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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 17, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Mysteries and Carmel

Edgar Allan Poe began it with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" -- the murder that seems inexplicable until a very smart detective looks at the clues and figures out what must have happened.

Others played the game, of course, but it was Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes who became the quintessential detective -- eccentric, brilliant, impatient with fools. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, and many others followed this model -- and delighted generations of readers.

You could do a lot worse than to spend a summer -- or an autumn, or a winter -- starting at the beginning of the Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes series and reading your way through.

Or you could check out A&E's "Nero Wolfe" series on Sundays at 8 pm. With Maury Chaykin as Wolfe (thinner than I expected -- since Nero Wolfe is famously one-seventh of a ton) and Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin, his intrepid sidekick who does all the legwork, the shows are much better acted than written or directed. But the charm is still there, and it's good fun.

Some writers and readers focused on the puzzle aspect of mystery stories, giving rise to the whole "locked-room" tradition.

Others delighted more in the charm of the offbeat detective, especially after Agatha Christie created Miss Marple, who was in many ways the opposite of Hercule Poirot. Far from being a famously eccentric detective, Miss Marple was an elderly woman who simply happened to be insatiably curious and utterly without fear of getting in over her head.

The whole tradition of "cozy" mysteries began with her, and my impression is that it remains the largest single category of mystery stories. Any mystery novel with a cat or a food name in the title is probably going to be a cozy.

The best old mystery writers did so well that new writers coming along felt it was impossible to follow their pattern and accomplish anything more than an echo. So back before World War II, several new streams of mystery writing began.

Dashiell Hammett popularized the "hard-boiled" detective genre, in which a tough private eye isn't always brilliant and isn't always lucky, but through grit and stubbornness and misguided love still plugs away at the mystery until it's solved.

Hammett's most famous detective, Sam Spade, usually hit the floor after getting sapped and spent the rest of the novel with a headache, though the dame he fell for is usually even more of a pain. If you've seen "The Maltese Falcon," you know the drill.

The successor to Hammett and to Raymond Chandler was Ross Macdonald, who, with his Lew Archer mysteries, did the best work in hard-boiled private-eye tradition. While Hammett and Chandler get the credit, I think it was Ross MacDonald who first created mysteries that worked, not just as adventures or puzzles, but as character-driven novels. Nobody's ever done it better.

Through all these older mysteries, however, the hero remained essentially unchanged. Sam Spade and Lew Archer remained sad-but-determined; Hercule Poirot and Nero Wolfe remained eccentric; Miss Marple remained cozy. From one book to the next, the previous events remained essentially unremembered.

Today, though, the best of the mystery writers create detective characters who change over time. They aren't lone wolves at all -- they connect with the world around them, they have parents and siblings, sometimes even spouses and former spouses, children and longtime friends.

Each series thus becomes one long continuous work that explores the life of a character who is changed -- wounded, embittered, redeemed perhaps -- by the crimes he solves or fails to solve in time.

This trend is so recent that there are some living writers whose careers show the transformation.

James Lee Burke and Marcia Muller are two of the best. Burke's Dave Robicheaux began as a tough cop in New Orleans, and while the early novels show promise, it isn't till Robicheaux leaves the police force and becomes a deputy sheriff in New Iberia, Louisiana, that the character -- and the series -- becomes the deep, rich, mystical literary work that it is today.

In recent Robicheaux novels, Burke has been skirting the edges of fantasy, never quite requiring readers to believe that the folk beliefs of the bayou country are real, but hinting that they might be.

The most recent entry in the series, Jolie Blon's Bounce, is one of the best. Robicheaux finds himself caught up in new crimes that tie in with old ones, linked to the ancient pattern of white exploitation of blacks from plantation life to the present day. As he finds the roots of evil in characters both white and black, he also finds sparks of goodness in surprising places.

James Lee Burke is one of the best there's ever been -- I compare him with Walter Mosley and Sharyn McCrumb as writers who are able to create worlds with roots so deep that you keep expecting to find yourself in some corner of the story.

Marcia Muller was one of the first to create a hard-boiled female detective, Sharon McCone, who started out as a private eye working for a legal co-op serving the poor and downtrodden in San Francisco.

As with Burke's Robicheaux, Muller's McCone did not come fully formed as the well-rounded, interesting character she would become. There's not much point in going back to the beginning of the series. But the most recent six or seven books are very good, as McCone connects with family and wrestles with her own demons.

Indeed, one might say that while Muller influenced many women who write mysteries, she has been influenced in turn. It would be hard to believe Sue Grafton had not read Muller before she began writing her Kinsey Milhone series; but it would be just as hard to believe that Muller had not read Grafton before writing some of the most recent numbers in her series.

But why not? A living literary genre consists of writers who are in a constant literary conversation with each other and their readers.

Dead Midnight, the most recent Sharon McCone mystery, begins with the devastating news that one of McCone's brothers has killed himself. Soon afterward, she is hired to investigate the suicide of another young man, and in the process finds ways to live with what her brother went through and what she could and could not have done to save him.

Always interesting, often exciting, and sometimes moving, this is another book well worth reading.

*

I just got back from Carmel, California. When I was a kid, we lived in Santa Clara -- the old Santa Clara, a place of pear orchards and quiet streets, an hour from San Francisco up the peninsula to the north and the same distance from the beach and boardwalk of Santa Cruz over the mountains to the south.

Going to the beach in California is a day trip, and you can't actually use the ocean. The beach slopes too steeply, and the Alaska current keeps the water icy cold most of the year. So as a kid, you run into the water and run back out again, screaming, and when you get tired of that you climb into the car, covered in sand, and ride home to get hosed off in the yard so you don't track sand into the house.

But after our hours of fun on the beach and the boardwalk, my mother would often say to my father, "Can't we go on to Carmel?"

Santa Cruz is at the north end of Monterey Bay; Carmel is beyond the bay to the south, fronting on craggy rocks where the swells cast up plumes of spray, sea otters frolic, and seals waddle ashore to sun themselves.

What we loved most, though, were the shops of Carmel. They sold stuff we never saw in Santa Clara, most of which we couldn't afford -- but we were content to walk along the charming streets and look in the windows, leaving the actual shopping to people with money.

Best of all: The art galleries. And guess what? They're still there, with better art than ever.

In the old days, most of them were selling seascapes, some good, some awful. Today, though, the best of the galleries have a wide selection of artists doing interesting and often beautiful things.

In a world where "fine art" usually means unpleasant, didactic, ugly, or meaningless showoffery, and where the best representational art tends to be illustration with the intrusive hand of the art director inserted between artist and audience, it's nice to go to a place where you can find art that is meant to be intriguing, original, beautiful, and about something.

If vacation or business take you anywhere near the Monterey Bay, I urge you to visit Carmel. On the way, you'll drive through the artichoke fields of Castroville or Watsonville; you'll probably pass Fort Ord; and if you're smart, you'll stay away from Highway 101 and use Highway 17 to cross from Santa Clara Valley over the mountains to Santa Cruz.

And when you're hungry, stop in at the Rio Grill in the Crossroads Shopping Center. With an ambitious menu of California cuisine, everything from soup to dessert is a delight. (Yeah, I know -- I couldn't get through the column without talking about food.)


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