Friday, January 8, 2010


For reasons of pride, snobbery, and misunderstanding, readers and writers of the mystery novel were for some long while relegated to the literary equivalent of the back of the bus. The analogy uses racism as its fulcrum, and has been losing its literary overtones more quickly than the actual conflicts of racism in the real world. More readers and, indeed, more writers are coming to see that even such wildly drawn-out examples as Samuel Richardson's memorable Pamela bear some relationship to the internal thrust of the mystery. At the very least, the readers of Pamela wondered openly whether the eponymous Pamela would or would not, which is to say would or would not deliver her virginity to her most persistent suitor without the regalia of marriage. There was also the suspense of wondering who Pamela was in real life.

The mystery was the pre-television equivalent of television in the sense that back in the day, readers who turned their noses at mysteries were likely to have been reading them in the closet just as it later became fashionable to acknowledge the presence and draw of television but to opt one's self from the viewing public, establishing one's self as separate and with better things to do.

When no less a writer than Eudora Welty wrote a review of Ross Macdonald's estimable The Underground Man, which appeared on the front page of The New York Times Book Review and proclaimed The Underground Man as literature, the genie was at last out of the bottle. It was no longer infra dig to read or write mystery novels and the expectation was that, as so many novels do without having to be urged, the mystery novel would not only solve moral issues, it would address ethical conundrums in more detail yet.

At its simplest level, the mystery novel acknowledged self-interest and corruption to be epidemic, resulting in crimes against individuals, classes, organizations, and entire countries. Somewhere there was an individual, a Philip Marlowe or a V. I. Warshawsky, who would momentarily remove the occasion of corruption, even according some form of justice however rough to serve as an example that "they," whoever "they" were, could not get away with what they were doing forever. In some cases the heroes and heroines of the mystery were later-day Knights Templar, their drinking and screwing achieved off stage while on stage they pursued and brought to justice the modern equivalents of the Saracen.

For those of us who have read extensively in the mystery field, there is a significant pattern, Darwinian in its progression, of development, including the highly rational approach of Sherlock Holmes and the more treacly religiosity of Father Brown, that clerical product of Gilbert K. Chesterton. Mike Hammer worked among the private investigators as did Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer. These names, not intended as a laundry list, reflect some of the many approaches to the mystery, a format that seems to reach out to us, to each in the way and voice of the individual's politics and code of ethics.

Early in the game, mysteries tended to be set among the affluent, where there were such things as butlers, chamber maids, drawing rooms, and dressing for dinner. There were still crimes of violence in the urban areas but those were not abuses meted or suffered with the panache and decorum of estate angst. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were among a small group of mystery writers who more or less democratized crime, brought it into the corner saloon, the garage, the den, gave it back to the people. In earlier novels, the police were a bit on the thick side intellectually, ample proof that the more educated one was, the better one could detect or default. When mysteries came to America, police were not only thick, they were often corrupt. and it took a Phil Marlowe or Sam Spade to effect a better justice.

What better way to look at a given culture than through an investigation of its mysteries and secrets, and to assess the consequences of those very conditions? What man, woman, or child is not afflicted with mysteries and secrets?

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