When I gave Arthur Bryant a spare time job, I decided to make him a London tour guide. It seemed an appropriate hobby for a bobby. And over the decades, detectives have had all kinds of other jobs…
Clayton Rawson started studying to be a magician when he was eight. Later he put his magic skills into practice by penning the excellent â€˜Death From A Top Hatâ€™. His detective is self-taught, one of those louche interferers the police had no trouble allowing onto crime scenes in the inter-war period. The Great Merlini runs a magic shop, but his knowledge of optical trickery and mental misdirection alert him to the craftiness of thieves and murderers. He appeared in four novels and four collections of short stories.
This period of American mystery writing is more associated with hard-boiled fiction than the traditional butler-did-it Golden Age style of British authors, but Rawsonâ€™s detective crossed that line, coming over as a sort of US Father Brown of magic. The murders are loopy, in one case involving a death in a locked room wherein the doors and windows have all been taped shut, but the solutions are fair and plausible. Rawson pitted his wits against readers, creating playful plots that fans could at least have a chance of solving.
Rawson became one of the four founding members of the Mystery Writers of America, who still present their annual Edgar Awards for excellence in crime writing. The Great Merlini featured in two movies and a television pilot, but there were other magician detectives; Dakor the Detective-Magician appeared in 1940, and the TV show â€˜Jonathan Creekâ€™ has a sleuth solving mysteries through his knowledge of illusionism.
From 1910 onward, many fictional detectives had day jobs that provided them with the skills for specialist investigation. They were chefs and antique dealers, civil servants, musicians, actresses, artists and mountaineers. Many were simply gentlemen of leisure, crimefighting being something youâ€™d do if you were simply rich and bored. Both â€˜The Encyclopaedia of British Crime Writingâ€™ by Barry Forshaw and â€˜Great British Fictional Detectivesâ€™ by Russell James catalogue these amateur sleuths.
I suppose you’d class Miss Marple as Busybody; she insisted, somewhat unbelievably, that her knowledge of village life taught her to understand human nature even when it turned murderous.
One of my favourites is Colonel Henry Ponsonby, royal equerry, who turns up in HK Flemingâ€™s charming thriller â€˜The Day They Kidnapped Queen Victoriaâ€™. As the Queenâ€™s train to Balmoral is hijacked, HRH, Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Prince of Wales and his disreputable guests must be saved from a dastardly Fenian plot by Ponsonby. Like many of these older tales, Flemingâ€™s volume is a virtual masterclass in good story construction, witty, erudite and effortlessly charming, the antithesis of the kind of â€˜Grim Noirâ€™ one-note thrillers that dominate bookshelves.