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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.

4 Responses

  1. My mother and I loved to read mysteries together, as well as watch Masterpiece Mystery on PBS. Her favorite Mystery programs were James’ Inspector Dalgliesh and Dexter’s Inspector Morse. I continued to take mysteries for her to read in the nursing home until a few months before she died. She enjoyed them so much.

    I agree the quality of mysteries on Masterpiece are not what they once were. And I miss having my mother here to watch them with me. It was a highlight of our week to see a new episode together and discuss it afterwards.

  2. My favorite Agatha Christie is “Sad Cypress”, one of her lesser known Poirot novels. It is a fine mystery with a touch of romance that is very satisfying.

    William, I have you to thank for introducing me to Ross Macdonald. He was a brilliant writer whose mysteries have a rare depth and humanity. Lew Archer is so decent, there is something in him that remains clean and pure at his core in spite of the ugliness all around him. Macdonald’s last novel, “The Blue Hammer” is my favorite. The ending is especially poignant.

    • I also like “Sad Cypress,” very much. I think I listened to David Suchet read it, after having of course read it more than once.

      Ross MacDonald was a great writer, and I think the greatest American mystery writer ever, and maybe one of the best American fiction writers ever. They have never done a series of his stories; they did two novels with Paul Newman playing Archer, but they have never really captured the novels or Archer’s character.

  3. William, are you familiar with Felony & Mayhem Press? They specialize in reissues of out-of-print classic mysteries, as well as publishing new mystery writers from the US and abroad. They have a website that is great fun to peruse.

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