by William H. Benson
September 13, 2001
Last Saturday evening on television John Travolta played the starring character in the movie, “Get Shorty”, adapted from a book written by the mystery writer, Elmore Leonard. To read any of his books or to watch the movie is like peeling back the covers of decency and peeking into a vicious underworld loaded with ignorant oddballs, thugs, psychopaths, and savage criminals. Few of Leonard’s characters can be considered normal, and the plots revolve around revenge or small-time nobodies about to commit horrific crimes. Tasteful literature it is not.
My first exposure to mysteries began with a birthday gift while still in grade school of the first two volumes of the Hardy Boys–The Tower Treasure and The House on the Cliff. Over the next couple of years I then worked my way through the rest of the Franklin Dixon books that featured the boys: Joe and Frank Hardy and their father, Fenton Hardy, a private investigator. The stories include simple plots, such as a ring of car thieves that Joe and Frank happen upon. If given a chance, the stories can hold a boy’s interest.
In junior high I then discovered Earle Stanley Gardner and the Perry Mason series. Into about the fourth book though, I realized that they were all virtually the same book, or I should say the same format. (John Grisham is accused of the same cookie-cutter pattern.)
Perry Mason defends someone, who it turns out later, is innocent of murder. His secretary, Della Street, and his private investigator, Paul Drake, are there to help, but it is Perry who does the thinking. In a final dramatic scene in the courtroom, he turns and accuses somebody else of the crime, who then breaks down and confesses. The old black and white television series from the 1960’s starring Raymond Burr, I think, provide better entertainment than do the books.
Neither Agatha Christie nor P. D. James, the two prominent British women mystery writers, could hold my interest to the final pages. Numerous times I have started both and failed to finish. Neither Miss Marple nor Hercule Poirot nor Adam Dagleish captivated my attention, and I would invariably get lost on about the fifth page in one of P. D. James’s convoluted sentences.
The same cannot be said of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. Who possibly could not like either of them? Doyle could write, and Holmes could think. With superhuman reasoning powers, a violin, a magnifying glass, and wearing a hunting cap and a tweed cape, Sherlock Holmes strode the streets of London and solved the most insolvable crimes, astonishing the police and his friend Dr. Watson, who told the stories.
John D. Macdonald’s Travis McGee lives on a boat, The Busted Flush, along the Atlantic coast of Florida and lives the solitary life of a beachcomber. Problems appear, and he sets them right. The titles include a color, such as Darker than Amber or A Deadly Shade of Gold.
However, my two favorite mystery writers are Sue Grafton and Dick Francis.
Sue Grafton writes the alphabet series: A is for Alibi, B is for Burglary, and so on. Her most recent is P is for Peril, which means she has 10 more to go. Kinsey Milhone lives in Santa Teresa, California, is 32-years-old, twice divorced, and is a private investigator. She lives in a converted garage next door to the 80-year-old Henry Pitts who bakes bread and writes crossword puzzles. Kinsey tells the stories. Each book is unique, the characters are all believable, the plots are all intricate, and you never know who the crook is until it is over.
Dick Francis is truly the best of the best. His sparse sentence structure and believable stories always make sense, and when reading him, you know you are listening to a superior intellect. (Why is it that the British write such great English?) After a successful career as a steeplechase jockey in England, he turned to writing mysteries. Getting close to 80 now, for the past 35 years he has published a book a year. The teller of the story is the hero, who is a single guy in his late twenties or early thirties who finds himself swept up in events–not of his making, but usually based in England and revolving around some aspect of horse racing.
The enemy is a particularly vicious and powerful brute who is identified early on, and for the remainder of the book, the hero calmly works it out and in the end defeats the enemy. However, plenty of physical pain is faced along the way. If you like learning about the British aristocracy and race horses, check out a Dick Francis novel– any of them. They are all a delight.