Back in 2020, I posted about my surprise rediscovery of Agatha Christie. The initial discovery is lost in memory, a hand-me-down from my dad. I favored heroic action figures back then, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Clint Eastwood. I enjoyed Christie’s Hercule Poirot but filed the rest of her work under ‘dowdy British library murder mystery’ and ignored it.
A mistake. My surprise discovery of 2020 was that Agatha Christie was a fascinating genius who rightfully earned the title Queen of Mystery.
Last week I watched a recent adaptation of Death on the Nile (1937), one of the more well-known Hercule Poirot novels. I had high hopes, but I can only give it a weak Eh! rating.
It started when I watched Jack Reacher (2012), starring Tom Cruise. It was pretty good, and it’s as much fun seeing Robert Duvall in something as it is Christopher Walken. Plus, the bad guy is Werner Herzog! As it turns out, casting Cruise as Reacher is… interesting, but I’ll come back to that.
The movie is an adaptation of the 2005 Lee Child novel, One Shot, the ninth book in his Jack Reacher series. I enjoyed the movie enough that I thought I’d check out the book — my library had it (as well as the others in the series).
I’ve been binging on them ever since. To the point I’ve now read 16 of the 24 Lee Child Jack Reacher novels.
The last few months I’ve been dipping into the Rabbi Small murder mysteries, which are written by author and professor of English Harry Kemelman (1908–1996). The series is in the Amateur Sleuth sub-genre. In this case the amateur who is constantly solving murders is a Jewish rabbi.
The Tony Hillerman books (Leaphorn and Chee) are filled with Navajo background. The Jonathan Gash books (Lovejoy) are filled with antiques background. The Lawrence Block books (Bernie the burglar) are filled with burglary background. In all cases, this background enriches the reading and can be educational (the Hillerman books especially).
Harry Kemelman’s books are enriched by all the Jewish background.
Lately, for my mystery reading, I’ve returned to another old friend from my past: the Lovejoy series by British author Jonathan Gash. It’s a murder mystery series — the sort where the star, who is not a detective of any kind, in each book is confronted with a murder to solve. Usually against their will; they’d rather be doing anything else.
The Lovejoy series has the added attraction that each book spends a fair fraction of the text talking about antiques. The main character, known only as Lovejoy, is an antiques dealer struggling to make a living. He’s also an antiques “divvie” — he has a definite, if somewhat mystical, connection with genuine antiques. He can always tell the difference between real and fake (as he describes it, a bell goes off in his chest).
I just started reading them last week, and I was immediately struck by something.
Okay, not all the Agatha Christie — not yet — but I’m getting close. I’ve read all the Hercule Poirot short stories and novels (save one; the last). I’ve read all the Miss Marple novels and all the Tommy and Tuppence novels (but none of the short stories in either case). I’ve read a few of the stand alone novels, but there are a number of those to go. (I’ve even read a collection of her plays.)
The very last novels are disappointing, but the vast bulk of Christie’s work is a genuine treasure. To be honest, I never realized how engaging and wonderful her writing actually is. I’ve been a Poirot fan since childhood but never explored her other work because I saw it as ‘too old-fashioned and ordinary.’ My mistake!
Speaking of better late than never, recently I’ve finally explored a few other mystery authors, one of which was long overdue…
In light of yesterday’s post, I was initially a bit confused. Is this, because it’s a wrap-up, the last Mystery Monday post of 2020 or, per yesterday, the first one of 2021? I say we wait until after the popping of the champagne corks, so this is the last one of the past year.
No question that this is a wrap-up of an active reading year when it comes to (murder) mysteries. I’ve enjoyed the genre from a very early age (the enjoyment was handed down by my dad). In this atrocious year, they’ve provided a welcome escape and respite.
The year also marks my return to library lending, albeit electronically.
One of the ways I’ve coped during this insanest of years is by escaping into fiction, and it’s hard to beat the sheer escapism of a good murder mystery. Science fiction, my other favorite escapist drug, particularly the good stuff, is often parable, prophecy, or pointed social examination, but a murder mystery is typically just a rippin’ good yarn.
The older classics especially, for instance Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe (two favorites of mine), when you come down to it, are utterly preposterous. Fairy tales staring a fussy Belgian with his mustaches or a corpulent epicurean who never leaves his house, both brilliant and eccentric, both prone to that final scene, everyone gathered, for the denouement, “J’accuse!”
Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli & Isles series is a very different kind of yarn.
Shakespeare talked about the ages of man, and it’s well known that age seems to revert us to our youth. The last handful of years that’s been true for me with regard to mystery authors. For the first time in many decades I’m reading (or rather re-reading) Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey), Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe), and others from my past.
This month I’ve been enjoying Agatha Christie and her Hercule Poirot novels. I got into them after finishing a collection of 51 short stories starring her famous Belgian detective (with his “egg-shaped head” and giant mustaches). Reading those put me in the mood to revisit the novels.
And I must say I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them!
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.
For this Mystery Monday I want to tell you about a great American writer whose name you might not know: Elmore Leonard (1925–2013). As with Philip K. Dick, another great American writer, it’s quite possible you’ve seen a movie based on his work without realizing it. In fact, Elmore Leonard gives Stephen King a run for the money when it comes to works adapted to film.
Two of my very favorite films, Get Shorty (1995) and Jackie Brown (1997), are adaptations of Leonard’s novels. The former is the second film that restarted John Travolta’s career, and many believe the success of the film greatly depends on the source material (I quite agree).
If you like crime fiction, you definitely want to get into Elmore Leonard.