Showing posts with label detective as criminal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label detective as criminal. Show all posts

28 August 2014

Jalepeno Culture

by Eve Fisher

So I was watching the morning news and there was a commercial where two guys walk into a fast food joint and see the sign for a Double Jalepeno burger.  With, of course, lots of cheese.  And they smile at each other, order one each, and life is bliss.  My husband, who has an Irish stomach, winced.  Myself, I was thinking, that's American cuisine today:  you want flavor with that?  Here's some cheese and hot peppers. What more do you want?

Not the burger, but
I don't want to get sued.
That's what we're known for.  Cheese and hot peppers.  Slathered all over everything.  The cheese runs thick on the tongue, smothering most of the taste buds.  The hot peppers add shock value.  Cheap, filling, and one hell of a lot less trouble than actually, say, making a mole sauce, or a bechamel.  Although nowadays what you'll be given for bechamel sauce is generally Alfredo sauce, thick and pasty with flour and, you guessed it, cheese.  In other words, tarting it up with cheese and hot peppers is easier than getting involved in the time-consuming artistic complexity of producing flavor.

It's the same in entertainment.  Sex and violence.  If things get slow, throw in a naked woman.  Or an explosion.  Or a riff of automatic weapons.  (Speaking of which, I'm sure you heard about the 9-year-old girl at a shooting range outside Las Vegas who accidentally killed the instructor with the Uzi he was showing her how to use.  9 year olds and Uzis, what could possibly go wrong? We don't even let 9 year olds drive, even here in South Dakota, where 14 years old get learner's permits, so what the hell was he thinking... Okay, enough rant on that...)

Back to sex and violence.  Much safer.  Now I understand that sex and violence are what titillates the masses, including you and me, but sometimes I want something more:  plot; wit; character; nuance. By the way, I watched an interesting review of "Outlander", the new series based on the Diana Gabaldon time-traveling fantasy series, in which the sole woman on the panel pointed out that, while this show was obviously being marketed to heterosexual women (hot men in kilts and all that), when it came down to it, there were a heck of a lot of naked women in it and no naked men. Now what's that about?  Couldn't it even occur to the producers (6 out of 8 male) that (most) women prefer naked men?  

Okay, back to character.  I've been binge-watching Michael Gambon's 1990's Maigret, and enjoying it heartily.  (I love reading Maigret, too - it's one of the main reasons and ways that I've learned to read French.) And I noticed something that hadn't really struck me before:  Jules Maigret is normal.  He's a good, decent, bourgeois man who drinks/eats/smokes a little more than he should but not too much, who loves his wife, and who really likes his co-workers (except for the examining magistrates).  He likes people generally, including most of the petty criminals he deals with.  And yet he's absolutely real, grounded in details and mannerisms and nuances that are very subtle.  In other words, he's an old-fashioned hero.  It's very refreshing.

But I think too many "heroes" have been run through our jalepeno culture.  I've seen too damned many lead characters who are damaged addicts (alcohol/drugs/gambling/sex), and/or whose significant other was brutally murdered by a mysterious serial killer, and/or who are promiscuous to hide their longing for love or their lack of ability to love, and/or who has significant PTSD and/or traumatic childhood experiences and/or mental illness and/or OCD/bi-polar/etc., and almost ALL of them are obnoxious to everyone around them (and yet are mysteriously loved despite of it)...  Folks, that isn't character, that's a laundry list.  What started out as an exception - with the ability to shock, startle, amaze, entertain - has become the norm, which means... well, cheese and jalapenos on everything.

Hollywood meth-makers
Real meth-maker
And it's often taken to the point where there's no one to root for. Everyone is lousy, including their kids.  Everyone is crooked. Everyone will do anything, anywhere, any time to get ahead.  Nobody even tries to be pleasant, much less good. And don't even get me started on "Breaking Bad":  I do not, repeat, DO NOT watch shows or read books where serial killers and/or drug manufacturer killers are the heroes. I'm an old-fashioned girl at heart.  Besides, the villains are even more alike than the defective detectives: always brilliant, always brutal, always cold, always with superhuman timing, and the only difference is how they do it and whether or not they eat their kill.  Boring...

At the same time, I can enjoy a good noir with the rest of them, and God knows in Dashiell Hammett's and Raymond Chandler's world, everyone is crooked as they come, and that's fine with me.  Because Spade and Marlowe longed for heroism and decency, like thirsty men for water, and tried to be knights errant, even if their armor was more tarnished than shining.  That's what I want in my hero, at the very minimum.  I want them to recognize honor when they see it, like Silver-Wig in "The Big Sleep", and to be able - at least some times - to resist treachery and temptation, like Brigid O'Shaughnessy in "The Maltese Falcon."  I want them to know the difference between good and evil, in the world and in themselves.  I want them to care about the difference between good and evil, in the world and in themselves.  I want them to want to be a hero, even when they fail.

Maigret.  D. C. Foyle.  Miss Marple. Guido Brunetti.  Nancy Drew. Columbo.  V. I. Warshawski. Archie Goodwin.  Perry Mason.  Endeavour Morse.  And many others, rich in variety, style, wit, character... Excuse me, I have some more reading to do.  And tonight - another Maigret!

22 December 2011

The Old Man in the Corner

Janice Law

Some time ago, I wrote about Baroness Emma Orczy's pioneering female detective, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard for the now closed Criminal Brief website. That led me to Orczy's more famous Old Man in the Corner who debuted in 1908. He was part of a group of highly rational, puzzle solving detectives inspired by Sherlock Holmes, and possibly the earliest of the 'armchair' detectives and ancestor of American favorite Nero Wolfe.

Like Sherlock Holmes with Watson, he has an amanuensis, Miss Burton of the Evening Observer, the young "female reporter" who was herself something of a novelty. She meets the Old Man at her favorite coffee shop, the Norfolk branch of the Aerated Bread Company, where he dines on milk and cheesecake and plays endlessly making knots in a length of string.

His casual remark that, "There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear on the investigation," begins their on-going conversation about the sensational crimes of the day. Miss Burton is skeptical about the Old Man's claims, but again and again he produces ingenious solutions to baffling mysteries.

His narratives of the crimes are extremely clear and provocative, and, despite her reservations, Miss Burton is fascinated. Unlike Watson, her only function is to be a sounding board and recorder. The Old Man leaves the coffee shop for excursions to courthouses and to assemble the dossiers of photos and documents he needs, but all such adventures are kept off stage.

In the Old Man in the Corner stories, Orczy keeps as strictly to the "unities" as Aristotle could want. Everything is confined to the ABC shop and a single conversation with Miss Burton. So far so good in a conventional vein; the puzzles are complex, the casts of characters interesting, the crimes varied.

The Old Man is, however, far odder and more distinctive than that brief summary would suggest. Unlike any other detective I can think of, the Old Man is not on the side of justice. Yes, we've had favorite characters who were criminals, Donald Westlake's bumbling robbers, for example. Lawrence Block has run a series about a professional hit man and Dexter, blood spatter expert and serial killer, is in print and on the tube.

But both of the latter are ultimately on the side of the angels, dispatching justice, if of a peculiar and personal sort. They may be immoral, but it would be unfair to dub them amoral. Not so the Old Man.

Several times, Miss Burton asks him why he doesn't place his superior intellect and clever solutions at the disposal of the police. The Old Man is perfectly clear about his motivation: He admires the murderers. Of the Fenchurch Street killer, he exclaims, "Ah! it was cleverly, artistically conceived! Kershaw is a genius." And he concludes on a note of mock horror at the thought of hanging such a man.

The Old Man's superior intellect is reserved for his own enjoyment and for the edification and amazement of Miss Burton, who occasionally, as in The York Mystery, agrees that publishing the solution would be unwise.

The Old Man's cases run the gamut of Edwardian crime, with an emphasis on inheritance squabbles, stolen jewelry, crimes of passion, and crimes to protect reputation and status. They often rely on disguises, and it must be said that the Old Man, who has some childish traits, has an almost childlike faith in the powers of wigs and costumes to confuse even those nearest and dearest.
If this is a weakness, the Old Man has a counterbalancing strength. Like Lady Molly, and unlike police officialdom, the Old Man never rules out female criminals and never sells the opposite sex short. "French detectives, who are acknowledged masters in their craft," he tells Miss Burton in The Theft at the English Provident Bank, "never proceed till after they have discovered the feminine element in a crime..."

The Old Man solves one case because of the modus operandi - a stab in the back. An English gentleman would strike an opponent, he says. A woman, conscious of her physical weakness but resolved to prevail, would choose a knife in the back.

The most unsettling of his cases, however, is The Mysterious Death in Percy Street, which unfortunately is placed midway through Dover Book's good collection. It belongs at the end, and clearly represented a point where Orczy was considering dropping her curious detective.

In this case, an elderly woman who had been preyed on financially by an improvident nephew is found dead along with her pet canary. The plot is as intricate as ever, but one of the details is the presence of a particularly intricate knot. At the end of the story, it strikes Miss Burton that the crucial knot is just such a one as her companion habitually makes. "If I were you," she said, without daring to look into that corner where he sat, "I would break myself of the habit of perpetually making knots in a piece of string."

When she looks up, he is gone and is never seen again - until the next series of Old Man in the Corner stories began.

This will be my last regularly scheduled SleuthSayers piece, although I hope to contribute the occasional column. It's been fun and I've appreciated the kind comments.