Old Friends

There are many kinds of “comfort food” we resort to, from actual food — pizza always seemed a good choice in my view — to all the other distractions we use to give ourselves a bit of relief from the stresses of life. (Of course, that sort of thing can become addictive, but that’s another topic.)

Books have been a life-long escape to joy for me. Some are educational, and I love learning new things, but I think the best escape comes from fiction, and especially those fictions with long-running characters — people one comes to know. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is someone I’ve known for over 50 years.

And so are Hercule Poirot and Perry Mason.

I was never a major Agatha Christie fan — I never got into Miss Marple (or, for that matter, Murder, She Wrote, which always struck me as vaguely similar). But I loved Sherlock Holmes from day one, and Christie’s Hercule Poirot was her answer to Conan Doyle’s famous detective.

My prejudices are well on display here, because I revere intellect and intelligence, so Holmes and Poirot were exactly the kind of hero I preferred. Poirot, in fact, was explicitly all about the “little grey cells” — sometimes disdaining the antics of fictional detectives looking for physical clues with a magnifying glass.

(Poirot never mentions Holmes by name, but many obvious references make it clear Poirot is aware of him… and doesn’t think much of him. But part of Poirot’s charm is his view that no one is as good as he is.)

While Doyle paints Sherlock Holmes as physically capable, even in a fight, Christie’s Poirot is dapper and fussy, both in the extreme. (Holmes addiction to cocaine shocks Poirot. He would never fall prey to such a weakness!)

The model calls for an assistant stooge. Holmes had Watson (House had Wilson), and Poirot has Captain Arthur Hastings. As with Watson, Hastings narrates many of the detective’s stories. (Off the top of my head, I think Watson appears far more regularly than does Hastings. At a guess, roughly half the short stories do not feature narration by Captain Hastings.)

In fact, Christie explores different writing modes with Poirot. There is at least one short story told from a third party’s point of view where we see Poirot through someone else’s eyes (someone Poirot helps). Others are told from Poirot’s point of view. (I think it’s because, ultimately, Christie was a better writer than Doyle.)

§

To me, Poirot seems something of a bridge or progression from the strict Sherlock model to another Holmes analog and long-time friend: Nero Wolfe.

Wolfe, famously, never leaves his house or his daily schedule except under extreme duress. As a detective, Wolfe is quintessential intellect. His assistant (more properly, colleague), Archie Goodwin, does all the legwork (sometimes aided by other private detectives).

More to the point, Wolfe shares Poirot’s sartorial and epicurean tastes. Both these towering intellects are extraordinarily fussy — sometimes even delicate seeming (although when pressed they rise to the occasion).

As fictional detectives go, much as I’m a fan of Chandler, Hammett, Hillerman, Grafton, Paretsky, Parker, and others, it’s Holmes, Poirot, and Wolfe, who head the list. (I know I’m mixing authors and characters there, but that’s kind of the point. These characters transcend their authors. Holmes has become a cultural icon. All have been multiply realized in media, especially Holmes.)

In contrast, whereas Poirot is a fairly close reflection of Holmes, in Wolfe author Rex Stout blends Holmes with American hard-boiled detective stories through Archie Goodwin. (Holmes and Poirot: both British detectives, although Poirot, a Belgian, only lives in London; and both with stooge sidekicks.)

That said, all three have narrating sidekicks (as I mentioned, Christie sometimes veers from that), and all three are confirmed bachelors with private lives. Holmes has his researches (and cocaine); Wolfe has his orchids, sumptuous meals, and books; and Poirot… travels a lot, I guess. (We don’t learn much about Poirot’s private life.)

And all three are powerful intellects.  That’s a big draw for me.

§

I mention all this because a while back I picked up Hercule Poirot, The Complete Short Stories from Apple ebooks. It’s a bit over 2400 pages (with my font size — Apple says it’s just under 900 pages).

In it are 51 Hercule Poirot short stories (there’s one that novella length).

(The Apple price on that link seems to be $16.99, but it must have been on sale when I bought it — I doubt I’d have paid that much for it. Once one buys a book, Apple no longer shows the price in the listings. Probably so you don’t bite your tongue if you notice the price dropping.)

I’ve been slowly nibbling away for many months, but this past July starting biting off larger chunks (reading more than one story at a time). It was a nice escape from what’s become a stressful time (for everyone).

For me, the Poirot stories are from so deep in my past that I almost disdain reading them now — as if they were childish toys I’d put away. But I really enjoyed reading these (Christie really was a good author; kind of an interesting person, too).

I enjoyed them so much, I grabbed The Mysterious Affair At Styles and The Murder on the Links, two Poirot novels freely available to me on Amazon Prime. I’m going to keep my eyes open for the other novels, which (due to their age) also tend to be freely available on various platforms.

What’s interesting about those two is that they are, respectively, the first and third works Christie published — she began with Poirot.

§ §

I’ve been waiting and hoping for at least some of the Perry Mason novels by Erle Stanley Gardner to become equally freely available.

Or if not free, significantly inexpensive. I’ve bought 22 of the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe books because Apple has most of them (but not all!) available for $4.99, and I’ll pay five bucks for a Nero Wolfe book easily.

So I was pretty delighted when I saw Apple offering five of the Gardner books for the low, low price of $2.99 (USD prices in all cases, btw).

That was a Buy Immediately moment.

I think it’s a promotion linked with the new Perry Mason TV series. All the books have a big red HBO sticker on them. For the record:

  • The Case of the Lazy Lover
  • The Case of the Lonely Heiress
  • The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom
  • The Case of the Green-Eyed Sister
  • The Case of the Gilded Lily

There’s one more that’s obviously part of the rebranded series (same HBO sticker), The Case of the Terrified Typist, but Apple wants $11.99 for it, so screw that.

What’s fun is that, if you have access to the old Perry Mason TV series with Raymond Burr (or if you bought the DVDs like I did), most of the Gardner novels were done as episodes of that series. One can then check out how they adapted the novels to 50-minutes television episodes.

§

I was a huge fan of that old TV show. I can’t remember if I discovered the books first or the TV show, but probably the TV show. Either way, it was amazing to have books and a TV show of those books.

My love of courtroom dramas probably comes from Perry Mason. He, Poirot, and Sherlock, are some of the oldest of my fictional character friends. As I mentioned, I’ve known them for well over 50 years now.

I even met Raymond Burr once, in, of all places, the Minneapolis airport.

It was back when I was doing a lot of travel for The Company, and spent a lot of time in airports. I actually love them, so I’d go plenty early and people watch. (Haven’t really done that since before 9/11.)

So I’m hanging out people watching and Raymond Burr walks by with an entourage (of young men, ahem). It’s almost as if Captain Kirk had walked past. I followed them to their gate, walked up to Burr, and told him how much he’d meant to me (I was an Ironside fan, too).

He was very gracious, and I got out of his hair immediately, but for all the time I lived in Los Angeles and worked around Hollywood, it took the Minneapolis airport to actually meet a major star. (I did meet Katherine Helmond at a Hollywood party once.)

§

In any event, if you’re looking for escape from these stressful troubling times, I highly recommend a nostalgic trip back to simpler times.

Whether it’s Perry Mason or Hercule Poirot (or Nero Wolfe or Miss Marple or Sherlock himself), wrapping oneself in these stories is like curling up in front of a cozy fire in a warm fuzzy blanket (maybe with a nice glass of wine and some cheese).

It will give your mind some peace.

Stay safe, my friends! Wear your masks — COVID-19 is airborne!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

16 responses to “Old Friends

  • Wyrd Smythe

    One thing that’s kind of funny: When I read the novels, because of all the Perry Mason I’ve watched, I visualize the characters, Perry, Della, and Paul, in black and white! 🙂

  • Wyrd Smythe

    One thing that’s nice for fans: There are over 40 Nero Wolfe novels, 33 Hercule Poirot novels plus 50 short stories, and over 80 Perry Mason novels. That’ll fill up a few library shelves!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I have a weird thing about earworms. Sometimes I only need to think of a song to get it seriously stuck in my head.

    So, since Sunday, when I started writing this post in my head and came up with the title, what’s been running though my head is “Old Friends” by Simon & Garfunkel. It’s on their fourth album, Bookends

    When I was really young, I was a big Simon & Garfunkel fan. They were my first “rock band” ever, although I got into The Moody Blues pretty early, too. I think they were my second rock band.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    (If anyone wants me, I’ll be curled up in front of The Case of the Green-Eyed Sister today…)

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    We all have our comfort-food fiction. Mine change over time, although space opera has always been a pretty reliable category for me. But I can see the appeal in mysteries. I definitely find mystery movies to work that way for me, but I’ve only occasionally had it with books.

    But these days, anything that distracts me from the current world, fiction or non-fiction, is a plus.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I may have mentioned before that a love of mysteries is something I originally inherited from my dad. (The SF is all on me.) Part of the attraction, perhaps, is long-running characters that continue through many books (Holmes being very much a canonical example). I wonder if nearly every mystery doesn’t involve one.

      Chandler has Marlow, Hammett has the Continental Op (a 1st POV character whose name we never learn in any story), Hillerman has Leaphorn and Chee, Grafton has Milhone, Paretsky has Warshawski, Parker has Spenser (we never learn whether it’s his first or last name), and of course, Christie’s Poirot & Marple, Stout’s Wolfe, and Doyle’s Holmes. There are many more! The attraction is definitely the character!

      If you like the movies, you have, potentially, a whole interesting world to explore. There are murder mystery solvers of all kinds out there. Little old ladies, burglars who get sucked into it to clear their name, private eyes, various amateurs, and even a Rabbi.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I did read some of the Continental Op stuff, along with The Thin Man, and enjoyed them. It was a pity Dashiell Hammett’s writing career was so short.

        I’ve also read a lot of the original Holmes stories, and enjoyed them too. Jeremy Brett always struck me as the actor who most closely captured the image in my head when reading those stories.

        Maybe when I finally retire I’ll have to do a deep dive into this genre.

        Long running characters are definitely a plus. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m able to get so engrossed in the Expanse books, characters I’ve been following for a long time. It’s like hanging out with old friends. Authors who are constantly shifting to new characters, which makes telling new stories easier, have a steeper hill to climb in establishing that connection.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The small size of Hammett’s catalog is definitely a pity. He was really a top-notch writer. Reading The Maltese Falcon, and then watching Bogart play Sam Spade in what is a really good adaptation, is sheer delight. It’s something I do every whatever years — read the story, watch the movie. (Talk about comfort food!)

        To be honest, I wasn’t sure who Jeremy Brett was. I’m not sure if I’ve seen any of the TV series he did. It’s possible, but my Sherlock anchors are deeper in the past. The stories first, but my visual image comes largely from Basil Rathbone’s Holmes.

        I have collections of both Hammett and Chandler stories (the Apple MEGA series is a treasure trove; huge page counts, low prices). The character shift thing really stands out in their work. Both authors have established characters and one-off stories. The one-off stories always take a minute to ground the story. The established characters kind of start off running. It’s not just the character(s) — it’s their environment that’s already established.

        (It’s part of Discworld’s attraction. That one is interesting in having different groups of established characters, the three witches, the city watch, the wizard university, etc. There are also a handful of one-off books with new characters that don’t reoccur. Still my favorite series of all time, bar none.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I definitely started with Rathbone as my default Holmes, catching the old movies on late night TV many a summer night. (Along with many a Charlie Chan movie.)

        But Brett’s performance really captures the literary version. I’d only had limited experience with that version (via one of the short stories school had us read) before I saw his performance. The overall series made a strong effort to be true to the stories. It used to play on PBS back in the 80s. I haven’t seen it in decades, so no idea who well it might have aged. But when I later read more of the original stories, Brett’s image was firmly in my mind.

        On character shifts, one of the things I’ve become more impressed with over the years is the importance of connecting the reader with the characters and their lives as fast as possible. It’s interesting how many stories don’t make that a priority.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It’s funny how movies and TV shows “collapse” our imagination of literary characters. (Frodo collapsing to Elijah Wood is my canonical example.)

        Sounds like that 80s series is worth checking out. I do love Sherlock Holmes. (Reread the entire canon not long ago.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        For me, the default Frodo when I originally read the books was some conglomeration of the the versions in the animated movies, which wasn’t all that different from the Elijah Wood look. Although I’m sure if I read them today Wood would dominate.

        It’s weird that the collapse hasn’t happened for me with the Expanse. It might be because I read the books for years before the show and have kept on reading them, so the show versions haven’t had a chance to crowd out the literary versions.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I admit I did find it interesting you retained your original mental images there. It makes sense if you were pretty into the books long enough that you might have strong images of them.

        I just got a new library app, Libby, that gives me access to different libraries than Cloud Library does. I just checked out book #6 of The Expanse… 😮

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        It’s not just the characters. I still think of the Rocinante interior and other settings the way I did before the show came out. Not that the ship is radically different, but my version is better lighted and less blue.

        Uh oh. Just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in…

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Thinking about it, I do have a bit of double-vision regarding the Rocinante interior. I paid a lot of attention to the descriptions in the books, and it doesn’t really jibe with the TV series set. (Understandable, perhaps, but I do have two visions of that ship’s insides.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Truth be told, I have something like that with both the ships and characters. Occasionally I do catch myself picturing the TV version, although it’s more often the literary one (or at least the one I built from the books before seeing the show).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Right, so you said. It got me to thinking about it, which made me realize I do that a little bit, too, with the ship’s interior. But the characters are definitely the TV characters. I’d seen three seasons before I read any of the books.

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