As I explained in my previous column, the crime-fiction genre—not content with introducing wholly imagined private eyes, cops and part-time mystery solvers—has, over the last several decades, recruited many genuine historical figures into its plots. The majority of those have made cameo appearances or played secondary parts. But some have been cast as series snoops, detouring from the known timeline of their lives to pursue killers, kidnappers and assorted other troublemaking types.
Of that latter group, a number have acted as independent amateur detectives. Their numbers include singer Elvis Presley (the star of four mysteries by Daniel Klein, beginning with 2000’s Kill Me Tender), Edgar Allan Poe (who tackled a quartet of perilous cases by Harold Schechter, concluding with 2006’s The Tell-Tale Corpse), Jane Austen (who has featured in Stephanie Barron’s series, starting with 1996’s Jane and the Unpleasantness of Scargrave Manor), and even Queen Victoria’s playboy son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (who launched a stimulating gumshoeing career in Peter Lovesey’s 1987 novel, Bertie and the Tinman).
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But there’s another category of celebrity crime-solvers, as well: those who’ve been given regular allies—usually fabricated—who serve as sounding boards for the star’s investigative theorizing, or as energetic assistants ready to do whatever legwork is necessary and endure any bruises resulting from impertinent inquiries.
Peter J. Heck introduced America’s original media superstar, Mark Twain (aka Samuel L. Clemens), as a detective in 1995’s Death on the Mississippi. It was the first of six whodunits, all set during the late 1800s and early 1900s, boasting droll titles derived from Twain’s own. Although the author-humorist seemed fully capable of wielding wit as a weapon, it often fell in this series to Wentworth Cabot, his most recent and awestruck (fictional) secretary, to go where the easily recognized Twain could not, question eccentric suspects and provide a convenient target for his boss’ gripes and jibes. The last entry in Heck’s series, Tom’s Lawyer (2001), found Twain on a lecture tour in Missoula, Montana, where he stumbled across the boyhood pal on whom he had based Huckleberry Finn—a gent now suspected of homicide!
From the early Progressive Era, we leap back to mid-18th-century England, the setting for Bruce Alexander’s 11 lively mysteries showcasing Sir John Fielding, the blind magistrate who created the first London police force, the Bow Street Runners and was half-brother to novelist Henry Fielding. Kicking off with Blind Justice (1994), Alexander—whose real name was Bruce Cook—rolled out tales that made excellent use of the period’s bizarre practices and all-too-evident underworld. To compensate for his sightlessness, Sir John takes under his wing an orphaned teen, Jeremy Proctor, who becomes the narrator of these books as well as the magistrate’s “eyes.” This series ended with Rules of Engagement (2005), published after the author’s demise.
In the 1990s Ron Goulart penned a succession of mysteries that were also amusing send-ups of early Hollywood. He conceived film comedian Groucho Marx as the most wise-cracking of recreational shamuses—able to deliver punch lines while punching crooks in pre-World War II Los Angeles—and paired him in six novels with Frank Denby, a fictional police reporter turned radio scriptwriter, who plays Archie Goodwin to Groucho’s hyperactive Nero Wolfe. The actor never runs short of clever quips (“Not only is the game afoot, but my foot’s a little gamy”). And he even proves quite dexterous in a pinch, as when, in Groucho Marx, Private Eye (1999)—the second of these books, following Groucho Marx, Master Detective—he bounds from a bordello’s window with a key witness in tow. It’s only too bad that all this monkey business had to end with 2005’s Groucho Marx, King of the Jungle.
Victorian writer-poet Oscar Wilde nicely filled the amateur detective role in 1991’s Wilde West, by Walter Satterthwait (who also tested alleged murderess Lizzie Borden’s sleuthing skills in 1989’s Miss Lizzie). But Wilde has since signed up for regular duty in an atmospheric series by British author and former Member of Parliament Gyles Brandreth. Beginning with Oscar Wilde and the Death of No Importance (2007) and continuing through this year’s UK release, Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol, Brandreth has presented the rakish Irish playwright as an individual of extraordinary perspicacity. While other celebrity gumshoes rely on made-up associates, in this series, Wilde has Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle and his own real-life biographer, Robert Sherard, to turn to when he must suss out the truth behind locked-room slayings and vampire attacks, or decipher the clues in a severed hand.
A true-to-life partner is integral, too, to Daniel Stashower’s trilogy of period puzzlers starring illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini. In The Dime Museum Murders (1999), we find the Austrian-Hungarian-born Houdini, aka Erik Weisz, working diligently to become a successful New York City performer when he’s asked to assist police in figuring out who did in a toy tycoon. The egotistical Houdini soon decides that he’s the perfect candidate to solve this homicide, and with the reluctant aid of his younger, less prickly and far more street-savvy sibling Theodore, better known as “Dash” (and later to become a renowned magician in his own right), he sets off into 1897 Manhattan to dig up secrets that at least person will kill to keep.
Of course, numerous other famous figures have figured into modern mystery fiction. Queen Elizabeth I demonstrates an aptitude for crime-solving in The Poyson Garden (1999) and its sequels, by Karen Harper. Journalist-satirist Ambrose Bierce appears in a series by Oakley Hall (beginning with Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades, 1998). Author Josephine Tey teams up with a career detective in An Expert in Murder (2008) and three more recent whodunits by Nicola Upson. And Eleanor Roosevelt—yes, the former first lady—stars in a long-running sequence of historical yarns (among them, 1991’s A First Class Murder) composed by her son Elliott.
Since there are considerably more interesting folks who’ve died than are still kicking around this big blue ball we call home, it’s only reasonable to ask, which one of them will be the next to have a detective series of his or her own? Any suggestions?
J. Kingston Pierce is the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine, as well as a principal contributor to the new encyclopedic work, 100 American Crime Writers (Palgrave Macmillan).