Areas of Unrest
15 October 2000 - A Matter of Mystery
QOTD: "Where mediocrity is the norm, it is not long before mediocrity becomes the ideal." - A. N. Wilson
Reading: just finished Jane Langton, The Thief of Venice
Listening to: Tom Ze, Brazil 5: The Hips of Tradition
Chaos in the Middle East, continuing instability despite faint signs of hope in Yugoslavia, the death of Sirimavo Bandaranaike (the first female prime minister in the world and generally regarded as the matriarch of Sri Lankan politics), Robert Mugabe's pardon of offenders who committed what he called "politically motivated crimes." I once read that there has never been a time in history when there has not been a war within three hours of Heathrow Airport. I'm tired of the world news, even tired of explaining how all the bad things are the fault of the New York Yankees. Instead of watching the news, I've retreated into a major book binge, mainlining mysteries.
Along the way, I did go to Boulder so let me get the obligatory food pornography out of the way quickly. Zolo. Ahi. Need I say more?
That out of the way, I can talk about mysteries. I need to explain that I grew up on Nancy Drew, the Dana Girls, and Trixie Belden. Then, while a few of my friends devoured each Agatha Christie that came along, I detoured into other directions - mostly fantasy and science fiction. My senior year of college, I picked up a copy of Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers for nineteen cents in the bargain bin at Barnes and Noble and I rediscovered detection. I devoured all of Sayers, all of Nicholas Blake, all of Rex Stout, and even Christie.
The straightforward puzzles of Christie and Ngaio Marsh were never entirely satisfying, but they were diverting for an afternoon or so. I claimed to prefer my crimes to be genteel, but Rex Stout could get me to read anything, no matter how bloody. The rapid pace of Ed McBain, the wit of Edmund Crispin, the logic of G. K. Chesterton - all very different styles, but all were fair game. I'd find an author I liked and read all of his or her work. If I liked them enough and they were still alive, this sometimes even led to the expense of hardcover editions.
I believe it was Sayers who considered the mystery to be the modern morality play, the one place left where it was acceptable to talk about good and evil. At any rate, mysteries were a genre where plot was still important, where something had to happen. Of course, the plot could be an excuse, giving characters something to do while other issues were explored. The best example I can think of is the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. In the ten books they trace the changes in Beck as he reacts to the changes in Swedish society. But Sjowall and Wahloo never forgot that they were writing police procedurals and the stories work even if you ignore Beck's evolution.
I've gotten less and less satisfied with the mysteries I've been reading and my recent binge on them has helped me understand why. Each time I found myself complaining about something in one book, I'd go on to find another book that did similar things but that I didn't mind them in. So I thought I'd list a few points, mostly as a way of crystalizing my thinking.
Of course, it's easy for me to say all this, since I have no intention of writing a mystery of my own.
Ever wonder about the music I say I'm listening to? Can't hear Snakefarm or Old Blind Dogs or Pierre Bensusan on your local radio station? Well, here's your chance. In the spirit of musical evangelism I've made a mix tape of music I referred to in my margin notes over the past year. I also happen to have another mix tape handy, mostly of World Beat stuff, that I'd made for another purpose. All you have to do is send me email with your address, telling me if you want the AOU41 tape or the Worlds of Unrest tape (or both) before the end of October 2000. (The links are to playlists.) Nothing is required in return, beyond your willingness to listen. If I decide this was a successful experiment, I'll make it an annual event.
Copyright 2000 Miriam H. Nadel
Send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org