Sherlock Holmes (right) and Dr Watson, by Sidney Paget (1901)

The gentleman detective, less commonly lady detective, is a type of fictional character. He (or she) has long been a staple of crime fiction, particularly in detective novels and short stories set in the United Kingdom in the Golden Age. The heroes of these adventures are typically both gentlemen by conduct and often also members of the British gentry. The literary heroes being in opposition to professional police force detectives from the working classes.[1]

Gentlemen detectives include amateurs, private detectives and professional policemen. They are always well educated, frequently have unusual or eccentric hobbies, and are commonly found in their natural environment, an English country house. This archetype of British detective contrasts with the more "hardboiled" counterpart in American crime fiction.

Early examples

Main article: Detective fiction § Beginnings of detective fiction

Gentlemen detectives appeared early in modern detective fiction, which began in the late 19th century.

C. Auguste Dupin, created by Edgar Allan Poe, is widely considered to be the first fictional detective in English literature.[2] He appeared in three short stories written in the 1840s: "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" (1842) and "The Purloined Letter" (1844).

Poe created Dupin before the word detective had been coined, but began many common elements of detective fiction: Dupin shares some features with the later gentleman detective. He was "…the first fictional detective of importance and the model for virtually every cerebral crime solver who followed."[3] More specifically, Dorothy L. Sayers noted that "Sherlock Holmes modelled himself to a large extent upon (Poe's) Dupin, substituting cocaine for candlelight, with accompaniments of shag and fiddle-playing."[4]

Dupin is French, not English, but is probably a gentleman. He comes from a once wealthy family but has been reduced "by a variety of untoward events" to more humble circumstances. He is entirely amateur and contents himself only with the basic necessities of life.[5] He lives in Paris with his close friend, the anonymous narrator of the stories. Like the much later Lord Peter Wimsey (see below), Dupin is a bibliophile, and met his narrator friend while both were searching for "the same rare and very remarkable volume" in an obscure library.[6] For hobbies, Dupin is "fond" of enigmas, conundrums, and hieroglyphics.[7] Dupin also bears the French title Chevalier,[2] meaning that he is a knight in the Légion d'honneur.

The classic British gentleman detective appears soon after Poe's Dupin. A gentleman amateur is the ultimate hero of The Moonstone (1868), a famous epistolary novel widely considered the first true detective novel in English. Its author, Wilkie Collins was a lawyer, and a close friend of Charles Dickens. Collins also used gifted amateurs in his earlier mystery novel, The Woman in White (1859).

In The Moonstone, Rachel Verinder is the only child of a rich, aristocratic widow. On her eighteenth birthday, she is bequeathed an enormous diamond; that night, this 'moonstone' is stolen from the country house of her mother, Lady Verinder. After local police are baffled, a Bow Street Runner called Sergeant Cuff is called in. Sergeant Cuff is honourable and skilful, but he is not a gentleman, and is unable to break Rachel's reticence about what is clearly an inside job.

The mystery is eventually solved by Franklin Blake, who is a gifted amateur—and definitely a member of the gentry. The social difference between Collins' two detectives is nicely shown by their relationships with the Verinder family: Sergeant Cuff becomes a great friend of Lady Verinder's steward (chief servant), whereas Franklin Blake eventually marries Rachel, her daughter.

Sherlock Holmes

The most famous of all fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes, may also be considered a gentleman, at least by background. Holmes was the creation of Scottish author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He appeared in four novels and fifty-six short stories, all but four stories narrated by his associate, the notable Dr Watson. These works cover in fiction a period from around 1878 up to 1907, with a final case in 1914. Both characters also appear in many pastiches.

Holmes is a brilliant London-based and self-styled consulting detective. In their debut (the 1887 novel, A Study in Scarlet), he tells Watson that this occupation is unique (which at that date it was). As a retired army doctor, Dr Watson is far closer to the stereotypic English gentleman than Holmes, yet has no social reservations about beginning his long association with the detective. In the best traditions of the gentry, Holmes proves to be physically brave, and competent with fists, sword and pistol. Like the earlier Dupin and the later Lord Peter Wimsey (see below), Holmes is also a competent cryptanalyst (for instance, The Dancing Men, 1903).

Conan Doyle never gave much background about Holmes' family, but his hero was apparently born in 1854 (estimated from His Last Bow, 1917). He also has an eccentric older brother, Mycroft Holmes, a senior public servant and member of the Diogenes Club. As further indirect evidence that Holmes is an educated gentleman, Conan Doyle indicates that Holmes is fluent in Latin (A Study in Scarlet, 1887), and as the series continues his speech is replete with references to the Bible, Shakespeare, and even Goethe. Holmes had earlier attended university, where he began his detecting as an amateur (The Gloria Scott, 1893, and The Musgrave Ritual, 1893). A violinist himself, Holmes loves music (The Red-Headed League, 1890), sometimes to the point of eccentricity; in The Bruce-Partington Plans (1912), Watson reports that "Holmes lost himself in a monograph which he had undertaken upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus."

Holmes and Watson were often depicted wearing traditional gentleman's attire in illustrations set in London by Sidney Paget, whose illustrations accompanied Sherlock Holmes stories in The Strand Magazine. While Paget is credited with depicting Holmes wearing a deerstalker hat and Inverness cape, Paget only depicted Holmes wearing these garments in situations that would have been considered appropriate at the time, such as when Holmes was working in a rural setting or travelling to the countryside.[8]

Golden Age examples

The renowned crime writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction were mostly British and mostly women, including the four "Queens of Crime" (Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers). They all produced at least one gentleman detective. Their books featuring these characters are still generally in print.

Modern examples

Several modern day fictional characters may be considered examples of gentlemen detectives. Like Alleyn but unlike earlier gifted amateurs such as Wimsey, Campion or Miss Marple, several modern "gentleman detectives" are professional policemen.

Adam Dalgliesh, the creation of P. D. James, first appeared in 1962. He flourishes in the Metropolitan Police, despite being definitely gentry where such a background may be a disadvantage. Like the earlier Miss Marple, Dalgliesh is the child of an Anglican clergyman. He is somewhat of a recluse and, more eccentrically, a successful poet.

Cormoran Strike, the main character in a series of detective novels written by British author J. K. Rowling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith from 2013 on, and the novels' BBC television adaptations. A private detective, Strike had a bohemian upbringing as the bastard child of a rock and roll superstar and a groupie, and a veteran Royal Military Police Special Investigation Branch investigator. However, he was educated at Oxford (thouh he left without taking a degree) and has a series of affairs with aristocratic or wealthy women.

Inspector Morse, the subject of works by Colin Dexter, first appeared in 1975. He works in Oxford and is (or was) upwardly mobile: he won a scholarship to Oxford but subsequently failed. Like Alleyn and Wimsey, Morse served in the British army before joining the police, but unlike them, he served not as a commissioned officer in a prestigious regiment but as a non-commissioned officer in the Royal Military Police. Morse's snobbery is intellectual rather than a question of breeding or social advantage.

Detective Inspector Lynley, first introduced in 1988, is another truly aristocratic member of the Police, being an Earl. Much of the plot of the novels by Elizabeth George revolve around his working relationship with Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, who is of lower-class origins. Both show greater loyalty to each other than to official regulations and accepted attitudes to their relative stations, and both are capable of self-sacrificing actions of noblesse oblige.

Carmen Isabella Sandiego, the "World's Greatest Thief", was first introduced in 1985. She was originally ACME Crimenet's most intelligent and distinguished lady detective with a flawless record in solved cases. She got so bored, she changed careers as a lady thief and became spymaster and CEO of V.I.L.E., all just for the challenge.

Professor Layton from the video game series named after him. He first appeared in 2007. He is a professor of archaeology who solves various puzzles with his young apprentice Luke Triton.

Goro Akechi from the Atlus video game series Persona. Akechi is known as the Detective Prince of Tokyo who seems to solve various crimes and is adored whenever he shows up on TV. In 5, he's referred to as the second coming of the detective prince, a reference to Naoto Shirogane from 4.

Detective Inspector Alexandra "Alex" Drake (née Price), the well-bred, posh protagonist of Ashes to Ashes (2007–2009, mentioned in Life on Mars in 2006).[14] DI Drake, the orphaned daughter of a solicitor and barrister, was reared from adolescence by her parents' associate after she witnessed their violent deaths and narrowly avoiding being killed with them. She attended good schools and studied psychology before joining the Metropolitan Police and fast-tracking up the ranks. A gunshot to her head in 2007 sends her back in time to 1981, three months before her parents' murders, and places her in the company of comparatively Neanderthal detectives who had transplanted themselves from the North a year earlier.

Detective Sergeant Makepeace, Lady Harriet "Harry" Makepeace, one of the two eponymous characters of Dempsey and Makepeace (1985–1988). The well-schooled daughter of Lord Winfield, Lady Harriet is assigned as an armed detective sergeant in the Metropolitan Police's [fictional] specialised task force, SI 10, and finds herself partnered with (and subordinate to) working-class NYPD Lieutenant James Dempsey who is on extended loan to the Met.

Benoit Blanc, a detective depicted in the film Knives Out and its sequel Glass Onion, described by one of the film's characters as "The last of the gentlemen sleuths." He has a characteristic southern accent, and uses a unique technique of interpreting information he calls Gravity's Rainbow to solve crimes. Despite not being British, encompasses all the characteristics of the traditional gentleman detective.

Skulduggery Pleasant, a real gentleman detective and one of the main characters of the book series of the same name. He has an interesting look, considering that he is a skeleton, which he takes full advantage of. With his partner Valkyrie Cain and some magic, Skulduggery solves world-shattering crimes.

See also


  1. ^ quiteirregular (6 May 2013). "Gentlemen and Players: The Police and the Amateurs in Detective Fiction | quiteirregular". Retrieved 2014-01-02.
  2. ^ a b Silverman,Kenneth (1991). Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-092331-8.
  3. ^ C. Steinbrunner & O. Penzler (editors-in-chief). Encyclopedia of mystery and detection, 1976. New York: Prentice-Hall: p137
  4. ^ Dorothy L. Sayers (1929). Introduction (edited) to The omnibus of crime in Robin W. Winks (editor) (1980). Detective fiction: a collection of critical essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall: p58
  5. ^ Stashower, Daniel. The Beautiful Cigar Girl. New York: PenguinBooks, 2006: 20. ISBN 0-525-94981-X
  6. ^ Krutch, Joseph Wood. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1926: 108.
  7. ^ Rosenheim, Shawn James. The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing from Edgar Poe to the Internet. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997: 21. ISBN 978-0-8018-5332-6
  8. ^ Jusino, Teresa (26 December 2011). "Designing Sherlock: The Influence of Sidney Paget". Tor. Macmillan. Retrieved 13 September 2019.
  9. ^ Barbara Reynolds (1993). Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. London: Hodder and Stoughton. p. 361.
  10. ^ a b Greene, Douglas G. (editor) (1995). Alleyn and others: the collected short fiction of Ngaio Marsh. International Polygonics. ISBN 1-55882-028-0. (hardcover 1989, edition), ISBN 978-1-55882-050-0. ((cite book)): |author= has generic name (help)
  11. ^ ""The Great Detectives: Albert Campion" by Mike Ripley, Strand Magazine". Archived from the original on 2003-12-24. Retrieved 2008-11-10.
  12. ^ a b Marsh, Ngaio (1934). A man lay dead. Great Britain: Collins. ISBN 0-00-615591-X. (Fontana, 1960, edition)
  13. ^ Christie, Agatha (1977). An autobiography. Collins. ISBN 0-00-216012-9.
  14. ^ Awake in 2008, Sam Tyler records his notes onto micro-cassettes and asks a subordinate to post a tape to Psychological Services Branch. He explains that an officer there is studying colleagues like him who have undergone traumatic events, and that talking to her has been very cathartic to him. His transcribed notes are read by Alex's daughter Molly over the opening credits of Ashes to Ashes, whereupon Alex and Molly briefly discuss the books that Alex is writing about psychologically traumatised police officers in general, and Sam Tyler in particular.