The poet/novelist James Dickey – who, among his many accomplishments, wrote the novel, Deliverance, is said to have once claimed that reading detective fiction was like opening a gift by first eating the excelsior. Dickey was really onto something with his cruel remark, but perhaps no one remembers excelsior (I’m assuming a quorum of readers who remember Deliverance). Excelsior, for those fortunate enough not to know, was material made from thinly sliced curled wood shavings and used to provide packing for fragile merchandise. It was later replaced – within living memory of some of us – by that indestructable plastic stuff they call peanuts.
I suspect it would lose a lot if we were to say “opening a package by eating the peanuts.” Even if we said “the packing peanuts,” which would be redundant as well as silly. No one could really imagine eating those plastic things, even if they are called peanuts. Excelsior, on the other hand, despite its hortatory name (a Latin word meaning “ever upward”), looked something like shredded wheat, both in color and in texture. One could easily imagine eating it, even if not with much pleasure. Reading detective fiction, I’m sorry to say, because I read a lot of it, often is like eating the packing material. And the wrapper and the box too – so that when you get to the gift, the denoument, it seems like there’s nothing there. Who were those stereotypical characters and why did I just spend time with them? But oh yes, you have a belly full.
What the optimistic mystery reader is always on the lookout for is the shining example where that’s not true – where the meal sits lightly, even feels nutritious. Not too nutritious, of course. There are other sources for that sort of thing. Thus, I’ve been thinking lately about that marvelous creation, the Really Good Detective Novel. No need to go back to Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers or any other of the revered dead. I’ve been thinking about P.D. James, who always gets mentioned. And Ruth Rendell, and Peter Robinson, and oh, a pretty good sampling of others. No need to stick with the British either, just because I like them. There’s Elmore Leonard. There’s John Grisham. There’s Louise Penny, a Canadian, she. And, oh Heavens, there’s all those Scandinavians. I want to skip defending the Really Good Detective Novel on literary terms, however – yes, yes, it should be well written, yes, yes, it’s going to give us something besides the puzzle, yes, yes, it delights us with its knowledge of human nature. And so on. But the Really Good Detective Novel does something else too.
This has been clarified for me by lately reading, which is to say re-reading, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels (no, if you merely saw the TV show you don’t know what I’m saying; read him). The almost inimitable Morse is not only a prime example of the Really Good Fictional Detective – he embodies in his fictional personhood some of the very things that make the Really Good Detective Novel so really good, so really trivial and so really satisfying. Morse is an educated man. He reads Shakespeare and Hardy. He listens
to Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. He goes to the opera. I don’t mean simply that those things are said about him. His conversation and his inner dialogs reveal the sensitive awareness of one who has had his intellect bothered by the things that matter. On the other hand, Morse is a college drop-out, a drinker, a smoker, a man who likes pornography and who has never had a really satisfactory relationship. He’s a genius at solving crimes, but often wrong, often floundering, and, at heart, almost always disappointed, just a little bitter – but persevering to the end.
Maybe all “forbidden pleasures” should be like that – flawed, but estimable, attractive in their very failure. Sometimes we don’t want to be ennobled, but always, we don’t want to be bored. What could be more interesting than the tension between high accomplishment and trivial pleasure? We like it like that. We don’t want to defend it. We just want to experience it. Anyway, poor Morse is dead and gone. Unlike Conan Doyle, who tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes, but the public wouldn’t let him, Colin Dexter did away with Morse by natural causes back in the early part of this century and nobody could reverse that. The books, however, still exist. In fact, they are in the process are being republished, one after another. If you like the Really Good Detective Novel, I strongly recommend.
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