Thursday, September 16, 2010

Prehistory of Geekdom, part 5

Whodunit? Well, to find that out, you need a brilliant detective. And the first modern detective to appear in popular fiction was C. Auguste Dupin, drawn out of Edgar Allen Poe’s blood red imagination to catch a killer in the 1841 story Murders in the Rue Morgue.

It’s literally impossible to underestimate Poe’s influence on the mystery genre. Other writers before him had dabbled in the idea of protagonists using deductive reasoning, but Poe gives us the first true fictional detective. He also establishes the tradition of having the story narrated by a “Watson,” a less-brilliant but loyal sidekick.

But it still took a few more decades before the detective story became a regular part of popular fiction. As the 19th Century progressed, industrialization was bringing a greater percentage of the population into the cities. Thus, the Western and frontier heroes that were popular in dime novels needed to be supplemented by urban heroes. The detective rose again to fill this slot.

There were a gazillion or so different detectives working the dime novel beat: Old King Brady, the Old Sleuth, Harlem Jack, Round Kate and Old Snap—just to name a few. The most popular and long-lasting was Nick Carter. But in 1888, the dime novel coppers were instantly and forever overshadowed by Sherlock Holmes.

“A man who never lived, but will never die,” Orson Welles once said of Holmes. It’s true, you know. Holmes may be the most perfectly created fictional character ever—all his talents, skills, foibles and faults come together in perfect synergy. His influence overshadows even Edgar Allen’s creation. Writer Arthur Conan Doyle gave Holmes Dr. Watson as a loyal friend, plopped him down into a series of nifty mysteries, and changed geekdom forever.

It was from Holmes that we eventually got Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Ellery Queen. It was a reaction to Holmes’ influence that gave us hard-boiled writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And without Holmes, we wouldn’t have had that dark god to all geeks—Batman.

Unlike the Western, the detective story had never lost its massive popular appeal and the ranks of great detectives has grown long indeed. Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple might very well wield an influence that equals Holmes, but other skilled writers have also provided us with countless and only slightly lesser variations on the Great Detective theme.

And, by golly, we are lucky they did. It’s the detective story, mixed together with the adventure story, the Western, the horror story and the science fiction story, that give form to most comic book heroes and a lot of the geekier TV shows and movies.

I just mentioned the science fiction story, didn’t I? I guess we’ll stay in the 19th Century for one more chapter, as we have yet to talk about Jules and Hebert George. Those two—and those they influenced—play yet another key role in the creation of geeks.

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