I love mysteries and always have, ever since I was first introduced to the concept. I would be hard put to tell you what the first one I ever saw might have been: I think it would have to be either Batman in the comics, or a juvenile edition of Sherlock Holmes. Sometime around 1967 or 1968, thereabouts. It was the Hitchcock juveniles that sealed the deal when I found them in the local library, though. I wrote about those here.
Now, when I say “mystery,” I mean the real thing. Not just stories of crime and adventure, though those things are certainly present. But when I’m talking about ‘mystery’ stories proper, there is the added component of the puzzle.
Mysteries are often disparaged by the more literary folks out there, and there is a certain merit to those criticisms; certainly, a lot of Agatha Christie’s books run to a formula, to say nothing of Erle Stanley Gardner or Murder, She Wrote. Those stories always put the puzzle front and center, often to the expense of a believable plot or characters that are recognizably human. Even when it’s done extraordinarily well, when it’s just the puzzle you are still left with something relatively fluffy like Remington Steele or the TV version of Ellery Queen.
Which we love, don’t get me wrong; Ellery Queen with Jim Hutton may be my wife’s favorite show. But ideally, for the best kind of mystery story, you have something that transcends genre; it’s still got a puzzle and plays fair with the reader, but it’s also got the character and thematic things going on that raise the game a bit. It’s worthy just as a story, it’s about something.
That’s a really high bar, and it’s damn hard for writers to clear it. Even the classics tend to fall short.
For example, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are usually cited as examples of the form– they are wonderfully atmospheric and the characterizations are a delight. But as mysteries, the puzzles are mostly duds ranging from the impossible to the ridiculous: the most famous of them turns on a plan to paint a big dog with glow-in-the-dark paint to scare an old guy into a heart attack. Doyle rarely plays fair with his readers, since the clues Holmes uses are usually invisible to the audience until after Holmes describes them. Here is a prime example of both the good and the bad about Doyle’s Holmes, from probably the best-constructed mystery of the originals, The Red-Headed League.
The characterizations are terrific, both the manic Holmes and the normal Dr. Watson, and Jabez Wilson, a rather dull man caught up in something bizarre. But you can also see that we are told Holmes is a deductive genius after the fact; none of the indications Holmes notices about Wilson are visible to us until after Holmes mentions them.
Which is not to say it isn’t a good story; it is. The Jeremy Brett adaptation even surpasses the original in that we are shown the clues as Holmes gathers them, and they managed to foreshadow Holmes’ battle with Professor Moriarty as well.
But if we put aside sentiment and look at the matter objectively, the best Holmes mysteries— the real thing, fair-play puzzles, I mean– were done long after Doyle’s time. For example, here is a sample from the 2009 Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr.
That one, in terms of being memorable, vivid, interesting and engaging, AND being a solid mystery story, is the one to beat simply on the writing. (Although I agree with Pol Rua that it’s insane to have Mark Strong in a Holmes movie but not as Holmes. I would have probably liked it a lot better if he and Downey had traded parts. Yes, yes, I know, then it would never have gotten made. But still…) And the follow-up, A Game of Shadows, is just awful. Pity.
My feeling is that you didn’t really see literary quality happening in the mystery genre till the hard-boiled guys showed up; Hammett, Chandler, the rest of the Black Mask boys. Chandler’s wonderful essay The Simple Art of Murder lays out the challenge better than anything I could say here.
I suppose the principal dilemma of the traditional or classic or straight-deductive or logic—and—deduction novel of detection is that for any approach to perfection it demands a combination of qualities not found in the same mind. The cool-headed constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing-board. The scientific sleuth has a nice new shiny laboratory, but I’m sorry I can’t remember the face. The fellow who can write you vivid and colorful prose simply won’t be bothered with the coolie labor of breaking down unbreakable alibis.
Even Chandler, who defined the challenge for all of us, couldn’t quite pull it off; his mysteries are much more about atmosphere and feeling than they are about the puzzle. The Big Sleep, which made his reputation, is kind of a hot mess, puzzle-wise, and one murder just gets completely forgotten.
Nevertheless, it can be done. Here are a few of my picks for classic mystery puzzle stories with genuine punch to them, from comics, prose, and film.
C Is For Corpse, by Sue Grafton.
This was the first of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series I ever read and it instantly made me a fan. Not all the Graftons are traditional mysteries, but this one is, and it’s brilliant: He was young-maybe twenty or so-and he must once have been a good-looking kid. Kinsey could see that. But now his body was covered in scars, his face half-collapsed. It saddened Kinsey and made her curious. She could see he was in a lot of pain. But for three weeks, as Kinsey watched him doggedly working out at the local gym, putting himself through a grueling exercise routine, he never spoke.
Then one Monday morning when there was no one else in the gym, Bobby Callahan approached her. His story was hard to credit: a murderous assault by a tailgating car on a lonely rural road, a roadside smash into a canyon 400 feet below, his Porsche a bare ruin, his best friend dead. The doctors had managed to put his body back together again-sort of. His mother’s money had seen to that. What they couldn’t fix was his mind, couldn’t restore the huge chunks of memory wiped out by the crash. Bobby knew someone had tried to kill him, but he didn’t know why. He knew he had the key to something that made him dangerous to the killer, but he didn’t know what it was. And he sensed that someone was still out there, ready to pounce at the first sign his memory was coming back. He’d been to the cops, but they’d shrugged off his story. His family thought he had a screw loose. But he was scared-scared to death. He wanted to hire Kinsey.
His case didn’t have a whole lot going for it, but he was hard to resist: young, brave, hurt. She took him on. And three days later, Bobby Callahan was dead.
Kinsey Millhone never welshed a deal. She’d been hired to stop a killing. Now she’d find the killer.
It grabs you and never lets go, and the plotting of the puzzle is absolutely, completely fair.
The Silent Speaker, by Rex Stout: The head of a Federal agency is bludgeoned to death just before giving a speech to an industrial association. Public opinion quickly turns against the association, which is thought to have been involved in the murder. The association hires Wolfe to find the murderer in hope of ending the public relations disaster.
Here’s the thing; this blurb barely scratches the surface. First of all, Stout’s genius move was to knit together the two schools of mystery-writing Chandler describes in his essay– Nero Wolfe is the eccentric logician, but his aide, Archie Goodwin, is a wisecracking hard-boiled private eye who narrates the stories.
Stout was no slouch as a humorist and he soon found the perfect tone for the series– murder mysteries laced with acerbic wit.
The Silent Speaker was the first of the postwar Wolfes, it came out in 1946. Rex Stout had been successful with Wolfe for over a decade, but he took a break from the series to concentrate on the war effort. And the break really helped; it was clear that he wanted to come back with a bang. The plot is brilliantly constructed but it also lets Stout use a number of wonderful comedic set pieces (like Wolfe faking a nervous breakdown) and it also has lots of great character bits for all the supporting cast, especially Archie falling for femme fatale Phoebe Gunther, and Wolfe having to come to the rescue of his perennial adversary in officialdom, NYPD Inspector Cramer.
It was adapted for the A & E television series in its second season and they did it proud, particularly Cynthia Watros as Phoebe. Here’s a clip where you can see her really take it downtown.
Do check out either the book or the TV movie — or both– if you get a chance.
Ms. Tree: I, For An Eye by Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty.
I’ve written enough about Max Allan Collins in this space that it shouldn’t come as a surprise he makes the list. Probably the best of his mystery stories– that function both as mysteries and historical novels– would be his Nate Heller books, True Crime in particular. But I will always love the old-school hardboiled whodunits that he pioneered in Ms. Tree, and the original I, For An Eye remains one of the best mysteries ever done for comics.
Since I mentioned Ms. Tree, I should add that the inspiration for that series, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels, has a fair number of genuinely clever mystery plots intertwined with all the mayhem. Of those, my pick for the all-time best is the second Hammer, My Gun Is Quick. Intricately plotted, full of action, and it has an even better payoff than its predecessor I, the Jury.
It was made into a movie in 1957, but honestly Hammer didn’t have much luck on film till Stacy Keach came along in the 1980s. I’d stick with the novels.
I certainly can’t ignore one of the greatest mystery series ever done for television– Columbo. Although most of the time this show falls into the puzzle-above-all category, there were a few that rose above that to do stories that were genuinely compelling on a literary level. I’m thinking in particular of the fourth-season entry, An Exercise In Fatality.
Most of you probably know the formula for Columbo stories stood the traditional whodunit on its head; we in the audience saw the criminal commit the crime, we were given every detail; the mystery became how Lieutenant Columbo would find the fatal flaw in the plan that would allow him to bring the killer to justice. In this particular entry, we have Robert Conrad as the malignant narcissist Milo Janus, a fitness guru with a line of workout facilities and other brand-name stuff, who has murdered his accountant and wants to make it look like an accident.
This one is especially memorable for the battle of wits between Columbo and Janus, including one of the very rare instances when Columbo tipped his hand and let the killer know he suspected him… and Janus jeers at him and tells him to pound sand. It’s studiously fair in its construction of the mystery, and has one of the best reveals of the series, I think, especially Columbo’s last line. I won’t spoil it, but you should really check it out.
If I was going to pick a novel as the best-ever mystery I’ve ever read, in terms of story construction, literary merit, and just being all-around brilliant, I think I’d have to go with Ross MacDonald’s The Chill.
In The Chill a distraught young man hires private investigator Lew Archer to track down his runaway bride. But no sooner has he found Dolly Kincaid than Archer finds himself entangled in two murders, one twenty years old, the other so recent that the blood is still wet. What ensues is a detective novel of nerve-racking suspense, desperately believable characters, and one of the most intricate plots ever spun by an American crime writer.
I’d agree with that assessment. Now, Ross MacDonald is one of those guys that tended to come back to the same idea over and over– a decades-old family secret has echoes that result in a modern tragedy — but this one is the purest expression of it and he just knocked it out of the park. In particular, the plotting of this thing is so beautiful that, when the solution is revealed, you the reader have the moment of realization at the same time as Lew Archer. Seriously. You aren’t there way ahead of him (like most episodes of, say, Castle) and you aren’t (unfairly) way behind him like the reader usually is with Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe. The identity of the killer dawns on you the same moment it dawns on Archer and that makes it a thousand times more horrifying and powerful. I am in awe of that achievement; I first read the book thirty-something years ago and I still think it’s flatly the greatest straight-up mystery novel anyone’s ever written.
There have been some Lew Archer novels done for the movies but this one never was. Probably just as well; I don’t think it could be done, at least not well. You need Archer’s internal monologue to sell it. Voice-over’s just too clumsy a device for that in film and without it, it just falls flat.
Harris Yulin did manage a wonderful audio-only version of MacDonald’s Sleeping Beauty, which is not quite as good as The Chill but I’d call it a strong second place. It was done with a full cast of characters played by a who’s who of Hollywood journeyman actors. Sadly, it only exists as a set of cassettes. I keep hoping it will show up on CD or download somewhere, but so far no luck.
An achievement equal to– maybe even surpassing– The Chill, in terms of doing a traditional whodunit mystery story that is actually about something, and the one I usually answer with when I’m asked to name my favorite fair-play mystery of all time, is not a book at all. It’s a television show. Veronica Mars.
First of all, it’s the kind of genre mashup I can never resist: a plucky high school heroine in the style of Nancy Drew…
… but set squarely in the sun-baked, corrupt Southern California of Raymond Chandler.
Dissipated rich people, decadent movie stars, gang violence and crooked law enforcement. Through all this teenage Veronica and her father, disgraced former sheriff turned private eye Keith Mars, navigate a landscape where nothing is as it seems, committed to doing the right thing no matter what it costs them. The first two seasons of the show were the best; each had a season-long arc with an overriding mystery to solve, and the payoff in each finale was worth the wait. Individual episodes usually had a pretty good mystery driving the action as well.
Season 1 trailer:
And here’s Season 2:
Season 3 falls off a bit but the Kickstarter-backed reunion movie was a delight. Yeah, we backed it, enough to get the DVD when it was released.
So there you go. Those are my picks for the best in some fifty years of reading mystery stories. I could have kept going, believe me. There’s A Dark-Adapted Eye, A Grave Talent, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, any of a dozen different Sara Paretsky books (Burn Marks, especially) but I have to stop somewhere. And there’s probably a bunch more I forgot, but I expect many of those will be pointed out to me in the comments.
Back next week with something cool.
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