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“I Love a Mystery”

That was the title of a old-time radio show, when people loved mystery stories of all types. This post may be a little controversial, but I’ll brave it. It has to do with mystery stories, which have meant a lot to me over the years. I grew up reading mysteries, among other books, and it was something that my parents and I shared, from the novels, to the movie or TV adaptations.

I read Sherlock Holmes, my parents got me the Complete Sherlock Holmes, with all the stories. Then in my later teens, I started reading Agatha Christie. She has sold more works than anyone but the people who wrote the Bible, and Shakespeare. She is usually not considered among the great writers, but I think she is; not because of any masterful use of language, or deep and profound themes, but because she took a genre and was better than anyone else at it. Her mysteries are very readable, literate, and brilliantly plotted.

The one thing I have always felt about her novels, is that the conclusions, the reveals of the murderer, always were satisfying, because they made psychological sense. It wasn’t as if, as some people like to think, she just pulled a character out of a hat, it could have been anyone. When one reads a story like that, it is not so satisfying; the solution may be a surprise or twist, but it does not feel natural. Agatha’s almost always did. I will say one thing, which I figured out, to help me solve her mysteries. (Skip this if you do not want my epiphany). She likes the grand effect.

I read John Dickson Carr’s mysteries with Dr. Gideon Fell. Rex Stout with Nero Wolfe. Some of Ellery Queen’s. (Those were actually written by two people under the name “Ellery Queen.”). There were so many writers in what was called “The Golden Age of British Mysteries,” the period from around 1930-1960. British writers of that period included Christie, Marjorie Allingham. Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey. Philip MacDonald.

Then there were the American mystery writers, who invented the “hardboiled mystery,” with the tough detective who sometimes had to use his fists or his gun. Dashiell Hammett was the first, then Raymond Chandler, then Ross Macdonald, who I actually think was the best of them all, taking the genre to a more elegant and complex form. But they were all very good; and listening to all the Hammett novels on tape, and re-reading Chandler’s, I have a greater appreciation for them. Chandler wrote an essay, “The Simple Art of Murder” in which he rather mocked the “tea cosy” British mysteries. But there is room for all of them.

My parents and I shared them; and my happiest moments of our rather brief vacations (my father was a freelance graphic designer, so could not afford to take too much time away from his work), were just swimming in the hotel pool or ocean, and then sitting on a towel and diving into a new mystery story.

Later on, we shared mystery shows on TV. PBS “Mystery,” used to have some great ones. The absolute best, I think, were the Inspector Morse mysteries, based on novels by Colin Dexter. If you love mysteries, and you somehow have not seen these, you must. John Thaw is beyond superb as Inspector Morse. Kevin Whatley is great as Detective Sergeant Lewis. The casts of the these dramas were incredible; British actors who actually seemed to be their characters. The writing was brilliant. The stories always had a sense of melancholy about them, but not overpoweringly so. They are showing them on my PBS station, which bought the rights to them for a significant sum, and shows one every week. I’ve seen each of them now a few times, and they still are remarkable to watch. I have only deliberately never seen the last one.

PBS did some other good ones, too. The P.D. James mysteries with Inspector Dalgleish, were only second to “Inspector Morse,” they were several episodes long, and thoroughly engrossing. I was surprised at how well the Lord Peter Wimsey ones were done. Those were stories which I never read, because I initially found that the writing of the erudite Dorothy Sayers was stodgy; and because she has a reputation for being anti-semitic, though she denied it. The Poirots, with the superb David Suchet, were somehow not as good as the novels, particularly when they cut the time from 110 minutes or so, to 80 minutes. You cannot do a good job with a Christie novel in 80 minutes. No one has ever done Nero Wolfe stories well; they tried some years ago, but they were not too good. The Miss Marples with Joan Hickson, were very good; two actresses who later played her were not nearly as good. And so on.

That leads me to what has occasioned me to write this, which is how upset I am getting at the way that mysteries are now being done. I am thinking of TV series like “Broadchurch,” “Big Little Lies,” and “The Undoing.” I will generalize, but I think with truth behind it. These are less mysteries, than attempts at social commentary. There is room for that, but not when it overpowers the fun of the mystery.

I don’t want to “spoil” any of them which you haven’t seen, but I will say that the solving of the mysteries has become less an exercise in using one’s mind, figuring out clues and the psychological motives, and more of considering the political or social aspects influencing the writers or producers. To give one example, “Broadchurch.” was a story which is now becoming more common; involving the death of a 10-year old or so boy in a small English seaside town. It got a large viewership, and some of the British sports books even posted odds on who the murderer was.

I’ll tell you what: I would have won a bet. Simply by eliminating the characters who I was sure would not be shown to be the killer. There was a young Black man, the hidden boyfriend of the victim’s sister; He sold drugs, but there is no way that he was going to be the murderer. I eliminated all of the women. This left me with about five men, all of whom were either bad people, or troubled. I decided that they were not going to make the father the murderer, he was genuinely mournful. They were not going to have the vicar or whatever his position was, as the murderer. So it easily came down to two possibilities, and I decided that it was the less likely one. And yes indeed, it was he.

“Big Little Lies” purported to be a mystery, but was really more of a social drama. All the men were bad in varying degrees, except for the “ideal husband” who made millions, cooked, cleaned, took care of the kids, and forgave his wife for having an affair. The story was really about domestic violence. That is an important topic, but it overwhelmed any mystery, of which there was very little, just the suggestion of one.

“The Undoing,” I will say less about, as many have not seen it. I will just say that it was a pretty sad excuse for a so-called mystery. Again, you just have to look at who would be palatable to the showrunner (the source material is actually from a book, whose original title would give away the “mystery”) to be the murderer. And it seems obvious that there are virtually absolute bars against doing one of these where a minority member is the guilty person. If they think that it is important not to somehow stoke prejudice by having a minority person be a murderer, okay; but then don’t pretend that this is any kind of real mystery, where several characters might indeed be the culprit.

The wonderful thing about the Agatha Christie mysteries is that she had a penetrating understanding of human nature, and character flaws, so it might be almost anyone who did it. That is what the reader wants, not a story where you eliminate 80% of the “suspects” on cultural grounds. The murderer is now almost always a Caucasian male, educated, and well off. Of course such people commit murders, in real life and fiction, but that doesn’t mean that they inevitably have to be the evil person in these stories. It spoils the mystery, so to speak.

I won’t get into the movie “Knives Out,” which I know made a lot of money, and which has occasioned two sequels by the same writer. I know that many loved it. I thought that it was mostly ridiculous, almost a parody, and that there was a terrible plot hole in the movie, which I will not go into, other than to say that the housekeeper’s actions did not make coherent sense. I am not a stickler who expects every mystery to have no small holes or ambiguities, but I do not expect major problems with the logic of the plot. Well, I have only seen it once, so maybe I am missing something, but I don’t think so.

If you want to see a really good mystery movie, try “The Last of Sheila,” made in 1973, written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins., with a great cast. It has a certain backbiting humor, and clever dialogue. But it is a classic mystery, with clues, psychology, and logic to it. My parents and I loved it when it came out; it was the first DVD that I bought for them when it was released; and anyone special that I recommended it to, has very much liked it as well.

So that is by way of rant. People will obviously watch what they like. And I know that there are still many of us who love mysteries, and who watch hopefully when a new one comes out on the movie or TV screen. But from what I have seen, the quality of mysteries has greatly declined; they are now so often social morality tales, where the joy of trying to figure it out is overwhelmed by the political/cultural strictures. Those are understandable and worthwhile in some genres, but in my view, they are usually inimical to mystery stories.

Give me Holmes saying, “Come on Watson! I have been led up the wrong path by a very fiendish mind, but I see it now! There is no time to lose!” Give me Poirot saying, “Ah, mon ami we must use our little grey cells. Things may not at all be what they seem.” Give me Lew Archer saying, “There were pieces, but they still did not fit.” Give me Morse saying. “Think, Lewis! Why would the same person kill Mr. Jones and then Mr. Smith, if the man he hated was Smith? It is like a crossword puzzle where the answers seem right, but you can’t make any more words out of them.”

Give me mysteries written by people who are smart, logical, and have a fine understanding of psychology and motive. Give me good writing, not silliness or preaching, or “We must have diversity in casting, but not in who the murderer is going to be.” The word is “Mystery.” It is an honorable one, in literature and drama. Do justice to it.

The Game of “Ghost”

This is just a relatively brief post on a lighter topic, which we certainly all need from time to time.

Have you ever heard of the spelling game “Ghost”? My mother taught it to me. I will note that more people used to play word games at parties or on trips. James Thurber had an essay in a collection of his which I read, about the clever vocabulary and knowledge games that he and his literary friends used to play. I don’t remember them, but they sounded like fun. I could never round up enough people to do those, or I just didn’t habituate in the right circles. It would have been my idea of a good party, though, to play those.

I don’t think that many people play such challenging games now at parties, but maybe a few do. I guess that people play Pictionary, which I would not want to play, because I cannot draw very well at all. Charades I have played, but it is not my favorite. I’m sure that some of you remember some good “intellectual” games, but it has to be played with friends who are in the same range, because if some are not good at it, they will feel intimidated or even insulted. I remember a little get-together at the home of a brilliant graduate professor of philosophy, and he wanted to play some kind of erudite trivia; and a couple of people there did not like the game, so we only had two questions., and stopped.

Back to “Ghost.” It is a fun game, the object of which is to not actually spell a word. It goes like this: A player starts by saying a letter of the alphabet. He or she only has to have a word in mind, which is more than three letters. The next player adds a letter, which again has to be part of a word, not likely the same word,, just any word with those two letters. Then the next player follows along. The person who loses is the one who either unwillingly or perhaps even unwittingly, completes a word with his letter, or cannot think of any letter which would not finish a word, and which would actually continue the spelling of a word which she or he has in mind.

It would go like this: The first player might say “B.” He could be thinking of any word starting with B. The next one says, “A” She could have all sorts of words in mind, from barracuda to bannister. If a player thinks that the other player does not have a word in mind, he can challenge, and if there is no such word, or if the other player is spelling it wrong, the challenge wins. Whoever loses that round is penalized, by being given the G in Ghost. If you lose five times, you are a Ghost, and you lose.

Back to this example, we have a B and an A. The third player can say, “T.” because three-letter words don’t penalize you, they must be four or more. So we have BAT. What word is she thinking of? Maybe “bath.” though there of course are others. So the next player (and actually you only need two players to play, that can be more fun), does not want to say, “H,” or he loses, he has completed a word. So he says, “C.” What word is he thinking of? “Batch.” Now, faced with BATC, is there any way out for the next player in turn, without saying, H? Saying, “A,” and thinking of “Batcave”? That is not a word! By the way, you can’t use plurals or suffixes in the game. So without looking it up, I would say that whoever follows BATC loses. Anyway, that’s how the game goes. Depending on how many players are in the game, and two or three are best, you have to try to think ahead, and not get stuck.

Everyone I have taught this game to, has enjoyed it; it goes fast, and takes some spelling and vocabulary ability. Try it at home!

Okay, now to the dramatic part of the story. We were driving home from some longish trip, and my mother and father and I were going to play. My brother is seven and a half years younger, and we would not have left him out, but maybe he did not want to play or was not in the car. Anyway, we went along, and I started a round, and said, “S.” My father said, “O.” My mother said, “O.” This was not good for me! We had SOO. What letter could I add which continued the spelling of a word, but did not finish it? Not T, as that spells SOOT. Not N, which spells SOON. Not P, because SOOP is not a word, even for spellcheck or Gwyneth Paltrow!

So I just lost that round? No! I was determined to find a word! I thought for a few minutes, with my parents understandably rushing me along, and then I had the answer! I said, “G.”

My mother immediately challenged, and I said, “SOOGY.” “Huh??” “SOOGY??” “That’s not a word!.” “Yes, it is! It is in my book, ‘The Jinx Ship,’ which you got me.” (That is a great seafaring mystery by the author Howard Pease, who wrote several of them, always involving a voyage on a tramp steamer, and involving a murder or two, with a college lad named Tod Moran being the main character, and often, the tattooed man, Captain Jarvis, brilliantly solving the mystery. My parents had gotten me the book and I loved it.)

Anyway, in the book, someone says something about washing down the decks with soogy water. And I had always remembered it. So that must be a word, and I win! My father said that it might have been a misprint and they meant soggy water. ??? What is soggy water??

So that stopped the game, and we got home, and I found the book, and there it was! Soogy water. Well, my father tried to look it up, could not find it in the dictionary, but then at work the next day, he found one which did indeed have the word “soogy” in it, defined in the term “soogy water,” as a kind of mixture used to swab decks.

So I was right! Which got me nothing except satisfaction, that I had rather amazingly pulled out a win from a sure loss, like some kind of seven-cushion shot in pool. Only Howard Pease could have also won in that spot. 🙂 We never forgot that word, and it would be brought up from time to time.

Well, a few years later, we went to Magic Mountain to see the fine magician Harry Blackstone, Jr. He had one audience participation trick, where his assistant passed out slips of paper to the audience, and everyone had to fill out the name of an object. He then collected them and started reading them. He came to “soogy water.” My father had put that on the slip! Blackstone started to read it, said, “I don’t know what this says.” My father yelled out, “Soogy water!”

I was embarrassed, but the rest of he family thought it was very funny. Soogy water was never forgotten in my family! More than leaping up and making the game-saving spearing of a line drive, in an adults vs. teenage sons softball game; or saying to someone shooting baskets on the playground at lunch in junior high school, “I’ll show you how to shoot!” when the ball rolled off to me walking by, and then somehow making about a thirty-foot hook shot which amazed him; or winning our first ever junior high school spelling bee, that was one of my most heroic moments in competition. I am proudest of “soogy water,” because many people can catch line drives or make difficult shots at a much higher level, but very few could have gotten out of “SOO” in Ghost! If you are ever in that position, you now have the winning play. My parents would be proud.