Benoit Blanc: Resurgence of the gentleman sleuth?

Benoit Blanc Gentleman Detective sitting in a chair

When we first meet Benoit Blanc in Knives Out (2019), he is introduced by another character as ‘the last of the gentleman sleuths’. Some viewers compare him to Sherlock Holmes. Others compare him to Hercule Poirot. Interestingly, both of these tentpole detectives are entering the public domain around the same time we’re actually seeing a resurgence in the gentleman sleuth. Perchance Benoit Blanc isn’t the last of them, after all.

The Gentleman Sleuth is back with a twist, of course. Notice the unexpected similarities between Benoit Blanc and, well, Fred Jones… of Scooby-Doo.

Glass Onion is the second Benoit Blanc murder mystery film. “Great first half, ridiculous ending” is pretty much my interpretation, too. Of course, it’s meant to be ridiculous. The title Glass Onion comes from The Beatles song of the same name, released as a message to fans who were analysing Beatles songs more than The Beatles thought necessary.

Fictional detectives have never been out of fashion. So, if the gentleman detective is back, with a fresh, 2020s spin, does this signal part of a larger trend? If so, what in the real world might be influencing the shift?

First, which fictional detectives have audiences become used to in the 21st century? What is Benoit Blanc a shift away from? Let’s stick to TV shows, and only those made in Britain and the USA. Run your eyes down this list and you’ll get the general gist:

BRITISH DETECTIVE SHOWS
  • Above Suspicion
  • Ashes to Ashes
  • The Bill
  • Bloodlines
  • Blood Strangers
  • Blue Murder
  • Bodyguard
  • The Brief
  • Broadchurch
  • Burnside
  • City Central
  • City of Vice
  • Collateral
  • Conviction
  • The Cops
  • Cracker
  • Criminal Justice
  • Criminal: United Kingdom
  • The Cry
  • Dalziel and Pascoe
  • Daylight Robbery
  • Father & Son
  • Feel the Force
  • The Fixer
  • Foyle’s War
  • The Frankenstein Chronicles
  • Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame)
  • Happy Valley
  • Harlan Coban’s Stay Close
  • Heartbeat
  • He Kills Coppers
  • Helen West
  • Holby Blue
  • Hunter
  • In Defence
  • The Innocence Project
  • Inspector George Gently
  • The Inspector Lynley Mysteries
  • Inside Man
  • Instinct
  • It’s a Mystery
  • Jericho
  • Jonathan Creek
  • The Last Detective
  • Law & Order: UK
  • Lawless
  • Lenny Blue
  • Lewis
  • Life on Mars
  • Line of Duty
  • Liverpool 1
  • Lockwood & Co.
  • Marcella
  • McCready and Daughter
  • Merseybeat
  • Messiah
  • Midsomer Murders
  • Missing
  • Moses Jones
  • Murder
  • Murder City
  • Murder In Mind
  • Murder in Suburbia
  • Murder Investigation Team
  • Murder Prevention
  • Murderland
  • Murphy’s Law
  • NCS: Manhunt
  • Never Never
  • New Tricks
  • The One
  • Outlaws
  • Paradox
  • Paranoid
  • Prime Suspect
  • Psychoville
  • Y Pris
  • Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased)
  • Real Men
  • Rebus
  • Red Riding
  • Rose and Maloney
  • Rosemary & Thyme
  • The Ruth Rendell Mysteries
  • Second Sight
  • Serious & Organised
  • Silent Witness
  • Sirens
  • State of Play
  • The Stranger
  • The Stretch
  • Taggart
  • The Take
  • Thursday the 12th
  • A Touch of Frost
  • Trial & Retribution
  • True Dare Kiss
  • The Vice
  • Vincent
  • Waking the Dead
  • The Whistle-Blower
  • The Whistleblowers
  • Whitechapel
  • Wire in the Blood
  • Without Motive
  • The Wyvern Mystery
  • You Don’t Know Me
AMERICAN DETECTIVE SHOWS
  • 10-8: Officers on Duty
  • 18 Wheels of Justice
  • 24
  • Archer
  • Archie’s Weird Mysteries
  • The Beast
  • The Beat
  • Big Apple
  • Black Scorpion
  • Blind Justice
  • Bones
  • Boomtown
  • Breaking Bad
  • Brotherhood
  • Burn Notice
  • Canterbury’s Law
  • Castle
  • Century City
  • Close to Home
  • The Closer
  • Cold Case
  • Cold Squad
  • Columbo
  • Cover Me
  • Criminal Minds
  • CSI
  • Damages
  • Dark Blue
  • Desperate Housewives
  • Dexter
  • Diagnosis: Murder
  • The District
  • The Division
  • TheEvidence
  • Eyes
  • Fastlane
  • The Forgotten
  • The Fugitive
  • Ghost Whisperer
  • Glory Days (Demontown)
  • The Good Cop
  • Hawaii
  • Harper’s Island
  • Heist
  • Hidden Palms
  • House M.D.
  • The Huntress
  • In Justice
  • In Plain Sight
  • The Inside
  • JAF
  • Jericho
  • Jonny Zero
  • The Jury
  • K-Ville
  • Karen Sisco
  • Keen Eddie
  • Kidnapped
  • The Kill Point
  • Killer Instinct
  • Kingpin
  • Law & Order
  • Level 9
  • Leverage
  • Lie to Me
  • Life
  • Life on Mars
  • Line of Fire
  • Lost
  • Manhattan, AZ
  • Medium
  • The Mentalist
  • Monk
  • Nash Bridges
  • NCIS
  • A Nero Wolfe Mystery
  • New Amsterdam
  • The Nine
  • The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
  • Numb3rs
  • NYPD Blue
  • Oz
  • Pacific Blue
  • Pasadena
  • Peacemakers
  • Point Pleasant
  • The Pretender
  • Prison Break
  • Psych
  • Push, Nevada
  • Pushing Daisies
  • Raines
  • The Riches
  • Robbery Homicide Division
  • Saving Grace
  • The Shield
  • The Sinner
  • Sons of Anarchy
  • The Sopranos
  • Southland
  • Standoff
  • Street Time
  • Third Watch
  • Touching Evil
  • UC: Undercover
  • The Unusuals
  • Vampire Diaries
  • Vanished
  • Veronica Mars
  • Walker, Texas Ranger
  • Wanted
  • What’s New, Scooby-Doo?
  • White Collar
  • Wild Card
  • The Wire
  • Unbelievable
  • Without a Trace
  • Women’s Murder Club
  • The X-Files

BENOIT BLANC AND SHERLOCK HOLMES

Sherlock Holmes is to detective fiction as Lord of the Rings is to fantasy: The basis of every comparison, however tenuous. There’s something to this comparison, though. Created by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), Sherlock Holmes started the trend of the eccentric detective partnered with the stooge assistant. Benoit Blanc has no stooge assistant, but he is somewhat eccentric.

Doyle himself was influenced by a detective created by Edgar Allan Poe. (It’s been said that Poe invented procedural crime.)

Sherlock Holmes entered the public domain in America this year, 1 January 2023.

BENOIT BLANC AND HERCULES POIROT

Hercule Poirot was created by Agatha Christie. Between 1920 and 1975 she used this character in 33 novels, two plays and more than 50 short stories. Poirot first appeared in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). This work is now out of copyright and you can read it for free at Project Gutenberg.

All archetypes evolve from older archetypes, and Agatha Christie was herself influenced by Sherlock Holmes as well as other contemporary fictional detectives of hers which are no longer household names.

‘We’re playing by Agatha Christie Cinematic Universe rules’

BENOIT BLANC AND FRED JONES

The Scooby-doo gang are also detectives — camp, spoofy ones. Borrowing some stylistic choices from Fred, Benoit Blanc in Glass Onion communicates a camp, spoofy take on the familiar gentleman archetype who is now over 100 years old.

Whoever sells this dressing gown, I bet sales are going through the roof.

IS BENOIR BLANC A BRAND NEW ARCHETYPE?

Benoit Blanc = Hercules Poirot + Sherlock Holmes + Scooby Doo’s Fred Jones + pandemic era queerness

Benoit Blanc is emotionally intelligent. Many recent detectives seem to have great difficulty processing their own emotions, let alone their trauma.
The nice thing about Benoit Blanc is: He’s not misogynistic. This is where he is different from Fred Jones, whose earlier iterations have not aged well.
Glass Onion does nothing to defy the stereotype of gay man as ‘weird little guys’ (I’m seeing many instances on this phrase describing Benoit Blanc across social media), but has instead decided to celebrate it.
Even a non-American like me can tell this is a fake Southern accent. An obvious spoof is better than Kevin Spacey playing it straight in House of Cards.
Pictured alongside Blanc: Catherine O’Hara as Moira Rose from the TV comedy “Schitt’s Creek” and Laszlo Cravensworth from “What We Do In The Shadows”, played by Matt Berry. Others have wondered if Daniel Craig based his Benoit Blanc accent on Foghorn Leghorn.

PANDEMIC ERA QUEERNESS & THE NOW-NESS OF BENOIT BLANC

This, I believe is the main point of the Knives Out movies. They’re cultural commentary first, murder mystery a distant second.
MASKS
Among Us is a collaborative game which took off during the lockdown part of the pandemic, and is a watershed moment for gaming depicted in the movies.

Knives Out isn’t the first quirky detective story we’ve seen on screen: We’ve already got Murderville, Desperate Housewives, Once Upon a Crime and various feature films scripted by the Coen brothers. Some are more popular than others.

Someone asked Burka which parts of Knives Out: Glass Onion he found realistic. Reply: The arrogance and the hangers-on. Even the parties… pretty much realistic. Someone else pointed out that Glass Onion has more Black and woman characters than reality, to which Burka said, “Fair criticism.”

THE PUBLIC AND THE POLICE

Here’s my theory: General audiences have grown a little suspicious watching highly empathetic police officers doing their jobs well.

I recently read a local news article about the difficulty in recruiting people to work for the Australian police. The police force hasn’t had great press lately, which may be deterring people from the profession.

Once upon a time, middle-class audiences looked up to police and enjoyed watching them do their jobs in fiction. Is that still true? Changing white, middle-class attitudes towards police in English speaking countries may be having a knock-on effect when it comes to detective fiction. Might writers actively avoid centring police officers now?

To say nothing of America, England is having the same issue. Take Happy Valley. (I’ve written about seasons one and two here, interesting for its take on masculinity and violence.) Season three began broadcast January 2023, seven years after the previous season ended. Happy Valley features a flawed but highly relatable middle-aged woman sergeant played by Sarah Lancashire.

Unlike the Knives Out movies, Happy Valley is kitchen sink realism. Sally Wainwright, creator, said of her highly relatable sergeant:

TV dramas about police officers usually make heroes of the police,” Wainwright tells Variety. “I did that in this, and in ‘Scott & Bailey,’ and [recent events] have made me question that — stories like Sarah Everard and the two sisters that were murdered, [Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry].

Sally Wainwright, creator/writer of Happy Valley

Wainwright has judged that audiences are over big, tough male policemen starring in their crime dramas, but that there remains an appetite for an empathetic, realistically rounded woman police sergeant:

I don’t watch a lot of telly to be honest with you. I often find that with other crime shows, it’s very rare that they do proper research. One of the unique things about “Happy Valley” is that we do have advisors on board, and they’re a part of the process right from the beginning, right from the word “go.” […]

I haven’t worked with any male police advisors. […] Men can police just by being big and muscular and tough. Women have to police by personality. So I’ve enjoyed dramatizing that, and that’s why Catherine talks to people.

Sally Wainwright, creator/writer of Happy Valley

The story we’ve been watching is a story about genius (like so many murder mysteries), but it is not a story about mere intellectual genius. It is a story about moral genius.

Popular Culture and Theology, A Beautiful Pattern: The Aesthetics of Virtue in Knives Out

Benoit Blanc, like Catherine Cahill, is a departure from the big, tough, laconic police officer.

BENOIT BLANC STORIES EXPECT AUDIENCES TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE STORY

Contemporary audiences are not simply asked to look for planted clues, attempting to solve the mystery alongside the detectives: Contemporary audiences themselves expect to fill in backstory. The Knives Out movies offer this opportunity in spades, by mystery boxing certain things (never explaining). For example, what about the random dude on the Glass Onion island. We never learn what he’s there for, really. He’s like the extra animal characters in a picture book, lurking at the edge of the page (cf. the grasshopper and spider of a Mercer Mayer Little Critter book). Readers make their own stories. This is perfect in the age of the Internet, where fans can speculate together.

Likewise, Benoit Blanc arrives on screen in statu nascendi (without any back story). After the first movie, fans speculated that Blanc is gay. The writer subsequently confirmed that yes, Blanc is ‘obviously’ gay, but kept this announcement quiet as a marketing reveal, when teasing the identity of the actor playing Blanc’s husband (it’s Hugh Grant). The characters never appear in the same shot together. (Blanc is in the bath; Philip stands aproned in the doorway.) Now fans want to see more of Blanc with his husband.

The bath scene has a very Moomins vibe.

There’s plenty of characterisation to work with in the Knives Out mysteries:

LGBTQIA+ FAN CONTRIBUTIONS

On Twitter, some viewers have proposed a theory that Benoit Blanc is a gay trans man. The evidence: He describes himself as a “self-made man”. This could of course refer to wealth, or to a dark and covered past, or it could refer to the beforetimes of gender transition.

I’d like to contribute to this theory:

  1. Benoit Blanc is unrealistically built for an older fellow who works with his brains rather than his brawn (and who has spent the last few months wallowing, mostly in the bath). Daniel Craig has a personal trainer and a restrictive diet to achieve this look. But how to explain Benoit Blanc, the character? Blanc’s physique suggests he has a XX chromosome and is on T, because people with XX chromosomes are more responsive to testosterone (and explains the disproportionate number of very well-built trans men). While the Internet screeches about trans women dominating women’s sport, everyone who likes watching sport should be enjoying the trans men in men’s competition, where transmascs actually have a chance of winning against cis men (and sometimes do).
  2. Even for a gay man, Benoit Blanc has a unique sense of style, which might be explained by a backstory of Benoit dressing in more than one gender. Perhaps this trans man didn’t see the need to throw away his entire femme wardrobe and retained the neckerchiefs, since neckerchiefs are useful.
  3. While many fictional characters have apt names (aptronyms), since we’re considering Benoit Blanc as a real person for this thought experiment, only people who have chosen their own names as adults are able to choose names which fit their personalities. Who changes their name to something fitting once they get to know who they are? Trans people. Benoit means “the one who says the good”. Blanc means “white”, as in, blank slate, starting over.

2021 also saw the release of another (cosy) crime detective with the last name of ‘Blanc’: The Madame Blanc series, created and co-written by Sally Lindsay, who also stars as Jean White.

Jean White a.k.a. Madame Blanc

Of course, fans interested in snapping the plot pieces together Agatha Christie style are catered for as well as those there for the cultural commentary and characterisation gags:

Some fans like to imagine what happens after the story finishes:

fan theory about Phillip
IDEAS FOR A KNIVES OUT SEQUEL

Some have already conceived of a sequel:

KNIVES OUT MEME-ABLE QUOTES

The White Lotus is similar in tone and pacing. Both are hits of the moment. Both have contributed very meme-able phrases to the online community: