Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dorothy L. Sayers: Still the Best, After All These Years

I'm re-reading Clouds of Witness, which is a lovely mystery in terms of character study and (British) legal novelty.

I had thought of starting all over again, and re-reading the Sayers books chronologically, but I could not find a paper-copy of Whose Body?, and can't quite rationalize re-buying an e-edition of the book. Though my backlit Kindle is starting to spoil me: it's annoying to have to make sure that the lamplight is at the correct angle for reading a book on a paper page.

Oddly enough, I've been told that Nooks are more advanced in this regard, since a number of Nook models allow one to swap between flat e-ink and backlit, for reading in bed (or with a lower-level lamp or whatever). Perhaps I'll test that out by swapping e-readers with my mom for a week next year: her Christmas gift will absolutely be a mid-level Nook. (Nooks are better than Kindles for the technologically challenged, I think: they can be taken into a Barnes & Noble store for on-site tech support. At least, I know there are nice people at my local B&N who will do that for my elderly mom.)

And . . . on to learn all I've forgotten about the evolution of Lady Mary Wimsey.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Tale of Three Sherlocks

Are we living in a Doyle-lover's paradise? Perhaps.

Right now we're seeing Sir Arthur's Sherlock Holmes stories reimagined in three different ways: as a steampunk-driven movie franchise that stars Robert Downey, Jr.; as a modern-day techno-fest in London, with Benedict Cumberbatch; and as a workmanlike CBS production starring Jonny Lee Miller that moves Sherlock to contemporary New York City, places him in recovery from a drug addiction, and assigns him a female Dr. Watson as a "sober living companion."

The first and the third are excellent craft; Sherlock, though, is art.

Some of the episodes require a lot of reading, as text-messages appear onscreen. So my elderly mother has to sit upright to watch, rather than reclining on her couch. And the fast cuts make the stories too exciting to be a last-thing-before-bed affair—meaning insomniacs like me have to watch them right after dinner, and then find an economics textbook to read.

It's all worth it.

The Mark Gatiss/Steven Moffat premise—techno-Sherlock, Sherlock with a cell phone, living with a compulsive blogging-Watson—sounds so cheap that it's a tremendous relief when the execution turns out to be so brilliant. The stories are authentic on one level, hopelessly twisted on another. And one of the main characters is actually modern-day London: steel-gray, a hodgepodge of cobblestones and brilliant architecture.

At the center of the production, Benedict Cumberbatch creates a Holmes who is emotionally disabled at the very same time he is, on an unorthodox plane, passionate. The quirkiness of the Holmes character is played for laughs a little bit, as in the Robert Downey, Jr., movies—but in Sherlock the quotidian realities are explored, as well. What, the writers ask, would it be like to live with a brilliant man of action who is also a thorough nut? Martin Freeman, as Dr. Watson, is more than a straight man; he is the lens through which we see this humanized freak show.

Furthermore, one has to give credit to Gatiss, Moffat and the other producers for the attention to detail surrounding the series. One can actually find, on the real internet, fake websites representing Dr. Watson's blog and Holmes' own online case files.

So if you have room for only one Sherlock in your life, let it be Cumberbatch's.
But do not deny yourself the pleasure of CBS's Elementary, which is of a high caliber for American television—and a perfectly serviceable bedtime story.

After all, Lucy Liu does a lovely job of playing straight-woman. And you needn't stay away from the Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law movies, which are beautifully produced and chock-full of big screen spectacle, though in that particular rendition Dr. Watson has learned to accept the strangeness of the great man, and brings skills of his own to the table that Holmes cannot quite match.(They are not to be watched on instant download, though, unless your system almost never hangs up; make sure your WiFi connection is good before you try it. Also, the movies are lovely enough to make them worth seeing on a big screen, in a theater. Or at least on your biggest television, rather than a laptop.)

For those of us who haven't read our Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories in years, any of these series do what they set out to: provide us with an inspiration to dust off the old volumes once more, and immerse ourselves in the originals. Once more, we can see how it all started, and get to know the character Doyle tried to kill off, but had to bring back by popular demand. All of these shows are, in their own way, worthy of the original fictional maladjusted genius—that hopeless loner in a deerstalker cap.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What Is Your Favorite Hyper-Literary Mystery?

Charles Dickens' Bleak House? Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust? Or Dorothy L. Sayers's The Nine Tailors?

We know what Sinclair Lewis thought:

In the realm of mystery stories there are four books which everyone should read. They are The Lodger, Malice Aforethought, Bleak House, and The Nine Tailors. I am not sure but that of all these The Nine Tailors is the best.

And The Passing Tramp has some thoughts on Lewis and his list.

Furthermore, we know that Ms. Sayers wanted to take mystery novels beyond the point where they were merely "something to read on the train."

But what do you think?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

I'm Watching Foyle's War

. . . And, midway through the first season, I love the show. I am, however, trying to figure out whether the clues are significant enough to constitute "fair play."

Also, I do prefer to know when the detective has figured out what is going on: that moment that Dr. Spencer Reid stares into space, or Hercule Poirot calls himself an "imbecile" for not knowing sooner a truth that is suddenly clear to him--that's magical. I don't see why one would want to throw that away, even for the sake of being Dispassionate and English.

I do, however, love the notion of someone trying to serve his country by ensuring that there is Rule of Law even during wartime. And the history lessons embedded within are a lot of fun.

We Have a Teapot; It Is Massive

This blog will explore the world of "tea cozy mysteries," which is generally regarded as the subgenre of puzzles that are not relegated to the "mean streets" of noir and hardboiled detective fiction. In point of fact, we plan to stretch the definition of "tea cozy" just about to its breaking point. This particular tea cozy is more like the covering of a domed city on a far-off planet.

Mystery aficionados usually categorize police procedurals as a third group within the mystery world—or place them within the "hardboiled" framework. This blog, however, will cover some procedurals, provided they have a cerebral component and a lot of dialogue of a quality such that the proprietress of the blog doesn't want to bleach her ears out after hearing it.

(The term "hearing" may be taken literally or metaphorically, since we will discuss both crime novels and television/movies. But after this entry ends, we will try to stop mixing metaphors.)

There may absolutely be some "action" sequences within our liberally defined tea cozy mysteries: people may have to do dangerous things, run after people, break doors down and the like. But what makes a mystery fun is the sense that there is a genuine puzzle at its heart, and that we are catching someone in the act of solving that puzzle. If the reader/viewer gets to experience that himself or herself, it can be even sweeter: the light dawns within the human mind. Inspiration occurs.

And suddenly, it is dawn.

That is what we like.