|Volume 2 Issue 3 | March|
Yasmeen Murshed takes us on a trip through the heart-stopping and bone-chilling pleasures of the murder mystery
G.K. Chesterton's famous detecting priest Father Brown and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes were others that I enjoyed in my teens, but Agatha Christie is rightly called the Queen of Crime because of her vast output and popularity among all manner of persons. She was one of the first to develop the "closed" room mystery where a corpse is found in a room into which no one could have access, but someone evidently does and is eventually found out through a process of elimination and deduction. A variation on this is the murder of one of a group of individuals confined by various strategic devises to a remote house, island, or some other inaccessible spot. The process of investigation and deduction is quite similar to one of her two famous detectives -- Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot -- who sets about the task of catching the murderer.
Christie's main ingredients were emotions -- passionate love, jealousy, hate, and envy -- but perhaps because of the conventions of the times she was writing in, her characters seldom took on three dimensional life. It is apparent that her forte was plot, and she kept the mystery ticking along until the end. One particular book that I remember still, decades after I first read it, is "Death Comes As The End." It is set in ancient Egypt which Christie knew well because of her travels with her archeologist husband. The feeling of creeping menace, jealousy, envy, and vicious evil that she created is quite remarkable, given the circumspection of her use of language and vocabulary.
Christie's art was carried on by others such as Ngaio Marsh with her Lord Peter Wimsey stories, but it was Rex Stout, with his famous detective Nero Wolfe, and the Ellery Queen stories that carried the genre to the next level. The use of intriguing allusions was a notable feature in both series, so Ellery Queen forced me to learn the Greek alphabet because so much of his symbolism derives from that language, and Nero Wolfe forced me to mug up chemistry symbols -- arcane bits of knowledge, but it stands me in good stead in solving crossword puzzles!
Ellery Queen was a character created by cousins Dannay and Lee in a short story they wrote for a competition and entered under that name as author. I did not realize that Ellery Queen was not the name of the author of these brilliantly plotted stories until much later, and I remember being quite taken aback at the revelation. I cannot now remember in what order I read the books but, apparently, "The Roman Hat Mystery" (pub: 1929) was the first of the series. It introduced Ellery Queen as the son of Inspector Richard Queen of the New York police department. Ellery, an introspective young writer of detective novels, would analyze the clues connected with a crime that his father, the police Inspector, collected, and by a process of deduction ultimately solve the crime.
Unlike Agatha Christie's stories and characters, there was a recognizable change in the tone and style of the novels, and the characters themselves, in each successive story. In the early stories the emphasis was on complex exercises in brilliant plotting and unexpected developments. Later, there was more repartee and humour from the characters, and Ellery himself went through many upheavals, sometimes even doubting his abilities at detection. At one point he decided to give up detective work entirely but, fortunately, he reconsidered! The books have their ups and downs and, particularly in the later part of the series, the quality deteriorated sharply. I still remember, though, "The Greek Coffin Mystery" and "The Egyptian Cross Mystery." The former was perhaps the most intricately plotted and is still my favourite among all his books. The latter, on the other hand, was the most insidiously evil and kinky -- as far as kinky went in those days!Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe was a massively overweight, short tempered, agoraphobic and sedentary gourmet who virtually never left his Manhattan brownstone which housed his huge orchid garden on the roof and boasted a personal elevator. Wolfe was, in every sense, an armchair detective, therefore he required someone to collect his clues and generally do the active stuff. Enter investigator cum strong-arm man cum secretary -- the debonair Archie Goodwin.
Wolfe was a man of fixed habit and routine which he refused to interrupt or change even on the direst of occasions. He arose late, and only descended to his study after spending an hour inspecting his orchids on the roof with the orchid keeper, Theodore Horstmann. Temperamental and moody, Wolfe was unable to work without a steady supply of beer, or without planning the day's menus with his creative chef, Fritz Brenner. Their detailed discussions about the fresh produce available in the market and how it might be used most creatively in a dish is quite fascinating, and the menus alone are worth reading the books for.
However, my favourite in the household, as I am sure he was for most people, was Archie Goodwin, a handsome but tough young man, a forerunner of the hard boiled PIs of later American crime fiction. Archie had a photographic memory and knew a pretty girl when he saw one. He also had a penchant for wise-cracking that was the bane of more than a few policemen and pretentious officials who would have liked to see his mouth nailed shut permanently! It is Archie, an excellent storyteller, who recounts the stories in the first person. Part of his job, as he saw it, was to goad the naturally indolent Wolfe into taking a case. Archie constantly worried at the lack of lucrative cases because paying the bills was his responsibility, and he was always extra persuasive when a profitable case came along. Wolfe was more choosy -- he would bestir himself only when something struck his imagination or posed a challenge or, in a very few instances, when his chivalrous instincts were aroused.
This genre saw many proponents on both sides of the Atlantic, and I am going to be writing about some of my favourites among them. James Hadley Chase, John D. Macdonald, Dashiel Hammett, and the famous Raymond Chandler were very popular writers of the tough talking wise-cracking PI who was always interested in "babes" and "broads."
However, a more general appeal was provided by Earl Stanley Gardner in his court-room dramas which also acquired fame through a long running TV series. Apparently, Gardner was a prolific writer, but much that he wrote can only be called pulp fiction, and he is still best remembered for the exciting legal thrillers and last minute court-room revelations of his most famous character -- the fast talking and equally fast acting lawyer, Perry Mason.
All very good clean fun -- the stories are light and lively and more often than not end in satisfying conclusions with the bad guys getting their comeuppance. These books were most entertaining reading at the time, and to this day any one of the books is good for a few hours of light entertainment. There have been recent reprints of some of the books, and, of course, many can be found in used bookshops, so a browse through the Bailey Road and New Market shops might well yield a few titles.
Yasmeen Murshed is Chairperson, Scholastica Group.
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