Saturday, June 22, 2013

Cozy Mysteries



Given the flood of dark, often sadistic, noir mysteries, I have turned for relief to the "cozies." One thinks at once of Agatha Christie whose Mysterious Affair at Styles published in 1920 introduced to the world Hercule Poirot. Lovers of the cozies who are purists tend to stick with the novels that feature Miss Marple.   But it is Poirot, Chief Inspector Japp and the useful Captain Hastings (who narrates this story) that are the first of Christie's creations. It is an inspired combination of the slightly ridiculous Belgian detective so full of himself and his waxed mustache with the ever helpful Hastings to drive Monsieur around together with the very epitome of Englishness in Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard. No doubt some version of his character is associated with continental visions of "le roast beef."



Americans can be proud of the Cat Who series created by Lillian Jackson Braun. The first of these, The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, was published in 1966. Because all the stories were set in the same (mid-western) small town with more or less the same characters (no exotic settings or characters for Braun), readers can look forward to a new Cat Who with the comfort and anticipation that one feels when going home from a vacation abroad or a long weekend down the road. Together with other familiar toilers in the field of cozies, particularly Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote fame (although a TV series, these stories also were mostly set in the same small New England town of Cabot Cove), the cozies seemed to be a female preserve which would be fitting for its kinder, gentler approach to solving crimes. Perhaps that also accounts for the preference for Miss Marple, but one would be crazy to exclude the Poirot stories.


So too, I say, it would be insane to exclude Rex Stout's marvelous Nero Wolfe with his seventh of a ton avoirdupois, personal chef and personal gardener and orchid collection (I don't recall any reference at all to cymbidiums). Like Poirot, Wolfe had a male assistant, Archie Goodwin who introduces himself several times quite amiably as Wolfe's Man Friday-Saturday-Sunday-Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-and-Thursday.  Stout's Fer de Lance initiated his series in 1934.  I am happy to say that one need not be ashamed to be reading Rex Stout these days.  There seem to be web-sites devoted to keeping alive his work as well as related trivia.

All this is not to argue that tastes do not or should not change. The Girl Who series that made such an impact on the reading world a couple of years ago were absolutely brilliant writing. They should persuade any who need persuading that there is real evil in this world. Then we discovered that there is an entire universe of Scandinavian noir. At the same time, American TV seems to be inundated with police "procedurals", series on crime scene investigations or special units investigating heinous crimes as well as gory paranormal events. 

I confess that my mind craves balance as well as authenticity. It rebels against the flood of noir mysteries as it does against spy novels full of vengeance or populated by self-righteous super heroes, even those who are rule-breakers because their motives are higher and purer. Perhaps I should admit that my prejudice is ESPECIALLY against those who believe their motives are higher and purer. Neither human society nor civilization itself is well served by the glorification of such characters. Just saying.