Detectives Who, How & Why

Sherlock & Poirot



I responded to Calmgrove’s post, “Locked Room Cozy is a Page-turner” , making an observation on the nature of the whodunnit. This is pure speculation, but if we keep in mind that all forms of Mass Media contain values, beliefs and ideologies,  one can see how male biasesand values could shape the characteristics of mystery stories and the development of the literary detective.  I suspect that the whodunnit almost falls into male and female categories. Obviously readers and writers of both genders can move from the one type to the other. However the evolution of the genre appears to have evolved out of a societal-cultural role pattern and expectations. Early detectives, tended  to rely on the male preference for a mechanistic approach to solving the mystery. Their knowledge and observational skills concentrated on the how of the mystery.  In effect, the whodunnit is very often a process of discovering how it was done in order to catch the perpetrator of the crime.

Lady Detectives 3twq

 The early Lady Detectives  were written in the model of the male detectives, using their skills and knowledge in the same manner as their male counterparts.  Their advantage was in how society under estimated them and in their observation of things, most men would have considered inconsequential, the emphasis was on the how in order to arrive at the who.

In 1938, Zelda Popkin introduced Mary Carner, considered the first modern female detective

Male whodunnit – How-dunnit discovers the mechanics of the mystery.


Female whodunnit – Why-dunnit leads to the mechanics of the mystery.



Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple demonstrates a shift as observations about human behaviour  places more significance on emotions and motivations. The one detective figures out how it was done to discover who did it. The other detective investigates motive, the why, which leads to who. The who then helps provides the means of unravelling the method . Both detectives are essentially puzzle solvers who approach the puzzle from different sides.


The Hard Boiled detective follows a convoluted emotional path full of ethical grey areas. Lots of physical encounters, where action & threat are a metaphor for the detective’s emotional vulnerability. The solitary male detective follows a physical trail to the emotional heart of the mystery. The puzzle/mystery is cracked open (to crack the case); the detective seeks emotional whys in a hands on manner. The mystery always involves the eternal mystery of the dangerous/unattainable woman, Femme Fatale.



Black Mask - The Maltese Falcon








In the Noir world of the Hard Boiled Detective, women could be obstacles, goals,  and antagonists. Even so, the Lady Detective could play out the role of protagonist, as long as she followed the masculine path of the knight errant down the mean streets.








Bryan Hitch on Batman

Comicbook characters such as Batman are part of contemporary iconography – a modern mythology on which we project  values, beliefs & ideologies in the forms of hopes & fears. Batman, being one of the earliest comic superheroes ( 75 years ), has his roots in the Pulp Magazine  & Pulp Hero tradition.

He blends the qualities of characters such as The Shadow & The Spider with the master savant detective first crystallized in the character of Sherlock Holmes. Batman’s comicbook universe setting  ranges from  Hard Boiled Noir to Gothic Fantasy, with  stop overs in the cosmic metaphysical realms associated with speculative fiction. This  makes the character both flexible and challenging, whether being portrayed in print or other media, such as movies and television. Bryan Hitch‘s observations, as writer & illustrator of the current JLA comic, provide some insight into this creative balancing act.

— I wasn’t sure about Batman. When I had that abortive attempt to do “Justice League” 15 odd years ago with [Mark] Waid, I couldn’t figure out, visually, how to handle Batman. And I kind of translated that mentally into, “I probably wouldn’t be able to write him, either.” The odd thing, when I started writing the story out, was just how much Batman took care of his own business for you. You just find a situation, drop Batman in it, and he writes his own dialogue. It’s hilarious.

JLA - Bryan Hitch

Batman, at the same time, he’s the guy that has the detective skills, and the analytical skills, to be able to look at all this stuff, and start putting the picture together with the jigsaw pieces, and make that leap that some of the other characters may not be able to — because they’re looking very closely at the individual points, where Batman’s experience is a little wider, I think. I was worried about Batman, but I’m actually having such a nice time writing him in the context of these stories. And he’s such a useful character, because he’s the guy that figures everything out.

Batman - Bryan Hitch &  Paul Neary

I actually find him hilarious to write. He’s got that kind of grim visual, certainly, but I find that he’s the guy with the sarcastic one-liner — not necessarily because he’s trying to be funny, but you have a funny situation, and he nails the line at the end of the scene. And it’s funny because of that, not because he’s trying to be funny. I find that in that group environment, there’s a lot of humor to be had. I’ve been writing him a scene between him and Aquaman, and they’re actually talking about magic crystals, and just these two characters talking about magic crystals, they realize that they’re having an absurd conversation. FULL INTERVIEW at CBR: Bryan Hitch Stays Put at DC with “Justice League of America”






EQMM – Iconic Detectives

Sherlock & Poirot Here are some EQMM covers, plus an Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine cover featuring some well known  detectives from the realm of classic mystery. Notice the differences in cover layout of the two magazines . While both are effective, they construct a different emotional tone to draw in the reader. The classic detective portraits, do not reflect the content of the magazine directly, rather they play on the atmosphere of classic quality and  collectible status.

The Hitchcock cover is introducing a character that most would be unfamiliar with, so there is a need to establish identity and setting. Direct eye contact with a potential reader entices the buyer to pick up the magazine and check look at the interior. This is basic AIDA – Attention, Interest, Desire & Action. 



Tom Wasp & Philip Marlowe

Pulp Covers & Movie Posters – The Age of Necro-media

Necro-media is a concept that I have been exploring on my Dark Pines Photo blog. Necro-media refers to both the codes & conventions (forms) of mass media and media content that were dominant in the past. Necro-media is often rediscovered by a new generation.

Click image to read Doc WordPress adventures

Click image to read Doc WordPress adventures

This generation may embrace it in its original form, (lovers of Old Time Radio, silent films, or original pulp/fictional detectives) or they re-purpose the medium, such as those who take up Alternative Photographic processes or attempt to emulate them using digital darkroom methods.



Necro-media grows out of the seventh Mass Media Principle (full list of principles here):


A new mass media technology will initially borrow the content and imitate the conventions of the mass medium that is currently dominant in a society.



Shakespeare borrowed ideas for plot & characters from earlier folk tales, historical accounts, and early prose narratives. Early photography of the 19th century used the codes and conventions of portraiture & landscape painting. In the 20th century, early cinema & radio broadcasts borrowed from the theatre, popular novels and the then growing popular ( North American Pulps ) magazines.


Around the 1970s a change occurred. Mass Media hit a period of steady state. Movies, television, radio and print achieved an uneasy balance of power. Each had carved out a segment of the target audience’s attention. Each medium, based on their particular codes & conventions, played to their strengths to hold on to the audience, create sufficient demand, and generate revenue. Contemporary content, both escapist & serious, became more dominant.

The Deer Hunter Poster

If movies or television borrowed from print, it was more likely to be based on the current best-selling work of fiction or none fiction.

On Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

As the cost of producing movies & television shows with historical settings became more and more prohibitive, the past retreated further into print & memory.

Romance & Westerns cvs

Ironically, there was a subtle shift towards the creation of future realities and fantasy realms that seemed to be as much a re-interpretation of the past as visions of the future.

Fantasy SciFi movie posters

The saturation of cinema & television content that was grounded in contemporary & futuristic settings combined with the gradual drift away from print. It catered to a youthful audience and their shared mass media experience built up a set of values, belief and ideologies. This target audience was centred on present day concerns & anticipation of a potentially bright future. As a consequence, the passage of time & social change was disconnecting them from the past. The past, when it was presented, became either a romantic fantasy escape or a commentary on the present. Even the Detective of the 1930s became a means of exploring contemporary issues.

Chinatown & Dark Shadows

With the arrival of information age and the pervasiveness of social media in the 21st century, cinema, television and print media are now on the verge of being fully integrated into the internet . This is more than a change of delivery system. Just as photography is both a medium and media content, so now have cinema, television and print been consumed/incorporated into new media.

The old approach of borrowing the content & codes and conventions of previous media no longer applies when the previous media becomes the content of the new. What we now see is media consuming media. Scrambling for revenue through new content, the snake is swallowing its tail. In an effort to produce more content, creativity becomes a process of cannibalizing the past. No longer just a snake, mass media becomes the hydra , chomping at its many heads to grow more of the same.



Fantasy SciFi 2 movie posters

Movies, like novels and series televisions, must have sequels. When the sequels run out of steam, reboot the whole series and start again. Not satisfied with print media as its source, cinema will repeat past cinema success or even more telling, turn old television shows into movies in the hopes of catching a ready-made audience and insuring profitable sequels. With television also revisiting its past, the once “humble” comic book & graphic novel has become a potential ready-made source for huge profits, as the two media compete for content.


 Hero wall


The comic book now looks to extending the life of old television series and capture the attention of the related target audience.

 BG cv

The theatrical stage, which is another form of mass media, is not immune. Broadway versions of movies are becoming more common, while cinema & television are dipping their toes into the musical form.

It is difficult to tell where the trend of Necro-media will go. When it is used effectively and creatively it can produce a theatrical production such as Avenue Q, which played with the tropes of Sesame Street or innovative pieces of digital art or online video. Unfortunately, the business demands of the mass media industry have had a difficult time adapting to new forms of media and mass  media technology. The old models are not working and creative new content is limited. In all likelihood, new content and forms will not originate within the traditional industries, but will appear in the hinterland of self-production. A tweet drama or a hyper-texted musical ? A multimedia online narrative or a serialized flash mob mystery novel ? The possibilities are there. It may be happening now.