Listening to vintage radio, you get a sense of how fleeting fame and popularity can be. There was a time when names such as Michael Shayne, John J. Malone, Philo Vance, Nick Carter, and Mr. and Mrs. North held a spot in the public imagination. Yet, today these names would be mostly unknown except to diehard fans of old mysteries.
On the other hand, if you mention Sherlock Holmes the recognition is universal. Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, ditto. So which detectives have been with us a long time and have come out from beneath the rubbles of historyfor their stories and characters to find new generations on a mass level.
The list of “immortal detectives” is short:
The Hardy Boys
Sherlock Holmes has survived so long because he’s definitively iconic reperesentative of what a detective is. He captures the imagination of writers who come up with new plots for him long after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stopped. And let’s not forget that the original stories were solid entertainment in their own right with no requirement of updating.
Father Brown survives because of the intellectual strength of the puzzles, as well as the many devotees of Chesterton among Catholics and other traditionalists.
Nero Wolfe survives through the fact that Stout, like Agatha Christie wrote his books over the course of several decades, allowing them to seep into the culture. Both the character of Wolfe and Archie, as well as the original mysteries written by Stout arrest the public’s imagination. The most recent Nero Wolfe TV series ended in 2002, and I don’t expect we’ve seen the last of Wolfe. Of course, Wolfe may inspire writers andproducers more than it does a mass popularity. There’ve been five Nero Wolfe radio shows, two movies, and two TV series, and the most successful version was the latest TV series.
The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew continue to be introduced to boys and girls at a young age. While the characters have changed quite a bit since they were introduced in 1927 and 1930 respectively, the never-ending supply of new books assures them a long life, and that movies and TV shows will emerge from time to time.
Poirot and Marple are the most enduring characters of the late Agatha Christie, and that has translated into numerous television adaptations that have been shown on PBS. Though, there have been other adaptations as well. Agatha Christie’s Great Detectives Poirot and Marple was a Manga and Anime adaption of the two characters’ adventures.
As to Sam Spade, he lives on as the prototype of hard boiled fiction. While there haven’t been any Spade movies since the Maltese Falcon and only one novel and a collection of short stories written by Dashiel Hammett, the character continues to live on through that film, a recent BBC radio production, and an even an authorized prequel novel, Spade and Archer. One big reason for Spade’s survival is that the Maltese Falcon is often read for its literary value in events such as The Big Read where a library group will read through the same book.
Philip Marlowe has inspired numerous film and television productions, the latest occurring in 1998 when James Caan took the role for Poodle Springs. The movies, the influence of Chandler, and the nature of Philip Marlowe as a “knight in tarnished armor” helps to keep him in circulation.
Mike Hammer’s survival is due to a combination of books, movies, TV shows, and the 1980s Television version which updated and iconisized Hammer for a new generation of fans. The success of doing that was in the longevity of Mickey Spillane, who was able to keep the character fresh through many years of change.
These ten have made it through at least 50 years of existence. Of course, it’s an open question as to how many of these will remain popular in 2060, and whether such detectives as Columbo, The Rockford Files, and Monk will still be remembered by the general public, or like so many other once-popular sleuths, be only remembered by the mystery superfans.