Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Harry Potter and the Detective Perspective

Old classics like Beowulf, Arthurian Legend and Greek Mythology are not the only sources that J.K. Rowling has been drawing from in the Harry Potter books. Especially in The Half-Blood Prince, she also seems to be putting in deliberate clues to make us think of the great classic detectives, like Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and others.

Dumbledore, in The Half-Blood Prince (HBP), really has a lot in common with Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Dumbledore's use of the Pensieve (the magical devise used to take an objective look at your own or someone else's memories) resembles Sherlock shutting himself up, leaning back and just thinking hard to solve mysteries. Then up and away he goes, disappears in some disguise or other and takes action; and then returns to his rooms again and explains the whole mystery to the astonished Dr Watson - who in between is often sent out on other missions, sometimes without quite understanding the purpose. Harry has a lot of private meetings with Dumbledore in HBP, in which Dumbledore shows him pensieve scenes from Voldemort's past. But another possible candidate for the post of Dr Watson is Snape, whose healing skills are pointed out in HBP, and who also seems to be in Dumbledore's confidence.

Dumbledore's resemblance to Sherlock Holmes was one source among others that misled me to suspect that his death at the end of HBP might have been faked. Because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, after a number of books, grew tired of his hero, and killed him off - but had to revive him again because of angry protests from his readers! I have only one of the Sherlock Holmes books in my own bookcase, but it happens to be The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927), which is the book where Sherlock "comes back from the dead". It has a preface by the author, explaining why he changed his mind:

I had fully determined at the conclusion of The Memoirs to bring Holmes to an end, as I felt that my literary energies should not be directed too much into one channel. That pale, clear-cut face and loose-limbed figure were taking up an undue share of my imagination. I did the deed, but, fortunately, no coroner had pronounced upon the remains, and so --- it was not difficult for me to respond to the flattering demand and to explain my rash act away.

Glancing through the first story in The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes - "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client" - I found that this story alone contains, among other things:

  • A note from a client to Sherlock, written much in the same polite tone as the notes from Dumbledore to Harry in HBP.
  • A Baron who collects antiques – cf. Lord Voldemort collecting antiques to use as Horcruxes. 
  • Watson being given a mission of which he understands nothing, he just obeys the instructions Holmes gives him (as do both Harry and Snape).
  • An old book, which has been scribbled in (cf. the Potions book).
  • A big glass cupboard with antiques in it (cf. the glass cupboard in Grimmauld Place).
  • A woman with "ethereal other-world beauty" (cf. Fleur)
  • A "beastly" man (cf. Bill being bitten by werewolf).
  • A newspaper announcing a murderous attack upon Sherlock Holmes (the attack was made by "two men armed with sticks"), Holmes making the most of this and pretending to be dying, while he was really recovering quite fast.
The rest of the stories in the book also involve several other things and places that remind me in one way or another of events or persons in The Half-Blood Prince.

Other similarities between Sherlock Holmes and Dumbledore: Sherlock has an evil adversary by the name of Moriarty, turning up every now and again. Dumbledore keeps fighting Voldemort. Sherlock's has a brother that comes into the story now and then - so does Dumbledore. Sherlock has contacts within the Ministry - so does Dumbledore. Sherlock plays the violin; Dumbledore loves music. Sherlock uses shifty caracters to spy for him – Dumbledore uses Mundungus and Snape…

Furthermore, in the Pensieve in HBP we meet an unpleasant character by the name of Morfin. That struck me as a very odd name for a person, even among all the other inventive names that Rowling uses. I think this may be another hint to Sherlock Holmes and the detective perspective - Sherlock used the drug morphine...

What about other classic detectives? G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown is not unlike Holmes, or Dumbledore. He also has a very sharp mind, and has a recurring adversary, a master thief by the name of Flambeau. One of Brown's characteristics is that he's always very polite, even to his enemies. So is Dumbledore.

Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot is also not unlike Holmes, or Dumbledore. He uses his brain to solve problems, and uses his faithful Captain Hastings much the same way Holmes uses Watson. This might seem far fetched, but perhaps not put together with all the other hints: At the same time Dumbledore begins to take him more in his confidence, Harry is made Captain of the Quidditch team…

Titles of Agatha Christie mysteries include, for example:

  • After the Funeral (cf. After the Burial, chapter title in HBP)
  • Cards on the Table (cf. Sybill Trelawney making predictions using cards)
  • The Secret Adversary (cf. The Secret Riddle, chapter title in HBP)
  • Halloween Party (seen a few of those, haven't we)
  • The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (cf. the mirror Sirius gave to Harry)
  • They Do It With Mirrors
  • Sleeping Murder (in HP, there is much talk of the potion the Draught of Living Death)
  • Why Didn't They Ask Evans (Harry's mother's maiden name was Lily Evans)

But in HBP, Harry is really also doing a lot of detective work on his own. He is not just Watson or Hastings, obeying orders and admiring the mind of the Master. On his own accord he is spying on Draco Malfoy, following him around, disclosing what he is up to… He also engages Dobby the House-Elf to help him. This rather reminds me of Dorothy Sayer's rich gentleman detective Lord Peter Wimsey. He wears a monocle (Harry wears glasses), has no money problems because of inherited fortune (the same goes for Harry), and his assistant is his faithful servant Bunter, who gets to do the more menial tasks, but is at the same time also a true friend (cf. Dobby). By the way, Bunter came into Wimsey's service after Wimsey had saved his life, if I remember correctly (and Harry saved Dobby). There is also a new character introduced in HBP - Romilda Vane, who has a crush on Harry. The love in Lord Peter's life is named Harriet Vane…

Hermione, in HBP always knitting, with a keen eye for what is going on on the relationship front, really also has quite a potential of becoming a Miss Marple - another Agatha Christie detective (who is always knitting).
There are also a number of really suspicious deaths in HBP. There are the many stories occurring in The Daily Prophet in HBP, for example Amelia Bones, whose death was not only described as particularly nasty, but also mysterious, since the room was locked from inside. There is also Slughorn's staging of his murder (or violent removal) when Dumbledore and Harry come to visit.

By the time Rowling was writing The Half-Blood Prince, there were already a lot of discussions about the HP books going on the internet. I suspect she consciously filled the sixth book with both true and false clues, to keep us going while she finished the last one...
In doing so, she is also paying homage to all of the authors mentioned above, because, just like Rowling, they also loved to make use of such things as riddles, wordplay, clever use of numbers, precious jewellry and antiques, disguises, spying… They also all belong to the same world where Harry Potter takes place: a world of castles, aristocracy, boarding schools and orphanages, rich and poor, masters and servants, steam trains and carriages, handwritten documents and dusty libraries. (The Wizarding world in Harry Potter reminds more of 19th century Muggle England than of the late 20th).

In Retrospect:
Along with many other readers, my "detecting" took me a little too far. I guessed that Dumbledore's death at the end of HBP might (like Slughorn's at the beginning of the book) also turn out to be faked, and even Sirius's in the previous book. I was hoping that Rowling would do what Doyle did with Sherlock – revive the fallen hero(es). And in her own way she did call a number of people up from the dead - Dumbledore and Sirius among them - but not quite in the way that I guessed! (They were and remained dead; but still played their part at the end, in helping Harry do what he must do.) And this is one of the things I really admire her for: She is a terrific Recycler – she resuses all kinds of old ideas and stories, but always gives them her own unexpected twist in the end, so that they come out as new!

PS. I am still convinced there are way too many similarities between Sherlock Holmes and Dumbledore for this to be just a coincidence… ;-)
Link: The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (e-text)

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