It is now the morning after the presentation of The Art of the Mystery, and I have to say, I ‘m basking in the afterglow! Seventeen people attended, which is an excellent number for a midsummer event such as this. My greatest fear in these situations is that after hours spent on preparation, attendance will be meager – rather like throwing a party and having too few of the invitees show up. You stand around, watching scum form on the surface of the punch and thinking dark thoughts… Anyway, seeing all those eager faces galvanized me right from the get-go.
Here is how I was introduced by my good friend Emma:
“When Roberta first came to work at Central Library in 1982, she had read exactly one mystery: THE DAUGHTER OF TIME by Josephine Tey. She had, alas, received an elitist education in English and American literature. But then Marge, her new co-worker, urged her to read P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. After that, it was Mystery Mania! Over the years, the two of them had the pleasure of leading book discussions, programs, and trainings in what quickly became Roberta’s favorite genre.
Now retired but still obsessively reading, she’s delighted to be here tonight, to share her enthusiasm for crime fiction with all of you and hopefully to get recommendations from you as well.
I used a quiz as my template for the program’s content. Naturally, right at the beginning, someone took a look at it and said, “Oh dear – I feel so stupid.” I immediately responded, “No, no – that’s not the point; it’s not any kind of intelligence test – really!” In fact, last night’s questionnaire was a revision of one that I used in a previous presentation. (And don’t ask me which, or when; there have been many, over the years…)
Here it is:
WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT MYSTERIES?
1. Edgar Allan Poe is widely considered to be the founding father of detective fiction.
a. What is the title of one of his detective (not horror!) stories?
b. What is the name of the protagonist who appears in three of the detective tales?
2. Who narrates the Sherlock Holmes stories?_____________________________
a. What is Holmes’s London address?___________________________________
b. Britain’s Grenada TV produced a series of Sherlock Holmes films for PBS’s Mystery!
They starred an actor who, some believe, is the greatest ever to portray the famous sleuth. His name? ______________________________________________
3. Regarding Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter series:
a. With whom does Lord Peter Wimsey fall in love?
b. How does he meet her? In which novel? In which novel does she agree to marry him?
c. In THE NINE TAILORS, what are the tailors?
4. Regarding Agatha Christie:
a. What was Hercule Poirot’s native country?_____________________
b. What is Miss Marple’s native village?________________________
c. What was Agatha Christie’s native town? ____________________
5. Regarding “the pulps:”
a. What were they?________________________
b. What is the name of the most famous pulp?_______________________
6. What film actor portrayed both Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe?____________________
7. Many moody, black-and-white crime films were made in the 1940′s & 1950′s in the U.S. The French film critics, initially more enamored with these movies than the Americans were, gave them the name they are known by today:_____________________________
8. In 1999, Colin Dexter brought about the demise of Inspector Morse in the final novel of the series, _______________________. Then in February of this year (2002), faithful viewers were shocked to learn of the death of the actor who had so memorable portrayed Morse for Mystery! His name: __________________________.
10. The Morse novels are a fine example of the British police procedural. Name another series in this subgenre:____________________________________
11. Name a mystery award:_______________
12. Name a good source for reviews of mysteries and crime fiction:_______________________
13. Name an author or a novel that you’d like to rescue from obscurity:
14. Name an American writer who sets her mysteries in England:__________________________
15. Name the author of a hugely popular mystery series set in Botswana.
(He also writes a series set in his native Edinburgh, Scotland.) ____________________________
16. One of Britain’s “Queens of Crime” writes psychological suspense novels under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. Who is she? _________________________________
17. Who is the Swedish author of the Kurt Wallander series, recently adapted for television starring Kenneth Branagh? _______________________________
18. Who is the acclaimed author of a series of police procedurals set in Venice, Italy, and featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti? __________________________
18. Name a mystery novel about some aspect of the art world: ______________________
20. In her novels, she created the investigative team of Barnaby and Troy; these two are the protagonists in the popular TV series Midsomer Murders. ____________________________
21. Robert B. Parker’s wise-cracking private eye made his debut in The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973 – and will be featured this fall in The Professional (his 38th outing!). He usually goes by one name, which is:
22. The prolific Lawrence Block recently began a new series featuring John Keller. What is Keller’s profession? ________________________________
23. The protagonist in the “Roma Sub Rosa” series is Gordianus the Finder. Who is the author of this series?
24. Two of the greatest names of the early hard-boiled school of crime fiction were born in Maryland. Name one: ______________________________
25. What qualities make a mystery great? Give one or two examples:
It has often happened that during the run-up to a presentation, my thoughts begin to veer into odd channels, causing me to re-arrange my material at the last minute. Probably I do this in order to drive myself crazy; it almost worked this time! Three days ago, I decided to begin with the last question on the quiz. I was prompted to do this by the Winter 2008-2009 Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine. (Yes, all you good folks at DP: this was your fault!) In this particular issue, editor George Easter asked his writers to come up with the following: their favorite mysteries of 2008 and 2007, an older favorite, and “…a surprise and / or guilty pleasure.” Easter’s staff dove into this assignment with alacrity, producing a blizzard of titles that one would need several lifetimes to read. Click here to read the post I wrote back in February on this issue of Deadly Pleasures. I was particularly taken by Mike Ripley’s response to Easter’s challenge. Ripley himself is a writer of mysteries as well as a critic and an ardent fan. (He contributes a column called “Getting Away with Murder” to the British e-zine Shots.) His article is what prompted me to change the order of business for last night.
As you can see, Kate Atkinson is the cover subject for this issue of DP. Ripley named When Will There Be Good News? as his best read of 2008, praise that was echoed by a number of DP’s other contributors. In a post entitled “I wanted to love them without reservation, but…,” I named this novel as one that did not quite live up to my expectations. For this reader, Atkinson set the bar very high with 2004′s Case Histories, one of the most elegantly structured novels I’ve read in recent years. Case Histories is hilarious, deeply poignant and superbly written. Good News was enjoyable but IMHO, it lacked the special magic of its predecessor.
At this point, Ripley pauses in the proceedings in order to enumerate what he calls the six basic building blocks, or “aspects,” of a good mystery and/or thriller. These are, in his words “plot, pace, characters, suspense, sense of place (which could be geographical, historical or social), and humor.” In choosing his favorites, he looked for books that possessed most, if not all, of these attributes. A few lines later, he notes one additional important “aspect.” At first he’s not sure what to call it; he finally settles on “the author’s individual ‘voice.’”
Ripley mentions several other esteemed novels and authors in his piece. With regard to Most Secret and Pied Piper, two Second World War thrillers by Nevil Shute, he sums up the appeal of the protagonists in both novels thus: “…these are unheroic characters doing very heroic things.” I found this observation both profound and provocative. When this type of actor is at the center of a story, a compelling narrative often emerges. (I think this can be true in real life as well as in fiction.) I immediately thought of Robert Blair in Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair. Blair, a solicitor who, in the stock phrase deals with “wills and conveyances,” is a bachelor who lives quietly with his aunt. From year to year, the routine of his life is virtually immutable. And then comes that call, a plea for help from a woman named Marion Sharpe…
One of my favorite sentences in the English language is “This changes everything.” That phone call changes everything for Robert Blair.
Before going on to the quiz, I backtracked to Mike Ripley’s list of basic “aspects.” Specifically, I wanted to take a closer look at the importance of sense of place in mysteries. One of my favorite websites is G.J. Demko’s Landscapes of Crime. Demko, an emeritus professor at Dartmouth, is a great crime fiction enthusiast. In particular, he believes that setting plays a crucial role in novels in this genre. In “The Mysterious Travel Guide,” he relates an experience he had leading a group of travelers through China. Included on the list of recommended reading he had given group members was Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station by Dorothy Gilman. Participants were unanimous in their opinion that this novel had been a greater help to them in their efforts to gain an understanding of the country than any of the nonfiction titles on the list.
I strongly suggest that you read at least the first paragraph of Demko’s essay. Not only is is lively and interesting in its own right, but it is unexpectedly timely as well.
(And if you are ever lucky enough to go to Naples, aka “Napoli,” definitely bring with you .)
Going over the quiz provided many book talking opportunities, which was, of course, the whole idea. For instance, I recommended . In this fascinating historical reconstruction, Daniel Stashower explores the circumstances surrounding the murder, in 1841, of Mary Cecilia Rogers of New York City. This event was the genesis of one of Poe’s most famous stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” In it, through the offices of his protagonist C. Auguste Dupin, Poe proposes a solution to the crime. (It was, in point of fact, never solved.)
We went on to pay due homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, and to Jeremy Brett, who brought the Great Detective so memorably to life. In the words of Barry Forshaw in The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, “…at a stroke, the brilliant and neurasthenic performance of Jeremy Brett established itself as definitive, aided by his impeccable accent, his fastidious attention to detail and two excellent Watsons (David Burke and later Edward Hardwicke).”
I had planned to read aloud “221B,” written by Vincent Starrett in 1942. I did not have the chance last night, however, so here it is.
Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
But still the game’s afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
England is England yet, for all our fears–
Only those things the heart believes are true.
A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street:
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.
There’s more to come on The Art of the Mystery – including the answers to those quiz questions!