Armchair Detectives Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

When Edgar Allan Poe began writing mystery stories during the 1840’s, he not only inadvertently created the template for a new literary genre—detective fiction—but he also introduced the first armchair detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Dupin solves crimes that the police cannot. In “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842), set in Paris but based upon an actual murder near New York City, Dupin obtains his information from newspaper accounts. The story is made up of summaries of those articles by Dupin’s housemate, who serves as has chronicler, and Dupin’s commentary and conclusions. This first armchair detective and his descendants gather information primarily at second hand, rather than through personal observation. They succeed by using their intellects, intuition, and logical reasoning powers, which Poe called ratiocination, to deduce solutions. Sedentary chaps, armchair detectives rarely visit crime scenes or interview witnesses and suspects themselves. Unlike their descendants, however, Dupin and his chronicler are undeveloped and shadowy figures, although Dupin’s unnamed, loyal amanuensis clearly has limited intellect and imagination.

In a footnote to “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” Poe writes that the story was composed at a distance from the scene of the atrocity, and with no other means of investigation than the newspapers afforded. Thus much escaped the writer of which he could have availed himself had he been upon the spot and visited the localities.

Early in the story, Dupin’s housemate and chronicler says that he “procured, at the Prefecture, a full report of all the evidence elicited,” along with copies of every newspaper containing “any decisive information in regard to this sad affair.” After the two men review the news reports, Dupin asks his unnamed friend to check the validity of affidavits while he examines the newspapers “more generally than you have done.” His associate, however, fails to see the object of Dupin’s efforts.

Baroness Orczy

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Not until half a century later did another writer utilize Poe’s armchair detective prototype. Between 1901 and 1925, Baroness Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner appeared in thirty-eight tales. Her unnamed sleuth passes his time in a London tearoom, where Polly Burton, a novelist-turned-newspaperwoman, often sees him. Described as “timid and nervous as he fidgeted incessantly with a piece of string,” the old man gleans his knowledge of crime cases mainly from newspaper accounts and recalls facts and dialogue with amazing precision. His analyses for skeptical Polly are in the Dupin and Sherlock Holmes tradition, focusing upon minutia that the police miss. He works cases backward until, through ratiocination and intuition, he arrives at solutions. He states, “There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided that intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation.”

Most of the cases that the Old Man shares with Polly are set in Victorian and Edwardian London. He tells Polly that money is the key to nine criminal cases out of ten. In “The Lisson Grove Mystery,” a young woman and her boyfriend murder and dismember her father to get his recently inherited estate. In “The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway,” a destitute husband poisons his wealthy wife. In “The York Mystery,” the Old Man concludes that a doting wife has killed her husband’s blackmailer, though the crime remains, as Polly thankfully reports, “a mystery to the police and the public.” The conventional methods of the police are inadequate when...

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Agatha Christie and Others

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Agatha Christie was among those who, in the wake of Holmes and Orczy, wrote about armchair detectives. Her armchair sleuth is Miss Jane Marple of the bucolic English village St. Mary Mead. In The Thirteen Problems (also called The Tuesday Club Murders), a 1932 collection, Marple sits by her fireplace knitting—recalling Orczy’s Old Man sitting and knotting string—while various friends describe cases of murder, smuggling, and other diversions from their experiences. After a worldly professional vainly attempts to solve a crime, the old spinster draws parallels between a present problem and things from the past, considers suspects—guided by her belief that human nature is unchanging—and arrives at solutions.

Christie’s second attempt at an armchair detective appears in a 1934 volume of twelve stories, Parker Pyne Investigates (Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective in the United States). A “happiness consultant” or Miss Lonelyhearts, Pyne offers his services as a detective through newspaper advertisements. After listening to clients’ woes, he turns to a stable of helpmates for assistance in restoring their happiness, jewels, or whatever they have lost.

Anthony Berkeley’s 1929 novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case, an expansion of his story “The Avenging Chance,” is a memorable example of armchair detection that John Dickson Carr included in his list of the ten best detective novels of all time in a 1946 essay. Similar in form to Christie’s The Thirteen Problems, Berkeley’s novel features the six amateur sleuths of the Crime Circle, one of whom is Berkeley’s detective Roger Sheringham. While talking about a murder case that Scotland Yard cannot solve, they review motives, develop theories, and finally reveal the...

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Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Another armchair detective of the 1920’s and 1930’s was Vincent Starrett’s Chicago bookstore owner George Washington Troxell, who appeared in stories such as “Too Many Sleuths” (1927). Like Boucher’s Ashwin, Troxell is an obese man who usually is ensconced in an oversized chair when a local police reporter, Fred Dellabough, comes to him with problems. Troxell thinks up possible solutions and sends Dellabough in search of supportive evidence. However, many of Troxell’s ideas prove to be wrong, so Dellabough goes on many futile errands. Troxell and Dellabough may be the prototypes for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Wolfe is another sedentary fat man, and Goodwin is his hyperactive assistant and chronicler in Rex Stout’s quintessential armchair detective novels.

Beginning with Fer-de-Lance in 1934, Stout wrote more than seventy novels and novellas about the successes of his rotund sleuth, who rarely leaves his Manhattan townhouse. While Wolfe meets clients and maintains a mutually beneficial relationship with the police, narrator Goodwin functions as Wolfe’s legs. By having his assistant play a major role in each novel, Stout finesses the inherently static nature of the armchair detective genre. In effect, he combines a largely cerebral whodunit form with another popular type, the hard-boiled detective. Goodwin becomes romantically involved with women, occasionally gets in fights, physically restrains suspects, and generally is the...

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Yaffe and Asimov

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Reminiscent of Orczy and Christie are James Yaffe’s eight “Mom” stories, which he published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine between 1952 and 1968. Yaffe used an unvarying formula: A New York police detective and his wife have dinner with his mother every Friday night, during which the mother invariably asks “So, Davie, how is work going these days?” After the detective tells her about a current crime, she asks three or four probing questions and proceeds to solve the mystery, not only through her uncanny ability to isolate clues from her son’s narrative, but also by drawing parallels between a present problem and her own experiences, much as Christie’s Miss Marple does. In his introduction to My Mother, the Detective (1997), a collection of the stories, Yaffe explains that when planning his first story, he made a choice:Mom would be an armchair detective. She would never visit the scene of a crime, grill a suspect, or, God forbid, look at a corpse. All her inquiries into murder would take place at her own dinner table. . . . Violent crime is outside the experience of most of us . . . but we are all familiar with the venal landlord, the crooked TV repairman, the good-for-nothing son-in-law, the beaten down wife, all these everyday morally imperfect types that Mom uses as analogies in solving her son Dave’s murder cases.

Yaffe also follows this pattern in four Mom novels that he wrote two decades after his first short story.

Hewing closely to the traditional template are Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers and Union Club stories of the 1970’s and 1980’s. These stories are formulaic narratives involving monthly meetings of a men’s club at which mysteries are introduced, discussed, and solved. At each dinner gathering, a guest introduces a mystery that the six Black Widowers attempt to solve. When they are stumped, their waiter Henry comes up with the solution. In “Yes, but Why?,” the sixty-third story in the series, Asimov departs from his formula by having Henry himself present the problem; however, the development of the narrative is otherwise unchanged. The professional, well-educated men ask probing questions and hit upon the solution, but as the story’s title suggests, identifying the motive is the focus of the story. Once again, Henry—as in the other stories—provides enlightenment.

Variations on Armchair Detective Stories

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

An example of the armchair detective genre that is both nonformulaic and memorable is Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951), in which her Scotland Yard inspector, Alan Grant, is confined to a hospital bed with a broken leg. Grant becomes interested in the historical mystery of whether King Richard III was responsible for the 1480 murders of his nephews, the princes in the Tower of London. Assisted by an American researcher, Grant accumulates evidence, develops theories, and resolves to his satisfaction the historical controversy about the king’s culpability. Colin Dexter uses the same gimmick in The Wench Is Dead (1989), in which temporarily bedridden Inspector Morse becomes intrigued by a nineteenth century murder, starts to doubt the verdict, and enlists his colleague Sergeant Lewis and a librarian to help him investigate the case.

In a number of novels and short stories that often are described as thrillers, Jeffrey Deaver adds a new twist to the armchair detective genre: Lincoln Rhyme. A feisty former forensics chief of the New York Police Department and a nationally known criminalist, Rhyme is a quadriplegic who can move only his head, shoulders, and left ring finger. Introduced in The Bone Collector (1997), Rhyme is confined to his bed—though he makes rare forays in a specially equipped wheelchair—and assists his former police colleagues by reviewing the case records and laboratory reports they bring to his room and guiding them, by telephone, as they search crime scenes. His room is better outfitted with scientific equipment than most small police departments. He relies extensively upon the legwork of policewoman Amelia Sachs. Because of Deaver’s creative concept of the armchair detective, his novels also are prime examples of the police procedural genre of the Ed McBain type as well as forensic thrillers in the Patricia Cornwell manner, and rivals both for the amount and sophistication of technical detail, characterization, suspense, and surprising plot twists.

Although not as popular as other whodunit types, armchair detective stories constitute a historically important subgenre whose elements are present in much of crime fiction. Further, the label “armchair detective” has come to refer to mystery readers who attempt to solve crimes along with their favorite fictional sleuths. That use of the term even inspired the title of a magazine, The Armchair Detective, which Allen J. Hubin launched in 1967.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Barzun, Jacques, and Wendell Hertig Taylor. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Classic compilation by two scholars who are voracious readers of mystery fiction, this book is useful as a bibliography as well as a guide to the genre.

Herbert, Rosemary, ed. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Essays and brief entries by many authorities cover aspects of the genre: authors, forms, terms, specific works.

Nehr, Ellen, ed. Doubleday Crime Club Compendium, 1928-1991. Martinez, Calif.: Offspring Press, 1992. Useful reference spanning more than six decades of books from a major publisher of crime fiction, with plot summaries and other information.

Queen, Ellery. Queen’s Quorum: A History of the Detective-Crime Short Story as Revealed in the 106 Most Important Books Published in this Field Since 1845. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1969. Some questionable conclusions notwithstanding, a useful historical guide and bibliographical source.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. 3d ed. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992. Superb and influential history and critical study of the genre by a respected critic and crime fiction writer.