The Art of the Mystery, Part One

July 11, 2009 at 2:10 am (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

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:


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.  atkinsonI 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.

case-histories news

Mike Ripley’s choice for Best of 2007 was The Chameleon’s Shadow by Minette Walters. It was one of mine as wellchameleonHere is the author on the cover of yet another excellent mystery magazine: mystery-scene-mag

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 cosi.)


Going over the quiz provided many book talking opportunities, which was, of course, the whole idea. For instance, I recommended cigar. 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).”

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

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!


  1. Carol said,

    Great post, Roberta! I’m sorry I couldn’t attend your presentation as I would have enjoyed it very much. However, my daughter’s family was here and I doubt that Fiona, the two year old, would have gotten much out of it. In eight or ten years she will be reading some of the canon, I’m sure, but she’s not quite ready to begin.

  2. Gail Coulson said,


    Thanks again for the great presentation Thursday night. My friends were really impressed with your knowledge and recall of plots of books that you read years ago.

    Several other members of our book club could not attend your talk. Would it be OK if I would copy some of the lists you shared? I already gave most of them the address for your blog and will refer them to this post for more info.

    Thanks again for an entertaining, informative evening!
    See you in August.

    • Roberta Rood said,


      I am deeply grateful to you Hanoverians for coming all that way to attend The Art of the Mystery. I actually had great fun Thursday night; I hope the attendees did, too!

      And now, on to Simenon – and Hanover in August!

  3. Joyce said,

    I’m so sorry I couldn’t be at your presentation! As a co-participant in that elitist education, I also missed out on a lot of the real classics and did a pretty mediocre job on your quiz. I guess I’ll have to spend more of my time filling in the gaps.

    • Roberta Rood said,


      Oh yes – do work on those gaps – it is such a rewarding project!

  4. Tina said,

    Hmmm, that was interesting. Looks like somethings will always remain mystery.

    I myself have been trying to solve the mystery of this legend for a while now. Could not understand much though.

    Let me know in case you get to understand the mystery of the Old Hound and the Legend

    By the way, good writing style. I’d love to read more on similar topics

  5. The Art of the Mystery, Part Three: the Golden Age of British crime fiction « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie made it onto the “What Do You Know About Mysteries” quiz. Sayers is a long time favorite of mine. I’m especially partial to the three novels that tell […]

  6. The Art of the Mystery: answers to the quiz, questions 1 – 4 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] July 21, 2009 at 8:38 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction, books) If you wish to test your own “mysterious IQ”  first, the quiz without the answers can be found here. […]

  7. It’s a Mystery! – again… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Mystery fiction, Travel, books) This past July, I had the pleasure of presenting The Art of the Mystery at the Glenwood Branch of the Howard County Library. Next month, I’ll be presenting […]

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