I remember being in Beverly Hills Junior High School and going to Seller’s Memorial Library for the first time. Seller’s is the main branch of the Upper Darby Township Library System and is one third an old Victorian type house and the rest a modern building attached to the house. It’s a pretty cool piece of architecture.
Beverly Hills Junior High School was only a short walk to and from the library. My house was nowhere near the main branch, and I wanted to go because I was on a quest. So, after school one day I walked to the library in search of mystery.
The year was 1974 and Murder on the Orient Express had made a huge impact as a film starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot and a host of other A-list stars including Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman. I saw the film and fell in love with it. I was already an enthusiastic reader and wanted anything and everything by Agatha Christie.
I started with my school library at first, but I don’t remember finding very much there. Junior High School English had already introduced me to Sherlock Holmes, but I wasn’t ready to commit fully to Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective yet, I would in the years to come. I wanted Mrs. Christie.
So, one late afternoon in 1974 I found myself fully engaged in the mystery section of my hometown’s biggest library. I was combing my way through the stacks looking at title after title when an older gentleman approached me and asked what I was doing in that section. I was a little bewildered. It’s not like I was in some sort of X-rated area of the library so I stammered out some kind of answer and he replied that this section was for older people, and I should look for books somewhere else. To quote Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame, “What an idiot.”
Needless to say, I didn’t listen to him and went on with my search much to his annoyance. I don’t know what I went home with that day, but my guess is it was And Then There Were None, probably the most famous of all Mrs. Christie’s works. When I opened up that book, I opened up a whole new world of mystery one that I still live in.
Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None were my first two trips into adult mystery, but my love of mystery goes back to my grade school days when I was reading Encyclopedia Brown and The Hardy Boys. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Encyclopedia Brown was a series of short stories where all the clues were laid out in a pretty obvious way. The reader was challenged to solve the mystery themselves before looking at how the hero, Encyclopedia Brown, solved it. The books were fun but, in many ways, they were a one-time only read because after the mystery was solved there was no point in going back.
The Hardy Boys were a different story, they were probably another level up. The adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy solving mysteries in their hometown or in exotic locations were the stuff of fifth and sixth grade fantasies and doing it with your brother made it even better. I’ve mentioned my cousin Steve before. It was his library, that he left at home, that also introduced me to The Hardy Boys. The first book I read was called While the Clock Ticked. My aunt made me give this one back too, but I started my own collection after that and read several of the books in the next few years.
I stayed with Miss Christie for a long time, as if she were the only mystery writer worth paying attention to. There was reason for this. She wrote so many novels that you just don’t know when to stop and enjoy other authors. Mrs. Christie had a whole stable of detectives that she created, and they were all worth reading. Besides Hercule Poirot there is Miss Jane Marple and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford to name her most famous. There were also her standalone books such as The Pale Horse and Endless Night all totaled Mrs. Christie wrote 82 detective Novels. I have no idea how many short stories and several plays. She was and is the queen of mystery.
Other author’s and movies would come along as I got older. Soon I began to notice other detectives in novels and movies. In 1934 Dashiell Hammett published his novel The Thin Man with the crime solving detectives Nick and Nora Charles. This was not the first husband and wife detective team. Agatha Christie was first with Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Tommy and Tuppence were middle class when pitted up against Nick and Nora.
The Thin Man was soon scooped up by MGM and immediately and made into a popular film starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora. Though filmed in black and white the film showed the opulence of upper-class New York because Nick and Nora Charles were very wealthy. This was the exact opposite of what most Americans were living like at the time. And because of the opulence and the devil may care attitude of the leading players The Thin Man became very popular and a series of films, totaling six, was produced from 1934 to 1947.
Mysteries were popular on both sides of the Atlantic and though we started with Agatha Christie we must now go back in time the great Victorian era. London was gaslights and fog. The English countryside was speckled with large estates nestles against mysterious moors. And one man walked through those mysteries into international fame, the great Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes first appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1887 in a story titled A Study in Scarlett. He was creation of Arthur Conan Doyle. The story goes that Doyle, who was a doctor, did not have a very busy practice so to pass the time he created Sherlock, Doctor Watson. It is said that there are three characters every child knows, Mickey Mouse, Superman and Sherlock Holmes.
In the Sherlock Holmes canon, there are 4 novels and 56 short stories that Doyle originally wrote. After Doyle came many who tried to emulate Doyle’s style, and some came close. There is The Seven Percent Solution by Nicholas Mayer and most recently a whole series of Holmes books which are surprisingly good, written by Kareem Abdul Jabaar. But there are probably 100s of other authors who have taken up the pen to write further stories of the great detective.
After the popularity of the Holmes stories Doyle himself got a little tired of writing about his detective and had him killed in a story called The Final Problem. The public outcry was so great and the national mourning so sincere for a fictional character, that Doyle brought him back first in The Hound of the Baskervilles which took place before his death and then he resurrected Holmes in a story titled The Empty House. Holmes had never actually been dead but had faked his death to make himself scarce to those who still wanted to kill him. Sherlock Holmes is now part of our great arts culture. He will continue to be loved and to be enjoyed for generations to come.
One of my favorite detectives that I have discovered in the last couple of decades is the wonderful Nero Wolfe. Wolfe aided by his handsome, man about town assistant Archie Goodwin was created in 1934 by Rex Stout. He would go on and publish about a book a year until 1975. There are 33 novels and 41 novellas and short stories in the Nero Wolfe canon. I have read about thirty percent of the novels and have enjoyed each of them.
Nero Wolfe lives in an NYC brownstone house in the heart of metropolis. He weighs a quarter of a ton and rarely leaves his home unless under extreme compunction to do so. He solves his mysteries in a great desk chair built especially for him and has all the leg work dome for him by Archie Goodwin. The Wolfe stories are told in first person from Archie’s point of view. Wolfe, in today’s language would be called a foodie and takes great delight in being involved in the preparation and the consumption of his meals. He has chef/butler that lives with him as well as a gardener who manages his large collection of Orchids that are kept at the top of the house in the plant rooms. Some of his greatest stories are centered around the office, the plant rooms, or his meals. For those who desire to eat like Nero Wolfe there was even A Nero Wolfe Cookbook that was published many years ago and is still available today.
Nero Wolfe was not left off of film. There is one movie I know of and two TV series. The best television series was done in the early 2000s and starred Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin. These shows kept very close to the source material and are fun to watch. The producers decided to hire a company of actors that worked across all the shows playing different parts. In some of the shows the performances are so good you don’t realize you had seen the performer in a different role the week before. These shows can be found on YouTube to watch for free.
To delve into humorous mystery, we are going to make one stop. The Polly Pepper Mysteries. There are four books in The Polly Pepper series. Remains to be Scene, Final Curtain, A Talent for Murder and Set Sail for Murder all written by Richard Tyler Jordan. Mr. Jordan worked in Hollywood for a long time and his books are riddled with caricatures of famous celebrities. Half the fun of reading his books is trying to guess who the real people are behind the characters. The Polly Pepper book have been described as a cross between Carol Burnett and Murder She Wrote. Polly Pepper herself is an out of work actress who once had her own wildly popular variety show. She knows and schmooses with the best of Hollywood but when a murder gets committed leave it to Polly to solve the crime with the help of her openly and well-loved gay son and an outspoken maid. The books are a hoot and should be on the shelf of every mystery loving fan. Here’s to hoping Mr. Jordan decides to take up the pen and give us more Polly adventures.
Most of the detectives I’ve written about went from page to screen but there is one that took the opposite route and went from screen to page. That would be Jessica Fletcher and the television show Murder She Wrote. Murder She Wrote starred Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher a retired schoolteacher and widow living in the fictional town of Cabot Cove Maine. We are introduced to Jessica as her nephew has secretly submitted her murder mystery book to a publisher. The book is excepted and becomes a best seller. Jessica is pinned in the spotlight and whisked off to New York City to meet her publisher and to solve her first murder. Murder She Wrote gave the audience the chance to solve the mystery and entertained television viewers for twelve seasons. It had many celebrity guest stars including Florence Henderson, Shirley Jones, Van Johnson, and June Allison.
Not long after the show started a series of books began to be published supposedly written by Jessica herself. These are told in the first person as if Jessica is speaking to us. The books are very good and keep the flavor and the pace of the TV show. Murder She Wrote had stopped new TV episodes several years ago. New books come out regularly.
Charlotte and Thomas Pitt are the creation of Ann Perry and began their adventures in 1979 in the book The Cater Street Hangman. The stories take place in Victorian London where Thomas is a police detective. Charlotte, his wife always finds a way or stumbles into his investigations.
These books aren’t just telling mysteries. Miss Perry has all her characters grow. There is a regular cast of recurring supporting characters that you begin to care about as much as Charlotte and Thomas. In the first book Thomas meets Charlotte in the second they are married as the series continues; they have children. These books don’t just tell of the solving of a good case but also are the story of a family.
In recent years there have been several new detectives that come at solving crime through cooking up delicious food. These books are three quarters story and maybe one quarter or less cookbook. The best of these are The Hannah Swensen series by Joanna Fluke.
Hannah is a caterer in Aspen Colorado when meet her in The Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder. She is divorced but is doing quite well on her own serving up meals to the Aspen elite. In this series the characters also grow as Hannah meets new people falls in love and starts a new family. All of this takes place over several delectable tales. The latest is the series is The Triple Chocolate Cheesecake Murder. The recipes in these books are usually easy to follow and fun to try.
Mystery! Why do we love these stories of who dun it? It is kind of odd that we take delight in murder. Or is it possible that we don’t delight in the murder as much as we delight in the solving of the puzzle? All murder mysteries are puzzles and the pieces are all laid out before you to find if they seem obscure. These mysteries may be a metaphor for life. After all we start asking questions and trying to solve the mystery of our existence almost as soon as we can talk. What parent doesn’t cringe a little when their three-year-old asks, “Where did I come from?” No parent is going to give a technical answer regarding sex so other answers are given that a child can appreciate, but the question remains. Where did I come from? It soon turns into why am I here? Is there a God what does that mean for me?
We all ask these questions. And we spend our lives trying to find out the answer. I think mysteries are there to tell us that the answers are there if me choose to seek for them. There is a meaning and a purpose for every person born on this planet. The hard part is that no one can tell you the answers to your questions at least not the most basic ones. You must seek those answers out on your own. I think mysteries tell us that there are answers to all questions. I think mysteries give us hope.