When discussing Great Detectives we’re often prone to forget that many if not most of them weren’t meant to become the stuff of legend – heck, they weren’t even meant to be series characters to start with. Only popular success or the promise of it allowed them to survive the single book or story they were initially to appear in.
Poe for instance invented the series detective the same way he did the detective story – accidentally. Dupin returned mostly because of the massive (by Poe’s standards) success of The Murders in the Rue Morgue and readers asking for more « tales of ratiocination ». Also Poe had found him a perfect vehicle for his ideas on the artist’s ability to see beyond the appearances. Even then he dropped the character after only three stories, which shows that for all his literary genius Poe was not much of a man of affairs.
Sherlock Holmes of course comes to mind when thinking of a Great Detective not meant to be one. Doyle wrote A Study in Scarlet with no intention of starting a series and brought Holmes back in The Sign of Four and later only because the price was right. In doing so he burdened himself for life with a character he hated, but also made the series detective the default mode of the detective story genre. While there had been recurring sleuths prior – Gaboriau’s Lecoq or Green’s Ebenezer Gryce come to mind – most « primitive » detective stories used « disposable » sleuths such as The Moonstone‘s Sgt. Cuff who despite his enormous potential never reappeared again anywhere. The phenomenal success of Sherlock Holmes proved there was a market for recurring sleuths and Doyle’s rivals then followers all followed suit.
Even then the « accidental series character » didn’t disappear overnight. There is every reason to believe A.E.W. Mason didn’t immediately think of Inspector Hanaud as a series character, as the delay between his first and second appearances suggests. Neither obviously did E.C. Bentley who’d probably have chosen another title than Trent’s Last Case had he known it would actually be his first.
Perhaps the most notorious instance after Holmes however is no other than his most serious challenger for the title of Greatest Detective Ever, Hercule Poirot himself. Christie never made secret that he was meant to appear only once, in what was to be both his and her first outing, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. His weird physical appearance, his almost parody-like mannerisms, his age, didn’t exactly predict a bright literary future. What’s more, his personality and even methods in this book are markedly different from what they would be in later books, suggesting the character wasn’t yet fully formed in Christie’s mind. Poirot should have been a one-off detective but readers took to him and he became Christie’s cash-cow and bane for half a century. Interestingly, Christie’s other Great Detective – and her favorite series character – Miss Marple also probably came about accidentally for it took some time for Christie to fully realize her potential. Also Marple like Poirot didn’t emerge a full fledged character from Christie’s imagination as she too significantly « evolved » over time. While Marple’s « official » birth was registered in Murder at the Vicarage, the Miss Marple we all know and love didn’t appear until The Body in the Library twelve years later.
Another prestigious literary sleuth that found his way to fame by accident is Albert Campion, at least if we are to believe Margery Allingham’s account in her « Mr. Campion and Me » essay. Campion wasn’t even the main protagonist of the first book in which he appeared, but made enough of an impression on his creator for him to return in further books, his status as a character evolving from a soldier of fortune to a Great Detective. Unlike Holmes or Poirot however Campion doesn’t seem to have been a burden for his « mother » and was allowed greater freedom than probably any fictional sleuth before or after him.
It’s unclear on the other hand whether John Dickson Carr intended or not Sir Henry Merrivale to be his second major creation from the start. The Plague Court Murders is one of the weirdest debuts ever for a Great Detective as it is a supporting character – Inspector Masters, never to regain the same stature again – that plays the lead in the first half of the book. Merrivale of course ultimately solves the case, but neither his still comparatively « normal » behaviour or his role in the narrative appear to warrant another outing. We know that Carr had been busy in recent years trying to find a new series character – and failing – and he probably made another try with Plague Court, but the question remains as to whom the book was actually intended to introduce to the reading public. Did Merrivale do a « Campion » by inflicting himself on his hapless creator at the last minute? We’ll probably never know.
In case you think the « accidental detective » is a « primitive » or Golden Age thing, you may want to know that more recent investigators such as Ruth Rendell’s Wexford or even Ian Rankin’s Rebus were « born » the same way. Rankin’s case is even more remarkable in that he didn’t even intend his first crime novel to be… a crime novel and thus became a crime novelist by accident, much like Doyle one century before. As the French say, la boucle est bouclée.