From Sherlock Holmes to Benoit Blanc: The Appeal of the Outsider Detective
Sherlock Holmes is the world’s most beloved fictional detective, a literary character that has enthralled millions across the globe since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created him in 1887. Since then, many writers of the page and screen have created their own ridiculously intelligent and eccentric sleuths to solve their fictional mysteries as well. One of them is filmmaker Rian Johnson, whose private investigator Benoit Blanc in the new film Knives Out owes a lot to the likes of Holmes, as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. How so? Let us count the ways.
For starters, Blanc (played by Daniel Craig, in a wild and woolly departure from 007) is not an official policeman. He’s a PI who’s been hired to look into the death of famed mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) by an equally mysterious benefactor. Johnson is honoring the tried-and-true trope of procedurals that brought in outsiders to solve the crimes, giving the narratives more zest, as well as more of a wildcard factor. Dupin, Holmes, and Poirot were all outsiders brought in as “consulting detectives” to help the cops solve their pressing puzzles.
Blanc is just such an outsider, one that ends up solving the case for the locals. However, in Knives Out, he’s not as antagonistic to the two law officers around the periphery as most outsiders tend to be in such fictions.
In fact, his relationship with Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and state trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) is actually quite cozy. Blanc is courteous enough to involve them in his investigation and he rarely condescends to them. (He saves most of his withering snark for the entitled family of suspects related to the deceased.)
Usually, the outsider detective character in such stories tends to be a loner, working in his own bubble, finding little use for the regular cops. That was especially true of Holmes, who tended to deride the Yard detectives to their face, albeit in ways they didn’t always pick up on. (Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock was an especially prickly and snide adversary.) But Blanc keeps them close at all times. He knows that legally they’re the true authorities in the room, plus he respects them as colleagues too.
The next characteristic that Blanc shares with many of his predecessors is a preponderance of personal quirks. He’s unshaven, favors tweed suits, and smokes 8-inch cigars. Even more eccentric is his thick southern drawl, one dripping in gentility, reminiscent of the Warner Bros. cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn. Craig has a ton of fun elongating Blanc’s vowels and over-enunciating his rhetoric, but it’s clear that Blanc is exaggerating his accent to disguise the steeliness underneath; an intrepidness that will serve justice.
It’s camouflage, of course, not unlike the ingratiating style of TV’s Columbo from the ’70s. Peter Falk created one of the most indelible fictional detectives of the last 50 years with his rumpled, shambling, and cigar-smoking LAPD lieutenant. He came off as scatter-brained, unctuous, and way in over his head, but all that was essentially deception. It was exaggerated, just as Blanc’s gentility is, as part of his ruse to get his adversaries to drop their guard. Columbo was always pitted against a rich or famous murderer, and his non-threatening style encouraged his opponents to be lulled into a feeling of superior comfort around the lieutenant. Then, when they didn’t realize it, they’d unwittingly reveal a clue that Columbo would pounce on. If they were suspicious of him, they likely would have been more guarded.
Blanc serves a similar function, never appearing to be all that threatening. He too seems outmatched by the vitriolic and conniving Thrombey brood, and it lends Johnson’s story a “David vs. Goliath” vibe. That’s almost always the case in these procedurals where a little guy outsider comes in and must solve the case and best the police and the killer. It’s there especially in unassuming characters like teen sleuth Nancy Drew, the septuagenarian PI Barnaby Jones, or Christie’s other great outside investigator, the aged and doddering Miss Marple. Such types aren’t “Type A” so the villains never quite see them coming.
Defies All Odds
We cheer such heroes on too because they’re up against huge odds, not only having to take on the doubters in the police force around them but the slew of mainstream suspects that feel superior to them. All narratives love an underdog story as the greatest character arcs showcase an individual rising from the bottom to the top, and in mysteries, seeing a dismissed outsider prevailing makes the crime-solving all the more rewarding.
That’s one of the reasons that Agatha Christie almost always wrote her murder mysteries in settings among the elite. Her short stories and novels were even called ‘drawing-room mysteries’ for their tendency to have the detective hero gather all of the super-rich into a mansion’s drawing-room or a parlor to explain how he or she solved the whodunnit. Johnson riffs on that in Knives Out as well, though Blanc only summons two key suspects and the assigned policeman the Thrombey den to listen to him explain how he put all the pieces together to solve the mystery.
Having characters who are odd, eccentric, or seemingly unfit for the task also helps balance the aspects of their razor-sharp mind to the viewer. If they were all put-together and intellectual, well, that might make them too unrelatable as characters. It’s much more effective to have a counter to such intelligence, usually in characteristics that are odd or even unflattering.
That’s why Christie wrote Poirot as a minuscule and effete dandy. It’s why insurance investigator Banacek, from the 70s TV series, was always bearing the brunt of jokes about his name or urbane peccadillos. By bringing them down a few pegs, it draws us to their vulnerabilities. That’s why Johnson has many of the elite Thrombey’s make fun of Blanc, particularly his thick accent. One even calls him “CSI: KFC.” Blanc’s brilliance may be over an audience’s head but being taunted helps cement him as a good guy and a “little guy” we care for.
Speaking of CSI, even there the eccentric outsider rules apply. Sure, the characters in the various incantations of that venerable TV franchise worked for the police, but they were still from a unique, external faction of the force. The CSI investigators (like William Peterson and Marg Helgenberger) always brought their idiosyncratic takes on the evidence, often confounding their colleagues. They were the ultimate geeks in their way, using their proclivity for science and facts to win the day.
The Law & Order television franchise, not to mention both the original and rebooted versions of Hawaii Five-O, all honored regular police intrepidly doing their jobs with great distinction. Many shows have. But more often than not, the regular police folk are employed as the “straight men” in such stories. They investigate the crimes, but more in the background, alongside the quirkier outsider. That’s the modus operandi of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character, as well as Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop, let alone famous TV sleuths like Monk, Veronica Mars, and The Mentalist. Johnson follows suit in Knives Out by ensuring Blanc is working alongside the regular cops, even though he’s dominating them and the investigation the entire time.
Ultimately, an eccentric outsider in procedural benefits both the material and the audience. Procedurals are driven by plot and adding such a vivid characterization provides humanity to all the facts being bandied about. The more entertaining the quirks, the more it counters the tension too. Crime is a serious matter, yet some comical bits help relieve all the heaviness.
Solves Every Case
Finally, what makes such outsiders from Holmes to Blanc so attractive to audiences is how they take down those who have it coming. Throughout history, the rich and powerful have always overreached and often gotten away with murder, both literally and figuratively. The outsider or little guy helps tip the world back to a juster one, where right makes might, not moolah. It’s a universal theme, one that those outsider, idiosyncratic detectives duly solve for the public.
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