Entertainment is fascinated by crime, and whether it's realized through television, movies, or novels, we all have our favorite crime fighters. The formula requires an engaging protagonist to challenge the malevolent antagonists, but which detectives are the true standouts, the truly dangerous ones? Ask yourself, if you were a criminal, who would you least want after you?
Recently, a slew of superheroes have owned the screen, but I'm not that interested in these latest manifestations, and for the purposes of this column, I'm focusing on the old-school human creations. What a wonderful thing it must be to invent an inspiring crime fighter who lasts through decades.
Sherlock Holmes was a favorite of mine as a boy. He was so engagingly flawed with his drug benders and criminal violin playing, his staunch celibacy, his peculiar yet endearing relationship with Dr. Watson, his calabash pipes and deer-stalker double-ended hats. I acquired examples of the last two at age 15 and actually smoked the appropriate English tobacco, sipping hand-milled coffee, all in the plaid cap, which I eventually gave to my father who was a handsomer version of Holmes with his gaunt face, lean nose, and strong cleft chin.
But would I be frightened to have Holmes after me? I see too many moods, anger-management issues, and an overly egocentric personality for him to be particularly intimidating. Some fiendishly devised false clues, and you'd have him booting assorted powders and wandering around in the London fog forever hallucinating Moriarity.
In Worcester, Mass., around 1968, I snuck into my first James Bond movie at age 12. I still remember most of it, particularly the Bond girl in the life raft, and for pure entertainment, it's difficult to outclass 007 with his penchant for specifically prepared alcohol and cuisine — I loved how he insisted on extra-thick toast with his soft-shell crabs—and his ability to single-handedly explode massive compounds protected by legions while walking calmly away seconds before disaster.
But daunting? Not really. Besides, single criminals defying detection weren't worth Bond's effort. Definitely a trophy game-fisherman-type.
Next Philip Marlowe strayed out of the Los Angeles haze, so touching with his incorruptible ethics, depression, solitary chess games, gin gimlets mixed with Rose's lime juice, and his fear of gorgeous females. Chandler's three pages describing the different types of dangerous blondes is immaculate prose, although Marlowe never ends up touching any.
But I think Marlowe is far too sensitive and emotional to be worrisome. Besides, he was continually being beaten up by cops. Not a threatening indicator for the smart criminal.
I'll bet some of you are already thinking Colombo. And he's good, no doubt about it — very good. Deceptive with his self-deprecating style, his terrier-like relentlessness, that annoying unlit cigar, the noticing of every tiny detail as he mutters off-putting comments about a variety of unrelated subjects, the filthy raincoat, the hunched walk, the wife whose existence we must question, and turning back just when you believed you were free. "If you don't mind, sir, I have just one more question... " He clears his throat, the cigar moves to the other side of his mouth as the intense eye stares, suddenly way too intelligent.
But Colombo has a weakness—his obsessive love for his battered Peugeot. He could easily be taken out by tampering with the car, which everyone expects will be his demise anyway. This might have already been tried in one episode, but no one could be that lucky twice. Exit Colombo.
Enter Poirot, the pigeon-walking penguin-like Belgian who is as vain as a ten-dollar oyster, and the last utilizer of mustache wax in Europe. Wonderful analytical brain without question, but I think his constant need to assemble the entire group and theatrically expose the villain is too much of an impediment. He'd keep postponing the moment if you could quietly disperse members of said group through any manner of inducements. You'd have plenty of time to escape.
My wife is always surprised that I can guess the murderer of every Agatha Christie pretty much at the beginning of the program. How do I do it? I pretend it's my intelligence, but in truth it's a trick and ridiculously simple—the criminal is consistently a star, not a supporting actor or actress. This limits the choices usually to one or two at the most.
That noise! Look up as someone crashes through the ceiling, then crashes through the floor, dusts himself off, miraculously unhurt. Ouch. It's that French bumbler Clouseau. How do you deal with a moron with the luck of a god? He's already driven another man insane. Dreyfus's twitching eye might well be the funniest facial tick in cinema history.
But I think the way to deal with Clouseau is to unhinge him by insisting he's a copycat of Poirot, and with the accent, the moustache, it's true after all. Doubtful that the Chief Inspector's formidable ego could handle it, and his luck would reverse.
I'm noticing a pattern so far, are you? These men all exist without serious relationships with women. Besides the promiscuous Bond and the suspect wife of Colombo, they simply don't enter into relationships with women. I wonder what the reason might be? No sex drive? No time? Too fictionalized?
During high school, I would occasionally watch To Catch a Thief on a 12-inch B&W TV, our only family TV, which my father won as a door prize. The reruns were broadcast at midnight on our only channel, and Al seemed pretty cool to me at the time. I actually purchased a strange dark blue—the material was some kind of netted plastic—chrome-snap leisure suit at J. C. Penny's that I hoped would make me feel slightly like Al. How do we survive the embarrassing memories from our teen years?
But why would a criminal be worried about being caught by Al Mundy? A former thief, he was hired by the government to steal, which seems pretty standard practice these days, hardly worthy of a TV show anymore.
I guess I should mention Magnum P. I., although who could possibly worry about a shrill pseudo-alcoholic in hot pants who drives the slowest Ferrari and seems delighted arguing with his butler while flaunting an oversized mustache? Again, notice no female relationships.
Jim Rockford has a slightly whiny and grumpy cool and a gaudy enough gold car, but I'd definitely rather have him after me than say Shaft or Dirty Harry. Shaft might be the exception to the no-female-relationship rule, which could be a concern, and Harry certainly has a huge gun. Sam Spade had some wonderful lines, with which Bogart rose to fame, but none of these would bring shivers of fear at the thought of them suspecting me, tracking me.
There is only one who has that capacity—and I find her terrifying.
Miss Marple. Jane Marple.
To begin with, the spinster is obviously bloody clairvoyant. And then she's so unassuming with her knitting and tea and gentle voice, you'd barely notice her, let alone worry she might be onto you. She seems to blend in with the tapestry of whichever room she's in like a chameleon. But notice how she continually pops up just at the wrong moment in the right place for no good reason. And she might be the only detective without a vice—no alcohol, no tobacco, no drugs, no corrupted violin playing, no Peugeot (the woman doesn't even drive!), no gloating over the size of her weapon because she doesn't need one. She does continue the trend of avoiding relationships with the opposite sex, but even that seems so wonderfully correct and considerate.
What could a criminal do against Jane Marple? One glance from those concerned eyes, and she knows everything about you—your past, your future, your slightest transgressions! She's so nice I'd probably just give myself up not to upset her. I imagine Jane patting me on the hand and saying, "Now, now, it's not all that bad. We all do things we regret sometimes. I'll sure you didn't really mean to kill him."
Beyond deadly! The woman is an absolute menace to crime.