It’s still April and for every Tuesday this month my fellow bloggers in the Tuesday Night Detectives are talking about one of the greatest detectives of all time. This is due to the upcoming publication of the somewhat academic work The 100 Greatest Literary Detectives to which Kate from Cross Examining Crime has contributed. Needless to say, every such work has its omissions and odd choices – we’re here to give our shout-outs to the Great Detectives. Note the omission of the “-est”, as by no means is this meant to be a definitive list. One man’s Roderick Alleyn is another man’s Hercule Poirot (apparently). And one man’s Anthony Bathurst is another man’s who-the-hell-is-Anthony-Bathurst. But the word “Literary” is also missing, as some great fictional detectives exist beyond the printed page. Last week, I looked at one of those in a somewhat less-than-serious post, but this time, I’m looking at a serious contender. Adrian Monk
So what makes a great detective?
Is it the obstacles that they overcome? Well, Monk has surmounted plenty of those.
Suffering from severe OCD since childhood, as well as plenty of phobias (he has a list – there are 312 entries on it), he found a beacon of light in Trudy Ellison, who he married. He became a brilliant detective with the San Francisco Police Department, but when a car bomb killed Trudy, he suffered a breakdown, eventually, with the help of his extraordinarily patient nurse, Sharona Fleming, becoming a consultant to the SFPD, solving case after case for them while still trying to solve Trudy’s murder.
No, despite this, what makes a detective is the cases that they solve. And Monk has solved some truly remarkable cases – odd that so many cunning murderers inhabit the San Francisco area. Maybe such cunning murderers are everywhere, but only the San Francisco ones get caught. Now there’s a thought.
Monk’s intuition is astonishing. He will spot a crime when the police believe it’s an accident or a suicide. Often he will spot very quickly who the guilty party is – “He’s the guy!” – and never let a little thing like a cast-iron alibi get in the way. And he has broken some strong alibis in his time. For example, the killer who strangled his lover while he was in orbit above the Earth. Or the murderer who mailed a parcel bomb to his victim while being in a coma. And while he needs his friends to help him overcome the obstacles of, well, being Adrian Monk, such as trying to solve a crime during a garbage collectors’ strike, his deductions are all his own work. And while you can draw similarities to that Sherlock Holmes bloke, it is rare that Monk provides elements to his reasoning that the viewer is not privy to.
Stepping into the real world for a moment, the success of the show came down to two things – the writing and the casting. Tony Shaloub is utterly perfect in the role of Monk, with the support of Ted Levine (possibly my favourite TV cop ever), Jason Gray-Stanford and Traylor Howard (for most of the show, as Monk’s second assistant). I feel that the show and the character of Monk became stronger with the addition of Natalie, primarily as she wasn’t his nurse, so he was made to stand on his own two feet a little more. It always sends a shiver down my spine that if the original casting of Michael Richards (Kramer from “Seinfeld”) had happened, then the Adrian Monk that we know and love would never have been seen.
The part-comic detective show has never been done as well as this, despite efforts before and since. Psych came close for a while, but became too self-indulgent for me after a while. Interestingly, the final episode of that series has Shawn Spencer moving to San Francisco and offering (at a crime scene) to be a consultant to the SFPD, only to be told that they have one already – “he’s in the kitchen, alphabetizing the pantry”.
If you want to talk literature, there are nineteen Monk novels that overlap the second half of the series and extend beyond the end of it. Most are written by Lee Goldberg, with the last few – the series has now finished – by series producer Hy Conrad – and the one’s that I’ve read are pretty damn good, capturing the feel of the series extremely well. I’ve reviewed one on the blog, Mr Monk On Patrol, but I’d also recommend Mr Monk Goes To Hawaii, the first one, featuring some very clever ideas, if I recall correctly.
So, that’s my first nomination for a Great Fictional Detective – Adrian Monk. Next week, I’m heading back to literature and someone that I consider to be a genuine omission from the book. But who will it be?