MAY I SUGGEST YOU READ A MURDER MYSTERY?

I have to admit I’ve been stressed for about . . . three and a half years. Bernie Sanders said recently that the current health crisis is “on the scale of major war,” but I’ve felt battle-scarred, mostly by tweet, for some time now. And now, thanks to COVID-19, I’m in exile: our schools have closed for, at a minimum, a month, and we are being advised to socially distance ourselves from others. As a single man, this poses a certain set of problems, and I can only imagine that those of you with families might be eyeing each other askance, so that when the kids come home their mothers have a little more tremor in their voices when they ask, “Where have you been?”

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Ecclesiastes tells us there’s nothing new under the sun, and I imagine that this is what it must have felt like for people from, say, 1914 to 1922. First, you had your world war ravaging Europe, taking the lives of 20 – 22 million world citizens and wounding about the same number. Then, in 1918, the boys came marching home – bringing with them a strain of H1N1 influenza that infected one third of the world’s population and killed between twenty and fifty million people. This was followed by a global depression that plunged world economies into despair for two years.

Sound familiar?

But you know what people did during these times? They knuckled down and worked together to get through. They set up support systems for the poor. They figured out how to help the veterans of the first war, and they rationed their lives away to provide for the soldiers of the second. Everyone did his bit, and they rallied together, feeling more nationalistic fervor than ever before because they were involved in a joint effort to create a better world.

And they read murder mysteries.

I mean it! You have to give some credit for the renaissance period of crime fiction known as the Golden Age to these social horrors. And what is so ironic is that the reason people snapped up classic crime novels in droves is the very reason that all too many modern snarks dismiss them: by essentially reducing a cataclysmic event to a puzzle – and then solving it – mysteries brought solace, even a sense of empowerment, to people afraid of walking out their doors for fear of running into a mortar shell or a killer bug.

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Most of the credit for this has to go to the Brits, a “stiff-upper-lip” culture to begin with, right? Agatha Christie wrote some of her best books while waiting the war out in London and enduring one blitz attack after another. Even her most nihilistic book, And Then There Were None (1939), where EVERYONE dies, contains profoundly mundane scenes of coping, where people sit in parlors, eating cold tongue and sipping sherry, engaging in small talk as they inwardly ponder: “which of them? . . . which of them?”

As I sit here in my cozy little home, trying to cope with so many unknowable things in our collective future, I’m also trying to learn from the past. This COVID situation counts as an existential crisis, but I’ve had those before. At age 11, my family moved to, what became for me, a hostile environment: a house in permanent fog and a school where every student despised me. That’s when I graduated from The Hardy Boys to Hercule Poirot. (Thankfully, we moved a year later; equally thankfully, the reading habit remained.) The big crime came at the age of 40, a combination of ending a relationship with a truly lovely man and of realizing my mortality.

At that point, Carr, Queen and Christie weren’t enough, so I sought help from a therapist. I told him that every morning, when I stepped into the shower, I felt this suffocating fear of death. That dear guy told me that, while he couldn’t remove the fact of death, he could help me deal with the fear. And much of that has to do with living your life, savoring the present, engaging with others, yes, but finding what’s good in yourself, too, and enjoying that.

One of the things I have found I like about myself is the way I relate to mysteries. I love to read them. I want to write them, but for now I write about them. Some people try and solve each crime novel they read. So do I, to a certain extent, but what is so fascinating is that I would much prefer to be fooled. On the most superficial level, this involves the delight I feel in being surprised. But if you want to get heavy about it for a minute, I think it shows personal growth since I turned forty. As a kid, I would actually make notes as I read and try desperately to match wits with the detective. And now, because Ronald the Therapist taught me some stuff, I am able to give myself over to fate, as it were: read, ponder, enjoy.

This is not to say I’m discouraging all you prospective armchair detectives out there. For those who like their clues parsed out frequently, their bodies stuffed to the gills with undetectable poisons, and a nice “Challenge to the Reader” placed in the appropriate slot, there are myriad pleasures awaiting you.

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Below, I have made some suggestions to suit different types of people. The only caveat is that you must put aside Netflix for a few hours and actually read!

IF YOU’RE CURRENTLY EMBRACING THE #METOO MOVEMENT . . . then you must seek out the Queens of Crime. The empowering fact that mystery writing has always been an especially successful occupation for women aside, the leading female lights of the genre do it so well – and they do it in contrasting ways. Nobody crafts better puzzles and juxtaposes the cozy with the criminal to better effect than Christie. Turn to Dorothy Sayers for sophisticated wit, to Ngaio Marsh for homespun procedurals in villages or theatres, to Christianna Brand for heartbreaking deviltry. The abundance of interesting female characters – from the brilliance in fichu of Miss Jane Marple to the intellect and heart of Harriet Vane, to the flawed brilliance of the entire cast of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes (except, sadly, for Miss P. herself), women writers have created amazing heroines and villainesses who are the better of any man (except Hercule Poirot!)

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IF YOU’RE A MAN’S MAN AND WOULD RATHER MESS AROUND IN THE GARAGE WITH GADGETS . . . welcome to the world of impossible crime, where science is used for evil purposes and where a man with a good head on his shoulders can kill anyone he likes with a piece of string, a wad of gum, and access to his nephew’s chemistry set. Authors like John Dickson Carr, Clayton Rawson, John Rhode and Brian Flynn revel in stories where the “what” and the “how” are as riveting as the “who.” Remember when your mom used to yell at you for tracking muddy footprints in the house? Meet a bunch of killers who have figured out how to perform horrific acts without leaving a trace! Do you like to tinker with cars? Well, you’re not alone – although your reasons for tinkering might differ from those of the killer in The Corpse in the Car.

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IF YOU’RE CUH-RAAAZZY FOR ROMANCE BUT LONG TO EXPAND YOUR HORIZONS . . . believe it or not, there are mysteries for you. Even though most of the unofficial rule makers frown upon love intruding in their mysteries, it’s almost always there. Patricia Wentworth had a rule that certain characters were sacrosanct, and that included lovers. That young couple in trouble at the beginning of any Miss Silver novel will always be together in the end. (Not so much in Christie, so beware!) There are also some wonderful sleuthing couples for you to savor, from Tommy and Tuppence to Harriet Vane and her Lord Peter. Patrick Quentin wrote many series, and the best chronicles the tumultuous relationship between Peter and Iris Duluth. Kelley Roos makes you both laugh and wonder in the many exploits of Jeff and Haila Troy, while Delano Ames provides the same pleasures with Jane and Dagobert Brown. Ironically, one of the most romantic pairs came from the cynical pen of Dashiell Hammett, and while Nick and Nora Charles only appeared in one novel, The Thin Man (1933), they showed up in six films – and Hammett had a strong hand in developing the first three.

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IF YOU ARE A CHILD OR TEENAGER AND YOUR MOM SAID “CORONAVIRUS, SHMARONAVIRUS, YOU KIDS ARE GETTING IN MY HAIR, SO GO TO THE MALL” AND YOU WENT TO THE MALL AND FOUND THAT EVERY STORE WAS CLOSED, AS WAS THE MOVIE THEATRE, AS WAS THE STARBUCKS, AND YOU GOT SPOOKED AND CAME HOME AND FOUND YOURSELVES PERUSING THE BLOG OF AN ANCIENT MAN . . . I got you covered. There are wonderful mysteries for young people: the Five Find-Outers series by Enid Blyton, a true gateway drug (Ewwwwww! He said “drugs!”) into grown up mysteries; the Three Investigators by a number of authors, starting with Robert Arthur, a series connected to the name of Alfred Hitchcock, whose movies you should watch as well; the modern but smartly old-fashioned salutes to the Golden Age by Robin Stevens in the Murder Most Ladylike series; and . . . oh hell, kids, I started reading Christie at eleven! Just dive right in!

the-mysterious-bookshop                           The Mysterious Bookshop, a New York treasure trove!

There are mystery writers for everyone! For those who like to explore the minutiae of detective work, there’s Freeman Wills Crofts, who celebrates his hundredth anniversary of publication this year! For kooky puzzles with eccentric characters and labyrinthine solutions, there are Ellery Queen (at least the early period), Anthony Boucher, and S.S. Van Dine, or the glorious shin honkaku mysteries of Soji Shimada, Seicho Matsumoto, Yukito Ayatsuji . . . well, anyone who has been translated! If you like to carry a gun and use the term “dame” loosely, a world of pulp fiction awaits you. If you’re more into the psychological aspects of crime, check out Helen McCloy or Margaret Millar. And if you’re looking for a lengthy series of novels with an endearing set of regular characters you can fall in love with, try Rex Stout or Erle Stanley Gardner.

And if you only want to read living authors but want to sample those who create modern mysteries that still pay homage to the past, check out Margot Kinburg, Christine Poulson, Dolores Gordon-Smith, Paul Halter, Martin Edwards, and James Scott Byrnside.

Whatever you do, for the foreseeable future, stay safe out there. Reach out to others who may feel isolated, even if it’s through social media, e-mail, the comments section of a man’s blog, or that old stand-by that no one uses except my mom, the telephone. Mysteries are a tried-and-true diversion, highly recommended. But in the end, we only have each other. As a commentator said this morning, after the shock of 9/11 settled in, we could turn and hug each other and say, “We’re going to get through this. We’re going to be alright.”

Well, now, it’s better if we not hug for a while. So allow me to send you all a virtual elbow bump and a reminder:

We’re going to get through this.

We’re going to be alright.

?'1?7488953_4525653141148763633_n                                     Wishing you all good health and good reading.

41 thoughts on “MAY I SUGGEST YOU READ A MURDER MYSTERY?

  1. These are great suggestions, Brad. And you’re right; this is one of those times when we do have to work together, help each other, and get through this. Part of that is keeping our own – is the word sanity? – perspective. And reading can really help that. Well, I know it helps me. Reading provides, among so many other things, a sense of solace and an escape from a world that we can’t always predict and certainly can’t always control. Let’s hope the world outside soon settles a little, but we can settle our own micro-worlds while we wait…

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  2. A great, heartfelt, timely topic and post! Your observation about anxiety of the future in 1939 and the characters in And Then There Were None put that story in new (admiring) perspective for me. Speaking of Dame Agatha, I’ve been thinking for a while now that the Scourge of three and a half years might just have his Marina Gregg moment at a MAGA rally, although Fate has likely already played its hand. Take care, stay healthy, and keep adding to your blog, Brad!

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    1. Thank you, Jason! I don’t wish harm on anyone, even someone who has harmed others so much. I assume that, at some point, he may reap what he has sown. I don’t want to contribute to the meanness he has inflicted and stirred up. But . . . I love your reference to “his Marina Gregg moment . . . ” This reminds me of what a bond we have as mystery fans: it has created our own private code! Best of everything to you, Jason!

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  3. As I sit here in my cozy little home, trying to cope with so many unknowable things in our collective future, I’m also trying to learn from the past.

    Just remember that if the 20th century didn’t end human civilization, the only thing that will get the job done is either a large asteroid or the sun going supernova. Other than those two inconveniences, the human conquest of the universe is still on the agenda. 🙂

    But you might want to avoid Herbert Brean’s The Clock Strikes Thirteen until this pandemic has subsided a bit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I rely on your opinion, TomCat, and will avoid the Brean until I get the signal from you that all’s well! So far, my biggest frustration of the past five years has been that you and John Norris, both of whose opinions and suggestions I admire, are the hardest to communicate with on this damned blogosphere! Take care of yourself!

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      1. I’m always one email or comment away, if you (or anyone else) ever needs me. You also take care of yourself and don’t let this plucky virus screw with your mind.

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  4. Thanks for this special post. I admire your ability to be yourself in your posts, if that makes sense. You’re not afraid to be vulnerable. From someone who spends most of their time in a headlock with their anxiety, whilst feeling compelled to hide it, I hope someday I can be more like you.

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  5. I have cancelled my trip to London in mid-May because of the corona virus scare ! And this after filling a lengthy seven-page form asking all kinds of stupid questions for getting the visa. Getting a Schengen visa is much easier !
    And what is this I hear from young Bernie Sanders supporters on Twitter that the Democratic Party and DNC are rigging the primary elections against Sanders !

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    1. I’m not sure that this is a conspiracy so much as a realistic approach to the upcoming election. Would Bernie be just as good a president as Biden? Possibly. Does he have an equal shot at beating Trump in November? I’m not so sure. They’re all too old for the job, but I believe that Biden would surround himself with a balanced and qualified team and that he would do all he can to ensure to Sanders voters that they will count beyond the election. I think a lot of established politicians feel the same, and insomuch as they are casting their lot with Biden through endorsements, you can look at that as a “conspiracy.” However, the biggest fear should Biden get the nomination is that those young Sanders voters would be foolish enough to sit the election out and let Trump win again. They don’t always understand the repercussions of decisions made in a fit of pique.

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      1. Yes, these supporters are telling that if Sanders doesn’t get the nomination, they will either not vote or vote for Green Party !

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      2. And I think they’re immature and foolish to think that way. Again, they don’t seem to understand what is at stake this time. But it is their right and their choice to vote however they want. My question would be: why didn’t they all bother to vote during the primary? Why did college towns vote for Biden? As I’ve said to some younger colleagues, you have to put your money where your mouth is. If someone does not vote, then complains about what’s going on, I have no time for them.

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      3. Sanders supporters who refuse to vote for the Democratic nominee unless it is Sanders, and hence refuse to vote against the Republican nominee, deserve another four years of Trump. And they would have no cause for complaining about it, since that is what they agreed to by not voting.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks, Brad for your blog. It put me in a better frame of mind. Reading (and Needlepoint) has always helped me stay positive. We live 40 miles from New Rochelle which has become the epicenter of the corona virus in Westchester County and a family in our town has self quarantined because they were exposed to the virus. One can’t help but be anxious

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  7. Thanks for this Brad! I have been terrified for over a week. I live with my elderly Dad and I am scared of passing the virus on to him should I contract it. Your post has helped me calm down.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So many of us are trying to protect elderly parents and ourselves and stay calm! I trust/hope that a positive community spirit will assist us here!

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    1. There are a million mysteries on YouTube. The trouble is that they come and go, many are bad prints, and some are incomplete. For example, there’s a wonderful British mystery called The Woman in Question that I was going to recommend, but when I went to check, the only version that pops up has the first 10-15 minutes cut. You can watch the 1945 Rene Clair version of And Then There Were None, which is charming. All the Charlie Chan movies were stuck on there, but now they’re in these weird versions where the screen is crammed into the corner. There are a MILLION “old dark house” mysteries on YouTube, many of which are slow, boring films but some of which are/may be delightful. I would explore if I were you. Meanwhile, if anyone else has suggestions of free movies out there, please let Madcap know!

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      1. Thank you so much Brad! I do like noir films too and there are many out there on YouTube. But I am not sure if those are appropriate right now.

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      2. I would recommend listening to one of the many old-time, Golden Age radio shows like Suspense, The Adventures of Ellery Queen and The Casebook of Gregory Hood. You can fill quite a few days with those often excellent shows and readily available on the web.

        Since my country is now pretty much locked down, I’ll probably have some time now to rewatch Baantjer and Columbo.

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      3. I heartily echo TomCat’s suggestion! Both Ellery Queen and Gregory Hood are excellent shows, classic mysteries with good clues. Gregory Hood was written by Anthony Boucher and Denis Green, and you couldn’t ask for better. For several years, they also wrote The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and I highly recommend that show, too, especially the seasons with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (brought to you by Petri Wine – the commercials are as fun as the shows.) The first season of Suspense was largely written by John Dickson Carr and has some wonderful mysteries, before the show transformed more into “thriller” territory. I’m also finding lots of audiobooks and radio shows on YouTube, including some episodes of the Poirot radio mysteries, starring John Moffat – every one of them is good! I just found some of the old P.D. James Dalgliesh mysteries from PBS, too. There is so much to keep one occupied if one has to be alone! And now . . . back to watching Mansfield Park!

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      4. Hi Madcap and all — I heartily endorse the Youtube movie and radio suggestions already offered, and I have one single B-movie suspense film to add that delighted me no end a few weeks ago: 1945’s My Name Is Julia Ross, which is based on Anthony Gilbert’s The Woman in Red and stars Nina Foch and a devious Dame May Whitty. It’s sort-of Hitchcock Lite, but it’s a lean and fast 65 minutes and beautifully directed by the underrated Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy). So that’s my recommendation! I found it great fun. Best wishes — Jason H

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    2. I dunno about YouTube, but if you have Amazon Prime I can strongly recommend “Unforgotten” and “Line of Duty.” Unforgotten is the best cold case show I’ve seen. Line of Duty is a roller-coaster ride revolving around a police internal investigation unit. Both are marvelous, top drawer entertainment.

      Stay well and exercise common sense during this difficult time.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hey, Marblex, I wanted you to know that I binged the first series of Line of Duty, and am now engrossed in the second series with the amazing Keely Hawes. Thanks for the recommendations!!! (I watched the first episode of Unforgotten about a year ago and then . . . forgot to watch more. I seem to recall it was very well done, so I will return to it soon.)

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      2. I am so pleased that you’re enjoying LoD… and sorry for taking so long to reply. Yes Keely Hawes is nothing short of spectacular. You will enjoy the other LoD series as well. P.S. DO go back to Unforgotten. You won’t be sorry.

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      3. I binged every series of LoD. The final series was the weakest but was still entertaining. I know there’s one more in the works, and I worry I’ll never get to see it!! Meanwhile, based on your recommendation, I definitely will start over with Unforgotten!

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      4. You won’t regret it. Unforgotten’s storytelling is superior.

        I can also recommend any and all of the televised Ann Cleeves Mysteries: Shetland and Vera. You might also enjoy the Morse series and its progeny, Lewis and Endeavour. I’m an absolute nut for British mysteries.
        Glad you enjoyed LoD. Try Brokenwood Mysteries — lighter but very enjoyable.

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      5. I enjoyed Morse but loved Lewis and Endeavor. Not sure if that’s how it’s supposed to be, but I found both later series more moving. All three are exceptional series!

        Liked by 2 people

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