often suggested. On the border of our investigation, Person of Interest, Jonathan (Christopher’s brother) Nolan’s variation of preventive inquest plays on two levels: it uses a machine in order to announce and prevent crime and the “buddy movie” couple is replaced by a trio: the intellectual machine man + the handsome action hero + the official coloured woman cop. Let us now examine the American list as we did for the British one before.
23Authors: apart from Rizzoli and Isles and Bones (Kathy Reich), if I am not mistaken, all these series are original stories for the TV networks.
24Titles: with the prominent exception of Columbo, only private “advisers” provide the titles of some series. The other series point to a group (NYPD), a method (CSI, Crime Scene Investigation suggests forensics), a past object (Cold Case) or an attitude (In The Closer, Brenda is supposed to “close” cases very quickly). Incidentally, The Closer is the only American title alluding to an official (civil servant) protagonist (contrary to British series). Each conventional story implies a (rather small) difference with the other ones. For example, in the “cop show” series, the three CSI (Experts) will focus on technical achievements, tiny physical traces and local idiosyncrasies. If forensics belongs to the basic Holmes tradition, in CSI the recurrent whodunnit element remains typically poor.
25On the same technical basis Cold Case investigates the traces of very old crimes whose protagonists are still living. The interest of the story lies in the double image (past and present) of the same characters but one may find that a beautiful theme is spoilt by a short format (The True Detective is more rewarding because it takes its time to develop). The Closer is a rather subtle study of intricate administrative rivalry in which the sleuth (Brenda) is a woman facing all possible handicaps with an expected and thus invigorating success. The sleuth becomes a mere label for a type of extremely codified stories but he or she remains a focus figure for both identification and observation. To the familiar whodunnit square we already mentioned [victim / suspect / murderer / sleuth], one may add a pentagonal pattern including positive, ambiguous and hostile characters. A clear distinction between permanent and episodic functions arises from the opposition between the season arc and the episodes closure. Here is a possible description of the character structure of the sleuth stories:
The constant professional group around her or him (team, officials…). Top chiefs often last only one or two seasons (Castle, Mentalist…).
Constant or episodic personal group (family, lover, close friends…).
Episode group of potential suspects.
Episode enemy / permanent enemy (Moriarty figure).
26Here are two examples of initial patterns: solitary Inspector Gently works with Bacchus, his ambitious but unreliable assistant. Gently has no family, no friends, no archenemy. The Closer shows the opposite situation where too many people interact: Brenda’s husband works for the rival FBI organization, she has no immediate assistant but a plethoric unreliable team, her only enemy is the whole structure itself, etc…
27On the narrative level of structural agents the sleuth depends on the tone and the specific mood of his or her series. More precisely, the spectator’s expectations range from the pure whodunnit structure (Miss Marple) to the loose investigation used as a pretext for comedy (Castle), action (CSI in Las Vegas) or social picture (Gently). Some series will alternate their stress on each sort of focus (comedy, social picture, action, riddle solving…). For example, some episodes of The Closer (and its sequel Major Crimes) are pure grotesque comedy (clownish side assistants) but others are almost melodramas (one is about cancer). This may be due to the typical variety of episode writers.
28Genre effects. The description of the sleuth narrative seems to imply total closure, leading to a form of easy prediction in any episode according to its subgenres, but things may prove a little more complicated. In the Castle series, the episode called The Lives of Others (season 5, episode 19) tells the usual double plot following Kate Beckett’s “official” criminal case together with Rick Castle’s personal story (family, mother, daughter etc…). As Castle is blocked in his flat with a broken leg, the Rear Window pattern is soon obvious, but nobody seems to believe Castle’s version of his “serious crime” story. This creates an interesting generic ambiguity: it is then difficult to decide whether Castle is right (did he witness a real murder like Hitchcock’s Jeff?) or not (was it a comic illusion?). Both stories seem possible according to the subgenre they call for, Beckett’s crime investigations or Castle’s posh comedy. The answer confirms the strict conformity to generic rules: Castle was the victim of a friendly plot to celebrate his birthday and all the other characters built a paranoid story for him, reminiscent of The Game (Fincher). Rick Castle, a comedy character, could not really be involved in a serious crime story.
29Each story is situated in space and time but there is an obvious difference between the attitudes towards “realism”: Midsomer Murders seems to present a very colourful picture of village life in traditional Britain, but there is something very artificial in its systematically perverse caricatures and the murders themselves are totally outlandish. The series relies on the Poirot-Marple tradition, with the addition of superb pictures of an idyllic timeless countryside. The Closer offers a totally different picture with a constantly moving frame showing people speaking in offices and cars (CSI). Many series (Castle, Unforgettable, The Mentalist…) do show actual pictures of town life, but the storyline itself alters any pretention to “real life” pictures. On the contrary, Morse’s Oxford pretends to show the town and its community, but in the series Oxford life itself seems a little out of the world. This suggests a typology of the status of the diegesis in each series and one may ask three questions: what is the nature of the settings (town, village, offices…)? Is it visible or suggested? Was it filmed on location or in a studio? What is the general tone of the series: realistic, comedy or mere action? Is the referent setting only a decor (Midsomer) or a theme in itself (Frost)? Thus, Gently seems to combine an ambivalent picture of the 60s, at the same time a nostalgic atmosphere and the image of an openly racist, homophobic and very chauvinistic decade. It offers a study in social relationships as well as the expected riddle.
30The British sleuth himself is part of this system of [setting/tone/referential] relevance. Several types of sleuth can thus be described: traditional ones did not actually belong to their social environment. For example, one can start with eccentric and aristocratic Holmes (with his brother Mycroft); similarly, Poirot was a rather exotic foreigner whereas Miss Marple was a well-integrated old lady. More recent sleuths can be totally different from their suspects’ milieu, following Columbo who was Italian and definitely out of Hollywood’s aristocracy. In our corpus, Thomas Lynley, aka Count Asherton, is a British Lord opposed to his lower-class assistant Barbara Havers, but conventional Tom Barnaby belongs to his Causton community. A last group is provocatively plain English, like Frost or George Gently, but they always succeed in the Poirot tradition.
31Most of these male sleuths are not particularly sexy, whereas American special advisers like Patrick Jane or Richard Castle seem to attract women. Lastly, Luther is the only British coloured sleuth. American series are far more mixed, but I did not find any title pointing to an African American sleuth protagonist. In Britain, one remembers the reluctance of producer Brian True May when he was asked to introduce coloured people in his Midsomer series. He argued that there were no coloured people in real life Causton…
32Although most traditional whodunnit writers were originally women, their sleuths were almost always men, with the exception of the elderly Miss Marple, whose “weak” points (she is old, she lives in a village and is neither rich nor powerful) were used to enhance her wits in the typical Holmes-Poirot tradition. In Britain, the male detective is at best helped by a female assistant (see Barbara Havers in the Lynley series or Broadchurch’s conflicting couple) or a medical expert (Lewis, Murdoch, Kate Wilding in the second Barnaby). Both Lewis and Murdoch (the late 19th century Canadian detective) are in love with these female pathologists. Within the sleuth’s family, women are not very well treated, even though Tom Barnaby’s conventional and naïve wife (Joyce) was replaced by John Barnaby’s younger wife, an active and free speaking teacher (Sarah Barnaby).
33Things are quite different in American series with an interesting range of women sleuths or protagonist advisors. In the mainstream CSI and Criminal Minds teams, the boss is a man but women can be very efficient too. I tend to think these older series aim at a mainly male audience, but something new seems to emerge: women protagonists can either be advisors with special powers (in Unforgettable Carrie Wells “suffers” from total memory‑hypermnesia‑and can recall every detail of what she saw), or actual chiefs of their department, as in Cold Case (Lily Rush). But Carrie’s memory belongs to the Marple tradition (her gift “compensates” her being a woman) and Lily’s position seems of no vital importance. In Elementary (Sherlock Holmes in New York), “Watson” is an Asian woman surgeon who is paid for nursing a convalescing drug addict. But Rizzoli and Isles is about a female couple.
34Lisbon’s case in The Mentalist is much more interesting. Officially she heads her CBI department in Sacramento, but Patrick Jane remains totally independent in the Holmes tradition and he does exactly what he wants. What is new here is that Lisbon is good, brave, very likeable and that the spectator is often meant to identify with her. In The Mentalist, the woman is in charge but she must cope with the “feminine” figure of blond, capricious and attractive Jane (a girl’s name). From Lestrade or Japp’s times, seen as ridiculous objects, the focus changed in favour of women, seen as likeable (but thwarted) subjects. And Captain Gates, one of Lisbon’s chiefs, is also a coloured, impressive and efficient… woman.
35At first, The Closer may seem conventional, with its cop-show structure and very poor settings of routine offices and plain streets. But this time the title of the series points to a female sleuth who not only heads her department but is systematically successful in her cases (from the start she is “the closer”). The stories rely on her choleric, stressful character and the subtle intricacy of multi-layered administrations, from local town to federal FBI, office rivals (the comedy of who works in which office) and above all, the constant suspicion of a woman Captain (Sharon Raydor) who is actually to replace her. In The Closer, the normal team averages ten people, but within this almost macho picture of the woman prototype, Brenda always wins with the spectator’s total approval.
36My last example asks a different question: does the story focus on the man’s or the woman’s point of view? All English series are male centered. CSI is group centered but the chiefs are always males. The Mentalist is more ambiguous because Jane is mostly seen as an object (a woman’s landscape, as Laura Mulvey would have it). But with Bones, Body of Proof and above all Castle, it is not only the police chief (Kate Beckett) who is a female, but the tone of the story, the way men and women are shown which are definitely seen from a feminine point of view. Even though the series is more entertaining than instructive, the gender image in Castle is reminiscent of the great Kate Hepburn / Cary Grant screwball comedies.
37A rather surprising constant feature in both British and American series of the last ten years is that most current sleuths are public servants. If one excepts the four “special advisers” series in which even the protagonists work within the police administration, all thirteen current sleuths in my sample (if one counts the three CSI versions) belong to the official police‑either local, State police or special brigade (FBI, CBI…). In American series the administration Chief can be an ally (albeit reluctant) and difficulties tend to arise with other teams investigating the same crime (FBI, Local Police, politicians…) and the worst obstacle is the private lawyer in the American judicial system. First, this affords a great regularity in patterns with the same roles: chief inspector, sergeants, medical expert, ordinary policemen in uniforms plus higher politicians (British MPs, American mayors…) and the ever-threatening lawyers. Second, the sleuth’s performance is not financially rewarded and money is other peoples’ business. Third, the drab, ill-smelling police quarters are often replaced by rather pleasant open space offices (Castle, Mentalist, CSI…). Thus, on the whole, the general image of the public service is rather a positive one, even though no explicit allusion is made. Even in the post Thatcher-Reagan period the TV sleuth is a modestly efficient public servant. This might be a comfort for a slightly different kind of public servant, the average university civil servant himself. At least, every night, on our TV screens, somebody seems to achieve something without thinking of his or her monetary reward.
38Hollywood happy endings allowed classical directors to offer a rather accurate picture of their times using the middle part of the film to show things as they were. The sleuth TV series might play the same game with a small difference: their systematic resolution and redemption of the protagonists allow a certain amount of violence and real images of society, but the spectator is mainly relieved with the comfort of an episode answer and the reassurance of a season continuity. Some series are merely successful entertainment (Castle), others are very amusing but with a purpose (The Closer) even though a few important ones prove much more ambitious (The Wire). But what strikes me most is both obvious and unsaid: there is no story without at least one dead person and the image of death has become an everyday routine for billions of people around the world.