How Fat Detectives Think

  • Sander L. Gilman


If there is a moment in Western history when fat seems to become a positive quality in shaping the image of the “fat man,” it is at the close of the nineteenth century. It is here, particularly in the crime fiction of this period, where the body of the fat detective seems to aid his mental processes, his body size and shape seeming to account for his different way of thinking. In his essay on the eating habits of philosopher-scientists throughout the past, Steven Shapin reveals that, at least in the Western world, a powerful myth as early as Marsilio Ficino’s renaissance book on the health of the scholar assumes that such men should have a “lean and hungry look.”1 That all of his examples are men is not incidental. Our collective fantasy of the appropriate body of the male thinker stands at the center of Shapin’s work. I want to ask the corollary question: What happens to the image of the “thinking male” when that male body is fat, even obese? Shapin’s point, of course, is that Sir Isaac Newton, that proverbial thinker who is reputed to have forgotten whether he had eaten his chicken or not, actually died hugely bloated. Equally true is the representation of the body of Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), who was so fat that he had to cut a circle out of his dining table to accommodate his paunch.


Male Body Bantam Book Primitive Body Crime Fiction Primitive Consciousness 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Steven Shapin, “The Philosopher and the Chicken: On the Dietetics of Disembodied Knowledge,” in Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge, Christopher Lawrence and Steven Shapin, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 21–50.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World (NewYork: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    On the history of myelin see especially the second edition of Edwin Clark and C. D. O’Malley, The Human Brain and Spinal Cord (San Francisco: Norman, 1996).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Timothy O. Lipman, “Vitalism and Reductionism in Justus von Liebig’s Physiological Thought,” Isis, 58 (1967), 167–185 and K. Y. Guggenheim, “Johannes Miiller and Justus Liebig on Nutrition,” Koroth, 8 (1985), 66–76.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Thomas Jameson, Essays on the Changes of the Human Body, at its Different Ages (London: Longman, Hurst, Bees, Orme and Brown, 1811), 91.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    George E. Berrios and J. I. Quemada, “Multiple Sclerosis,” in A History of Clinical Psychiatry, George E. Berrios and Roy Porter, eds. (New York: NYU Press, 1995), 174–192.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Eric L. Santner, My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber’s Secret History of Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 70–77.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Sigmund Freud, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, J. Strachey, A. Freud, A. Strachey, and A. Tyson ed. and trans., 24 vols. (London: Hogarth, 1955–1974), vol. 1, 299–300.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    S.Weir Mitchell, Fat and Blood and How to Make Them (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1877).Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    Martha J. Cutter, “The Writer as Doctor: New Models of Medical Discourse in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Later Fiction,” Literature & Medicine, 20 (2001), 151–182.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    D. Rang, Pharmacology (London: Churchill Livingstone, 1995), 105.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    Gerhart von Graevenitz, “Der Dicke im schlafenden Krieg: Zu einer Figur der europaischen Moderne bei Wilhelm Raabe,” Jahrbuch der Raabe-Gesellschaft (1990), 1–21.Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    Wilhelm Raabe, Novels, ed. Volkmar Sander, trans. Barker Fairly (New York: Continuum, 1983), 174. Hereafter pages are cited in the text.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    Hubert Ohl, “Eduards Heimkehr oder Le Vaillant und des Riesenfaultier: Zu Wilhelm Raabes Stopfkuchen,” Jahrbuch der Deutschen Schiller-Gesellschaft, 8 (1964), 247–279.Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    D. F. Rauber, “Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe: The Role of the ‘Great Detective’ in Intellectual History,”Journal of Popular Culture, 6 (1972), 483–495.Google Scholar
  16. 19.
    James D. Smead, “The Landscape of Modernity: Rationality and the Detective,” Digging into Popular Culture: Theories and Methodolgies in Archeology, Anthropology and Other Fields, Ray B. Browne and Pat Browne, eds. (Bowling Green, OH: Popular, 1991), 165–171.Google Scholar
  17. 20.
    Joshua Duke, Banting in India with Some Remarks on Diet and Things in General (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink and Co., 1885), 55.Google Scholar
  18. 21.
    Ronald R. Thomas, “Minding the Body Politic: The Romance of Science and the Revision of History in Victorian Detective Fiction,” Victorian Literature and Culture, 19 (1991), 233–254.Google Scholar
  19. 22.
    Thomas M. Sobottke, “Speculations on the Further Career of Mycroft Holmes,” The Baker Street Journal, 2 (1990), 75–77.Google Scholar
  20. 24.
    On Father Brown and Sherlock Holmes see Walter Raubicheck, “Father Brown and the ‘Performance’ of Crime,” The Chesterton Review, 19 (1993), 39–45.Google Scholar
  21. 25.
    Frederick Isaac, “Enter the Fat Man: Rex Stout’s Fer-de-Lance,” in In the Beginning: First Novels in Mystery Series, Mary Jean DeMarr, ed. (Bowling Green, OH: Popular, 1995), 59–68.Google Scholar
  22. 26.
    John Mc Aleer, Rex Stout: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1977), 552.Google Scholar
  23. 27.
    Rex Stout, Fer-De-Lance (1934; NewYork: Bantam, 1984), 2.Google Scholar
  24. 28.
  25. 29.
    Ibid., 164.Google Scholar
  26. 30.
    Rex Stout, Over my Dead Body (1939; NewYork: Bantam Books, 1994), 119.Google Scholar
  27. 31.
    David R. Anderson, Rex Stout (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1984), 23.Google Scholar
  28. 33.
    Rex Stout, Not Quite Dead Enough (NewYork: Bantam Books, 1992), 13.Google Scholar
  29. 34.
    Ibid., 81.Google Scholar
  30. 35.
    Rex Stout, In the Best of Families (NewYork: Bantam, 1993), 142. See also Neil Brooks, “Not Just a Family Affair: Questioning Critical and Generic Orthodoxies through the Nero Wolfe Mysteries,” Clues, 20 (1999), 121–138.Google Scholar
  31. 36.
    Jerry Mosher, “Setting Free the Bears: Refiguring Fat Men on Television,” Bodies out of Bonds: Fatness and Transgression, Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco, eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 166–193.Google Scholar
  32. 37.
    Tom Gunning, “Tracing the Individual Body: Photography, Detectives, and Early Cinema,” Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, Leo Charney, and Vanessa R. Schwartz, eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 15–45.Google Scholar
  33. 39.
    Scott Adams, Bring Me the Head of Willy the Mailboy! (Kansas City:Andrews and McMeel, 1995), 82.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Christopher E. Forth and Ana Carden-Coyne 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sander L. Gilman

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations