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Top Ten (+) Fat Detectives

Have you noticed that mysteries starring a fat detective are almost always light-hearted and humorous?  Nero Wolfe is probably the archetype; he’s obese, sedentary and irascible.  He likes to putter in his orchid conservatory and hates leaving his Manhattan brownstone.  Rex Stout created his famous detective in 1934 along with the perfect foil Archie Goodwin, Nero’s “legs,” chronicler, and commentator.  Not surprisingly, Wolfe solves mysteries by ratiocination rather than rough stuff or lab work.  Wolfe sends Archie out to investigate while he stays home to give full attention to the meals prepared by his gourmet cook.  Wolfe is droll and sarcastic.  Archie is slangy and glib.  Their dialog is straight out of P. G. Wodehouse.

Quite a few detectives have followed in Wolfe’s generous mold.  Joyce Porter’s Inspector Wilfred Dover was created in 1964.  Dover is the acknowledged “Shame of Scotland Yard.”   He is enormously fat and pasty-faced, lazy, rude, and slovenly.  He gobbles up everything on the tea table and then nods off while his competent assistant Sergeant MacGregor handles the interrogations and sorts through the clues.  Watching Dover being lured and prodded and falling for every red herring is part of the fun.  Porter’s other characters tend to be as eccentric as her detective, and her puzzles are of the classic English variety.

Reginald Hill started writing his Dalziel/Pascoe mysteries in the 1970s.  Set in Yorkshire, they also feature a mismatched team of British detectives:  Superintendent Andy Dalziel is very astute, but also fat and boorish while Sergeant Peter Pascoe is sensitive, introspective, and university-educated.  Despite their obvious incompatibility, each has developed a grudging respect for the other, and they work together as a surprisingly effective, if not always harmonious, team.

Peter Lovesey has been writing about Chief Superintendent Peter Diamond of the Avon and Somerset Murder Squad since 1991.  Superintendent Diamond is fat, bald, unsocial, sensitive to slights, and traditional in his methods—no cutting-edge technology for him.  In spite of this, he is astute and intrepid enough to bag every villain.  Lovesey’s witty and urbane novels lack a series “sidekick.”

Fat Ollie” Weeks is a member of Ed McBain’s 87th police squadron mysteries.  Though he is a minor character in most of the books, three novels (Fat Ollie’s Book, Frumious Bandersnatch and Hark!) are known as “Fat Ollie’s Saga.”

Last, and perhaps least, is K. C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic, Police Chief of a depressed steel town near Pittsburgh.  Balzic is just overweight, not really fat, though he is still irascible.  Like many detectives, he is inclined to drink too much.  Balzic is one of the most compassionate and likeable policemen in series fiction.

And what about the women?  Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe must surely top the list.  The “traditionally-built” founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in the city of Gaborone, Botswana has won the hearts of a loving readership.  It’s hard to describe the methods Precious uses in solving her cases, but watching her meander toward the truth is great fun.

Desiree Shapiro, created by Selma Eichler in 1995 is a Manhattan private investigator who describes herself as “forty-something and full-figured.”  In these books, the mystery is only part of the fun; chatty Desiree also includes details of her (mostly unsatisfactory) boyfriends, her views on living in New York City, and her gourmet experiences–sometimes including recipes.

G. A. McKevett’s voluptuous heroine, Savannah Reid, runs the Moonlight Magnolia Detective Agency in San Carmelita, California.  Georgia-born Savannah uses her Southern charm and love of cooking to solve mysteries and keep her zany friends and relatives happy.

Not all fat female detectives are jolly, however.  Odelia Grey describes herself as “a short, two-hundred plus, cranky, middle-aged woman with medium brown hair and freckles.”  Sue Ann Jaffarian’s amateur detective works as a paralegal in Los Angeles.  Odelia’s job, her nosiness and her needy friends often lead her into dangerous circumstances.  Jaffarian’s minor characters are as quirky as her detective.

Loretta Kovacs is also fat and cranky, though at 167 pounds on her five foot six frame, she prefers the term big-boned, zaftig or Rubinesque.  Anthony Bruno created Loretta in 1997 along with her “Jump Squad” partner, handsome widower Frank Marvelli.  Together they track down lowlifes who have jumped parole.  The humor in the series comes from Loretta’s craving for sweets and the hapless characters she and her partner run into.  Cinnamon buns, she admits, are one of her seven deadly sins—“right between éclairs and Devil Dogs.”

–J. G. Husband,  posted 4/14/2010

Posted April/15/2010

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