People whose desire is solely for self-realization never know where they are going. They can't know . . . to recognize that the soul of a man is unknowable, is the ultimate achievement of wisdom. The final mystery is oneself. When one has weighed the sun in the balance, and measured the steps of the moon, and mapped out the seven heavens star by star, there still remains oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?

Oscar Wilde

Monday, March 8, 2010

Smells like Teen Spirit

Ah, high school: the drama, the angst, the sincerity, the raw melodrama of every single day and every minute detail. Those were the days when the littlest incident could send you spiraling into the bathroom for a good cry, or off home to crawl under your covers with your Walkman and a Smiths tape. (Not that I am speaking from personal experience or anything.) Person of your dreams stare right through you? Complete nerd embarrass you on the bus and then, again, at your high school dance? We've all been there. High school may not have made you a better person, or even a more educated one, but it certainly put one's emotions through a perpetual ringer.


Although there have been numerous movies made about the living hell that is high school, few writers and directors were able to capture the period as honestly as John Hughes. Hughes - who directed Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast Club to name but a few - had an innate respect for teenagers and the issues they face. Rather than view these characters from the jaundiced standpoint of adulthood, Hughes allowed his characters to be themselves: sincere, naive, and optimistic. He showed us the fragile creatures we all started out as, before we learned to insulate our feelings and hide behind layers of irony.


Last night's Oscar ceremony chose to honor John, who passed away in August, and his work. (Ironically, the Oscars also chose to honor the entire teen exploitation genre, known as "horror," which earns its proceeds from not treating its teen characters like living breathing human beings but as chainsaw fodder. Go figure.) Although I was excited to see some of the Hughes cast members on stage, and enjoyed their personal recollections, I was left somewhat lukewarm by the whole affair. As important as it is to mourn the individual, and the great impact he had on actors like Molly Ringwald, I felt like the entire event ignored Hughes's impact on the rest of us


The Castro theatre held a John Hughes retrospective over Valentine's day weekend this year. Amidst the smells of popcorn, hair gel, and hipster, the entire building was alive with nostalgia and overwhelming hyperactivity. Whether you were waiting in the concession line, or the never-ending line to use the women's restroom, the people around you were downright giddy. Everyone wanted to talk about their favorite Hughes movie moments, and people often ended up quoting whole paragraphs of dialog in the process. 


So what is it about John Hughes that causes this kind of adoration? What did those of us who grew up with his movies learn from him and why do we still care so much about these films?


What follows here is my own attempt to answer these questions. I may not have learned every important life lesson from a John Hughes film, but I certainly learned more than a handful of truths from his oeuvre. (Yes, I did just use that word in a sentence.) So, without further ado:


What I Learned from John Hughes Films


(1) You need to have the balls to stand up to your friends, family, and significant other and tell them you are going to like who you want to like. 


(2) Go easy on the muscle relaxers, especially when you are about to operate heavy machinery and/or get hitched.


(3) Make sure the people you employ to take the photographs know what they are doing. Seriously.


(4) The person you have a crush on is a thousand times more likely to dig you should they find a note you've written expressing your desire to have sex with them. Sad, but true. 


(5) Don't name your child after a major appliance. 


(6) You are an amazing and beautiful person exactly as you are now. The people who know you, and truly love you, can see this. If someone you love cannot see all the good things that make up who you are, then THEY have the problem. (During the screening of Sixteen Candles, the entire row of girls sitting behind me uttered an "aww" when this line was rendered. We girls are suckers for lines like this.)


(7) Inside each and every one of us there is: a brain, an athlete, a princess, a basket case, and a criminal. 


(8) In a pinch, shower curtain rings can stand in for earrings. 


(9) Your best friend will always love you more than the person you are currently lusting after. 


(10) Personal transformation is always possible. Even if you are the King of the Dipwads today, you can become a totally normal person by next year. As George Eliot phrased it, "It is never too late to be who you might have been."


Last, but not least, John Hughes movies taught me that a great soundtrack is worth its weight in gold. Love may not conquer all, but a good Smiths track just might. It's definitely worth a shot.







Sunday, January 10, 2010

Outcasts Always Mourn: Wilde's De Profundis


A few years ago, I attended a film screening and Q&A session with legendary German director Werner Herzog. Events that solicit audience questions always make me a bit nervous . . . I assume that a good half of the questions are going to be mortifying, inane, and generally unanswerable. Listening to someone ask a ridiculous question is a bit like watching someone fall down in an Olympic sport; you are so thoroughly embarrassed for them that you try to melt away into the fixtures around you. If you are not there to see it, perhaps the failure is less painful for everyone involved.


The first few questions Herzog fielded were standard fare: questions about his past films; questions about his future projects; and questions about his directorial method. The first question of the evening that really stood out came from a woman interested in his documentaries. Why, she wanted to know, did these always have to focus on people who were so "out there?" Was it not possible to make a compelling documentary about a normal human being? 


For anyone who is familiar with Herzog's documentaries, this question is not entirely unfounded. He made a documentary (Grizzly Man) about Timothy Treadwell, the man who found personal redemption - and death - by communing with Grizzly bears; he made a documentary (The White Diamond) about Dr. Graham Dorrington, the man who sought to assuage guilt through airship explorations of the Guyanese rainforest; and he made a documentary (Little Dieter Needs to Fly) about Dieter Dengler, the German born Navy pilot who escaped a Pathet Lao detainment camp. 


Although such a question is not without foundation, its hostile and accusatory tone troubled me. Why, she seemed to shriek, couldn't Herzog focus on something more seemly than these social outcasts? 



Herzog's answer, which came after a lengthy pause, began with a story about the making of his film Fitzcarraldo. The film was shot in the Amazonian rainforest, in an area that was both remote and dangerous. The cast and crew were warned upon arrival that the area was home to several dangerous types of plant and animal life. The bite from one particular snake alone could cause death within five minutes. One day, a member of the crew was sent out to chop down a tree; he went alone, with merely the chainsaw needed to do the job. In the process of cutting down the tree, he was bitten in the calf by the deadly snake. He knew that he was more than five minutes away from camp, and medical assistance, and knew that his death was imminent. In Herzog's words, his response was automatic: he used the chainsaw to cut off his own leg (to stop the venom from spreading), and limped/dragged himself back to camp. His actions saved his life. 


For Herzog, the moral of the story was clear: only through crisis does one discover who she truly is, and what she is capable of becoming. The individuals profiled in his films -- Timothy Treadwell, Dr. Graham Dorrington, and Dieter Dengler among them -- were not freaks; they were not abnormal people living abnormal lives. They were interesting subjects because they were normal people who had been touched by crisis and who had adapted to meet it. Whether their reactions were right or wrong, normal or abnormal, was not for us to judge. 


The notion of suffering as a transformative experience is not unique to Herzog. Many individuals, and many religions, have explained suffering as a way for the individual to gain new insight into herself and the world around her. One is distilled through crisis into her true, essential self.



While imprisoned in Reading Gaol for "gross indecency" (read homosexual acts), Oscar Wilde became an adherent of this belief. As he wrote: "while to propose to become a better man is a piece of unscientific cant, to have become a deeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered. And such I think I have become" (De Profundis, p. 182).


Wilde had suffered a great deal by the time these lines were penned: he had lost his wife and sons, forever; his entire estate had been rooted through and sold to pay off his creditors; his criminal trial had made him an international joke and led to his incarceration; and the man he loved, Lord Alfred Douglas, was anything but a source of support and solace. 


The route by which Wilde ended up in Reading Gaol is a circuitous one, worthy of a Greek tragedy all its own. For some time, Wilde had maintained a close friendship with a much younger man: Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, objected to the relationship; in one show of his displeasure, he left a derogatory calling card for Wilde at his club. While the club porter believed it read "To Oscar Wilde, ponce and somdomite," the Marquess had most likely tried to write "To Oscar Wilde, posing [as a] somdomite." (Miss Merricat would, at this point, simply like to interject one thing. If you are going to leave someone an offensive calling card, shouldn't you at least try to spell words correctly in it? Just a thought.)



Douglas was infuriated by his father's actions and pressured the irate Wilde to sue for libel. To Douglas, this was merely another opportunity to vilify and attack the father he despised; he believed that the libel suit would be an easy victory for Wilde, and even suggested that his family would pay Wilde's attorneys fees. Against the advice of his other friends and family, Wilde proceeded with the lawsuit.


In England, as in the U.S., truth is a defense to a libel action. The Marquess of Queensberry's attorney therefore argued that Wilde was a sodomite, and amassed documents and witnesses which would attest to this "fact." Unfortunately, Wilde's own testimony helped, rather than hindered, the defendant's case. When asked whether he had ever kissed Walter Grainger, a youth he was acquainted with, Wilde responded: "Oh, dear no.  He was a peculiarly plain boy.  He was, unfortunately, extremely ugly." 


In reading the transcripts of Wilde's libel trial (a full transcript exists in Merlin Holland's fascinating book, The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde, and portions are available online here) one sees the extent to which Wilde relied on his charm, humor, and artistic skill to plead his case. Many of his replies are glib attempts at humor, lines better left to a fictional entity than to a human being whose character - and future - were on trial. It is almost as if Wilde, brilliant man that he was, failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation he was in. 



Not surprisingly, Wilde lost his libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry. He was held up to the entire world as a middle aged aesthete, a fan of rent boys and decadence, and a man inappropriately attached to the Marquess's son, Alfred. The criminal trial for "gross indecency" followed close behind; Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years imprisonment. 


But imprisonment was not all that Wilde was forced to bear. Heavily in debt before his libel action, the resulting attorney's fees and costs forced him into bankruptcy. The sale of his estate was far from the orderly process it would have been in this day and age; Wilde's notoriety caused buyers to bust through locked doors and cabinets and take items which had never been intended for auction. The sale of his possessions - including his vast personal library - became another way for the vengeful Marquess, and an equally spiteful public, to punish the man and his behavior. (For a great discussion of the sale of Wilde's possessions, see Thomas Wright's Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde.)


British society had also deemed Wilde unfit to be a father, making his two sons - Cyril and Vyvyan - the final losses Oscar was forced to bear. Wilde was sent to Reading Gaol in 1895; he never saw his children again. Although Victorian society undoubtedly saw this as an appropriate way to punish a moral "degenerate," it had a devastating effect on both Wilde and his sons. The extent of the harm, and its impact on his sons, is the subject of Vyvyan's book, Son of Oscar Wilde (Vyvyan and Cyril were raised with their mother's last name, Holland).


From being one of England's most preeminent playwrights, Wilde had become a pariah. And in his jail cell, away from the people and things he loved, he suffered: "wild despair; an abandonment to grief that was piteous even to look at; terrible and impotent rage; bitterness and scorn; anguish that wept aloud; misery that could find no voice; sorrow that was dumb" (De Profundis, p. 152 ). He found himself trapped in the "one very long moment" that is suffering; rather than experience the passage of time and season, he felt himself "circle round one centre of pain" (De Profundis, p. 141). Suicide was an option he frequently contemplated; although he eventually made up his "mind to live," he planned to "wear gloom as a king wears purple . . . [and] to turn whatever house [he] entered into a house of mourning" (De Profundis, p. 159).



The man he had been - prior to the libel action and its fallout - had shied away from suffering. He used to "live entirely for pleasure," and "shunned suffering and sorrow of every kind" (De Profundis, p. 160). As he testified in the libel case:


"I think that the realization of oneself is the prime aim  of life, and to realize oneself through pleasure is finer than to do so through pain."  


His two years in Reading Gaol were to change his viewpoint entirely. Through his grief, anger, and despair he came to see suffering as a profound form of "revelation." Not only did suffering enable one to see "things one never discerned before" but suffering was, in and of itself, "the supreme emotion of which man is capable" (De Profundis, p. 160). Whereas "joy and laughter" could be used as masks to hide a "temperament, coarse, hard and callous" sorrow was completely without guile:


"Other things may be illusions of the eye or of the appetite, made to blind the one and cloy the other, but out of sorrow have the worlds been built, and at the birth of a child or a star there is pain." (De Profundis, p. 161)


Although one's suffering may seem endless, it is not without meaning. Suffering provides the individual with a "starting point for fresh development;" it spurs on personal growth and self realization. For Wilde, self realization required him to "free [himself] from any possible bitterness of feeling against the world" (De Profundis, p. 153). He cannot turn away from his past and the choices he made: "to deny one's own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one's own life" and "is no less than a denial of the soul" (De Profundis, p. 156). The only feasible option is total acceptance; he must "make everything that has happened to [him] good for [him]" (De Profundis, p. 155).  


Wilde recounts these thoughts in De Profundis, the manuscript he drafted while finishing out his prison term. Structured as a letter to his one time companion, Lord Alfred Douglas (nicknamed Bosie), it reflects both the wealth of pain he had experienced as well as his own attempts at coming to terms with the past. As Wilde was only allowed a single sheet of paper at a time, he never had the opportunity to edit or revise the manuscript. In reading through the letter one traces not only the passage of time but also the course of Wilde's personal growth and self realization.



The first pages of De Profundis clearly illustrate Wilde's anger at Douglas, the man whom he loved (by all accounts, extravagantly). Douglas was a decadent child, prone to tantrums and threats, and - in Wilde's opinion - "not worthy of the love" he was given. Wilde loved him not because he was deserving of such love but because love is not the result of a computational process or a lengthy pro and con list: "the aim of love is to love[,] no more and no less" (De Profundis, p. 134). Love does not ask whether the beloved is a worthy recipient; it is merely there to be felt and expressed.


Although Wilde claims that he "ruined himself," and was "the spendthrift of [his] own genius," he clearly blames Douglas as well (De Profundis, p. 151). He writes that he tried to break off his relationship with the volatile Douglas many times, but was always coaxed back; his nature was simply too kind to shun a man of whom he was so fond. Wilde suggests that this same desire to please Douglas prompted him to pursue the foolhardy libel action. But not for Bosie's unquenchable desire to clash with his father, Wilde may have been a free man still.


But then, "the gods are strange[; i]t is not our vices only they make instruments to scourge us." One can be brought to "ruin through what in us is good, gentle, humane, loving" (De Profundis, p. 119). Even our finest feelings and "most self-sacrificing emotions have to be paid for" (De Profundis, p. 200).


Portions of De Profundis are the bitter recriminations of one who has loved - as the maxim holds - not wisely but too well. The reader is privy to all of Wilde's complaints against Bosie and his behavior: his childishness; his profligacy (with Wilde's money); his violent temper; and his insensitivity. At one point, Wilde spent days nursing an ill Bosie back to health only to catch the same sickness himself; rather than return the kindness he was shown, Bosie left an ill Wilde to fend for himself while he went out to party and gamble away Wilde's money. Worse still, he later informed Wilde that "when you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting" (De Profundis, p. 117).



The litany of charges against Douglas  - and himself - are part and parcel of Wilde's attempt to come to terms with what has happened. Wilde's desire is for acceptance; his goal is to use the suffering he has experienced as a guide to new and better forms of self realization.  He must no longer be the "real fool . . . he who does not know himself." Only "that [which] is realized is right" (De Profundis, p. 98).


Wilde encourages Bosie to see his own role in what occurred and be shamed by it:


"In your own eyes, and some day, you will have to think of your conduct; you are not, cannot be, quite satisfied at the way in which things have turned out. Secretly you must think of yourself with a good deal of shame. A brazen face is a capital thing to show the world, but now and then when you are alone, and have no audience, you have, I suppose, to take the mask off for breathing purposes. Else, indeed, you would be stifled" (De Profundis, p. 193).


Wilde subjects Bosie to more than just reprobation and guilt; there are also moments in which Wilde is seen to encourage and support the man he once loved. At its conclusion, De Profundis instructs Douglas not to be afraid of the past: "time and space, succession and extension, are merely accidental conditions of thought" that the imagination can transcend. Our minds can make of the world what we will, reality constrained solely by the reach of our own thoughts. "At every single moment of one's life one is what one is going to be no less than what one has been" (De Profundis, p. 164).


Of course, Wilde was also providing hope for his own future. His past and its sufferings - a subject of painful common knowledge - could not be allowed to limit and define his future. He needed to forge a "fresh mode of self-realization" out of all that had occurred, to harness his pain and fashion from it something which provided hope and meaning (De Profundis, p. 153). And through this new mode of understanding, he hoped to one day "learn how to be happy" again (De Profundis, p. 153).



For an example of how to live, Wilde looked to Christ. Although not a religious man - Wilde was too much of an individualist to believe in set dogma - he saw in Christ a rare form of individuality and self awareness. Christ was "not merely the supreme individualist, but [ . . . ] the first individualist in history" (De Profundis, p. 169). 


To Wilde, Christ represented the ideal artistic life:


"his morality is all sympathy, just what morality should be[, . . . ] his justice is all poetical justice, exactly what justice should be[, . . . and] that which is the very keynote of romantic art was to him the proper basis of natural life" (De Profundis, p. 177).


Ultimately, the life of Christ becomes an example for how to live in the world. Wilde cannot hope to return to the type of life he led before -- the life of the successful artist, father, and pleasure seeker. His only option is to fashion for himself a new sort of existence, one that turns the horrors of the past into lessons that enable the future.


The future cannot be plotted out with scientific exactness nor with the banality of a to-do list. One must seek self realization and happiness, but one must do so knowing that the "soul of a man is unknowable" (De Profundis, p. 180). Wilde hopes to regain a sense of joy in the future; he also hopes to produce great art again. And while he prays that the "orbit of his own soul" includes passages through both of these destinations, life offers no guarantees (De Profundis, p. 180). De Profundis ends with Wilde's future all potentiality -- the pain and anguish melted down and looking to be recast into hopes and dreams.


Whether Wilde's reactions to his circumstances were right or wrong, absurd or rational, is - as Herzog would say - not for us to decide. As the suffering was his to bear, the decisions were his to make. All we can do, as the audience, is focus our eyes on his orbit across time and space and watch.




[Above quotes are from: De Profundis and Other Writings, published by Penguin Classics in 1986.]











Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Joys of Mindless Television


The holiday season, for me, is never a productive period. Rather than tackle any of the books I've been meaning to read for months - and there is a rather large stack of them - I find myself zoning out in front of bad movies and even worse television programs. Worse still: I find myself rewatching bad movies I've already seen while thinking, in an abstract way, that I should maybe get up and do something with the day. Like the dishes. Or the grocery shopping. Or something else equally impossible.  But, no. I remain glued to my bed, a virtual colony of remotes within easy reach. (As an aside: do you not feel some nostalgia for the days when only one remote was necessary? Now that everything has a remote, or two, of its own, my room has come to look a bit like a mission control tower.)



This situation was not aided by the holiday gifties I received this year. As I tore into my presents - with the requisite level of unbridled avarice - I realized that I now had more than enough DVDs and other media to distract myself for months to come. Not only was I lucky enough to get the complete Robbie Coltrane series Cracker, but I was also gifted both the complete set of Cadfael mysteries and the newest Jonathan Creek Christmas special. (Yes, I do realize that any respect you may have had for me has now evaporated; the scales have fallen from your eyes only to reveal me as the world's largest dork. Well, that or an elderly British woman. Or both.) 


If these DVD sets, on their own, were not enough to distract me for months to come, I also unwrapped a Roku player. As you undoubtedly know, the Roku player allows you to stream instant viewing Netflix movies to your television. I have had Netflix for years, but have never done much with its instant viewing category. Other than the few documentaries I've watched on my laptop while sick, instant viewing and I were basically not on speaking terms. The reason for this? I loathe watching movies on a computer. As in I hate it so much I would literally rather reread the worst novel you have on hand (Valley of the Dolls, anyone?) than do it. 



Partially, this is owing to my cat. Although there are about two trillion soft surfaces for her to nap on in my apartment, the only things she wants to sleep on are those I am trying to work with, use, or generally interact with. After months of her trying to lie down on the books I was reading - and not taking a firm "no" as her answer - I was finally forced to come up with a clever ruse to fool her. I pretend to read book A for a few minutes, which drives her need to sleep on it; I then let her get comfy and sleepy on book A before beginning to read my actual book, book B. (Which is why, for the past several months, my cat has been asleep on the Amy Sedaris book for hours each day.) The same phenomenon applies to my laptop. My cat can be sound asleep, cuddling up with Amy Sedaris in the living room, but will instantly wake up once she hears me open my laptop and type a hushed keystroke or two. Then, before you can blink, she is right there, trying to step on the keyboard, rub her gums on the sides, and shed all over the entire thing. (Luckily, not being a male cat, she has not tried to "mark" it.) And no ruse that I can think of has been able to cure her of her overwhelming desire to lay on the open laptop.


Trying to watch a movie around a cat is clearly not ideal; nor is having to restart the movie every five seconds because your cat is lying on the escape key. But, I cannot blame my aversion to watching movies on my computer entirely on the haunches of my adorable furball. I have other reasons as well. There seems to be no good place to set my computer for me to watch a film on it; its normal abode, my desk, is at an awkward angle to my bed, and setting my computer on the foot of the bed makes me feel like I am sitting in the first row at the movie theatre. Plus, the remote only seems to work from one angle; only by a complicated series of calisthenics am I able to actually disjoint my elbow enough to allow the remote to communicate with the computer. And by this point, I am so frustrated that I no longer want to watch anything. All I want is a hot bath and a soothing collection of Andrew Lang fairy tales.


The Roku player enables me to watch television shows and movies instantly but, thankfully, I can now stream these to my T.V. (My cat has not yet figured out how to get on top of my television; she does like the Roku remote though.) Once I set up the machine, I spent a good two hours perusing the catalog of items that Netflix offers you for instant viewing. There is some real crap here - or, to be more honest, a lot of real crap here - but there are also some great options. Nearly all of Hitchcock's films are included, as are many of Werner Herzog's; and the television category includes most of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series, the Wire in the Blood series, and numerous MST3K episodes. I added these to my queue along with several other shows and movies of a, well, less reputable origin (Purple Rain, anyone?).


Being in my lethargic, post-holiday mood, I have yet to actually watch any of the documentaries or foreign films in my instant viewing queue. Instead, I've spent my free time working through television shows that are either geared for children or, even scarier, geared for adults with less intelligence than small children. Normally a little of this fluff goes a long way with me but, being in my January stupor, I have loved every second of this mindlessness. So, rather than regale you with anything useful or deep, we are going to take a brief detour into some of the television shows I have come to know (or rekindle my relationship with) thanks to my Roku player. Do not fear, I am sure this will only be a temporary foray into semi-popular culture.



Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries
Ah, the 1970's. Not only did this decade produce such stunning feats of magnificence as yours truly, but it also gave us the bell bottom, disco, and this ridiculous television show. If you have ever thought to yourself: "gee, I'd love to see Shaun Cassidy, Parker Stevenson, and Pamela Sue Martin investigate Scooby-Doo-esque shenanigans" then this show is like a belated holiday gift just for you. The nefarious criminals, upon being unmasked, may not shriek out "if it weren't for you meddling kids!" but you can tell they are thinking it. Hard.



I was an enormous fan of the Nancy Drew books when I was younger, so I was excited to watch the few Nancy Drew episodes that are available for instant viewing. I settled down with some Kettle Chips to watch Nancy discover the "Secret of the Whispering Walls." In this episode, Nancy (plus obligatory friend) sets out to investigate who is responsible for the series of events aimed at preventing her great aunts from selling their creepy, creaky farmhouse. As in all Nancy Drew cases, there is a cast of about 5, so figuring out who did what is about as difficult as a three piece jigsaw puzzle. That being said, the show did a pretty good job - in my opinion - of bringing the traditional Nancy Drew elements to the screen: creepy events; plucky school girlishness; feathered blonde hair; and the bumbling comedic friend. 


For anyone who enjoys super light mystery programs - I am thinking of Murder She Wrote here - this show would be a good alternative. There is nothing too taxing, nothing too violent or scary, and you can easily keep track of who the small cast of characters are. Plus, and this is a big plus for me, there is awesome (and awesomely ridiculous) 1970's fashion on parade in nearly every scene . . . the bell bottomed corduroys and jeans; the tight sweaters; the blouses tied over tee-shirts; and the huge amounts of Aqua Net infused hair. Priceless.


Should you happen to watch Nancy go off to investigate the Whispering Walls, pay attention to the outfit she dons to go inside the bowels of the house. (I am thinking this is the equivalent of a painting outfit for the uber-stylish and feminine Miss Drew.) Those bell bottomed corduroys had to be the envy of every single teenager back in 1977; hell, I sort of want them now.



Quincy, M.E.
Ah, Quincy: the renegade medical examiner who is willing to do just about anything to make sure that a correct cause of death is noted and justice is served. Take on the police force? He's done it; in fact, he does it nearly every episode. Fight City Hall and win? He tackled this in the show's premiere episode. Use his own funds to fly to a foreign country and exhume a body only to make sure an innocent boy is not sent down for a murder he did not commit? All in a day's work for Quincy. 


I first encountered Quincy when I was in high school. Growing up, my house lacked cable television. In addition to the standard T.V. networks - ABC, NBC, Fox - we received a local Los Angeles channel called KDOC. At the time, this channel loved to show old crime dramas: Quincy, McMillan and Wife, Banacek, Rockford Files, Perry Mason, etc. Being the crime drama fan I am, these were basically the only shows I watched on television. I may have been clueless about whatever cool new thing was happening, but boy did I know a lot about 1970's style police work.


Quincy is an odd show for me to like, as I am generally opposed to shows that focus on doctors and hospitals. And by generally opposed, I mean that I freaking HATE these types of television shows. I would literally rather be in the E.R. than be forced to watch an episode of E.R. (At least that way I could read a book, or browse through an Us Weekly.) Why do I hate the medical drama so much? Frankly, I just think they are boring. I do not find resuscitation, amputation, or shunt insertion exciting drama, and I hate the trite feel goodness of all of these shows. Doctors as martyrs, valiantly saving one crucial life after another as an Enya song plays in the background. They may have their own personal demons and problems, but in the O.R. everything just makes sense. (Visualize me dry heaving here.) Boring content + trite sentimentality = something I will never voluntarily watch.


What is appealing about Quincy, for me, is that the show is structured much more like a crime show than a medical drama. Although Quincy is a medical examiner - complete with microscope and lab coat - he spends most of his air time acting like a P.I.: hunting down suspects; questioning rapscallions; and, chastising the police force brass for their failure to provide justice for all. If being an M.E. were actually like this, I would have added it to my list of possible career options back in my freshman year of high school.


Sure the show is formulaic: whatever Quincy thinks is always right. Always. In fact, he is so unfailingly correct that you would think the police force, and city hall, would simply raise the white flag when they see him approaching. But the show is formulaic in the same way that Columbo and Perry Mason are: we know these individuals possess the unadulterated truth, but we get the pleasure of watching them prove this to the skeptical (and more than slightly dense) world around them. 


You may not be able to fight the law and win, but Quincy sure can. Every single week. 



Harper's Island
To be honest, I had never even heard of this show when I saw it on the list of Netflix instant viewing options. When was this show aired? Who knew. What network was it on? Not a clue. Imagine my chagrin when I saw that it aired last year on CBS. (See how firmly I have my finger on the pulse of popular American culture?) In my defense, this is not entirely my fault. While I do own a television, I have carried on my family's long and noble tradition of not having cable. The result of which is that I, with my digital T.V. receiver, am able to watch shows on only four stations: ABC, NBC, PBS and a local station called "Action 36." CBS is just not on my (completely minimal) radar.


Going into this show, my expectations were fairly low. For starters, CBS is not known to produce great thrillers; also, I saw Harry Hamlin's name in the credits. Although I tolerated him in Veronica Mars (a show I did, embarrassingly enough, like) he is not exactly on my A-list. 


The premise of Harper's Island is simple: a group of individuals arrive on the island for a wedding only to be picked off one-by-one by a serial killer. The current spate of violence echoes back to the island's past; seven years ago, a similar series of murders were committed by John Wakefield. Although Wakefield is believed to be dead - the Sheriff shot him - some members of the wedding party have their doubts. Is John Wakefield still alive? Is he, and he alone, responsible for these murders or is there a more complicated explanation for all this death?



Harper's Island is not a "deep" show. If you are looking for something that will make you think, challenge your perceptive powers, or be completely plausible, look elsewhere. This is not to say that the show is bad or a waste of time; on the contrary, I watched all 13 episodes and enjoyed it immensely. It is a highly entertaining horror series, with several moments that are genuinely scary.



The show employs nearly every horror movie cliche in existence along the way: an isolated location complete with booby trapped walkways and forest paths; a creepy little girl; damaged people with prescription meds, fireworks, and death wishes; "hot" people behaving totally irrationally; a mysterious bag full of money and firearms; and a haunted protagonist who has returned to the island to face her fears. The show is not what you would call unique, but the combination of classic horror cliches does make for an entertaining series to watch. 


If you were to create a hybrid of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, Twin Peaks, and classic horror films you would come up with something that looks a lot like Harper's Island. You may not want to admit that you spent 13 hours of your life watching this low brow series but you would need to be much stronger than I to turn it off. 



Jim Henson's The Storyteller
 In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit that I am partial to just about everyone and everything involved in this project: Anthony Minghella, who adapted the myths and fables; John Hurt and Michael Gambon, who act as the storytellers; and Jim Henson studios, which created and operated the Muppets used in these episodes. I have been a huge Muppet fan ever since I was a child, and still routinely throw on The Muppet Movie whenever I need some serious comforting. 

The Storyteller was produced for HBO in the late 1980's. There is one series based on folk tales, which are narrated by John Hurt, and another series, narrated by Michael Gambon, that centers on the Greek myths. As the storyteller tells his trusty Muppet dog the tale, the plot is acted out with the help of live actors and an assortment of Muppet creations. 


I watched the first episode of the fairy tale series - entitled "The Soldier and Death" - and, not surprisingly, enjoyed it a great deal. The story involves a Russian soldier who, in return for his last three biscuits, is given three magical gifts. How he uses these gifts, and the fate they lead him towards, is the plot of the fairy tale.



At one point in the story, the soldier seeks to win a pile of gold from a band of small, and remarkably cute, Muppet "demons." Although I fully realized that these were the 'bad' guys of the sequence, I loved them so much that I sincerely hoped they either: (a) were victorious; or, (b) had more than a bit part in the episode. (A spoiler for anyone who watches this: the demons do reappear in this episode, much to my delight.) 


Unlike the dry, overly childlike renditions of fairy tales that are out there, this tale was well written and appealing to an adult audience. (Or, at least to this adult. I am a rather childish grown up though.) If you appreciate fairy tales, and the magic that is the Muppets, you should definitely check out this series. 


None of these shows will make you any smarter, or cooler, or better looking. But they will prevent you from having to do something productive with yourself for hours (or days) on end. Looking to escape the dishes? Throw on some Quincy and crack open a bag of chips -- you are set for the evening. Need a show to help you while away part of your weekend? Let me introduce you to Harper's Island and pizza delivery. As long as you have a water supply nearby, you are all set for the next 13 or so hours of your life.


And, if you start to get bored with your television options, you should remember that the instant viewing list on Netflix also includes some fine feature films. Some of these, like Vertigo, are actually quality films; others, like the 'provocative' classic Purple Rain, are just plain fun to watch. Who couldn't kill two hours of their life watching Prince mope, prance around, and dry hump the floor? Anyone? Point made.


It may not be deep, but good god is it entertaining.



Sunday, December 13, 2009

How Eccentric Are You? The Quiz



No, this was not an early prototype cover for the Sergeant Pepper album. Although I do understand how you could think this. 


What you are actually looking at is a picture of Lord Berners - the famous British composer, artist, author, homosexual, and raving eccentric - amid a colorful menagerie of weirdness. Berners was not known to pal around with prize horses and oversized flowers, but he was a recognized eccentric even in his own day. Undoubtedly, the graphic designer responsible for this collage felt that the man's essence could only be captured by pasting him into a twelve year old girl's surrealist fantasy; while this would not have been the route Miss Merricat chose, she cannot say that this picture is entirely unrepresentative of the man it features.



Berners was not the only famous eccentric Britain produced in the twentieth century.  The Mitford family, whom Berners knew, was as famous for its odd ways as it was for its bevy of beautiful, batty daughters. Not only did the sisters divide their loyalties between communism and fascism - just imagine Christmas conversation at this home! - but Nancy went on to author a series of well received novels. Her character, Lord Merlin, who enjoyed dipping pigeons into colored vats of paint and releasing them into the air to become "a cloud of confetti," is a thinly veiled version of Berners in his natural element. Like I said, the man was an A-1 weirdo.


Lest ye think that eccentric behavior and opinions are solely a pastime for our British brothers and sisters, remember Little and Big Edie Beale. Captured forever in the brilliant documentary Grey Gardens, one sees the two Beale women - cousins of Jackie Kennedy - navigating their way through a ramshackle house, traipsing outside in more clothes than Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen wear in a week, and making observations that could only be described as "unique." Although the Beales came to lack the financial independence of Lord Berners and the Mitfords, their approach to life and living was equally eccentric. None of these individuals were weird for the sake of being weird; they were simply deeply odd people who lacked the desire, or the energy, to hide their batshit notions and pastimes from the world around them.



Miss Merricat respects them for their genuine lack of conformity and, occasionally, wishes her own childhood had been a bit less suburban and a bit more medieval. Would it have killed my parents to raise my sister and I in a decaying villa in some god forsaken rural parish? Couldn't they have even tried to induce a family ghost to haunt our premises and our dreams? Did all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins have to be so unrelentingly normal? I think at least one of them could have fallen on their sword for the rest of the family and lived a life of complete aestheticism and reckless abandon. Rather than end up with the sort of childhood Dodie Smith relates in I Capture the Castle, I ended up with something much more normal. 



You, however, may be luckier than I. If you have ever thought you were eccentric, but lacked the diagnostic tool necessary for a formal diagnosis of "weird," this is your lucky day. To find out just how weird - or normal - you are, read on. 


How Eccentric Are You? 
Quiz Edition


(1) The place where you live is accessible via:
      (A) Asking for directions at the Tastee Freeze off route 10.
      (B) Calling Albert Maysles and asking for your home's GPS coordinates.
      (C) Bus lines 14, 24, 27, and 67.


(2) Your house can be identified by:
      (A) The sign that reads "Little Paddocks," which hangs above the front door.
      (B) Its ramshackle, ivy-covered turrets, and the all encompassing smell of decay.
      (C) Its numerical address, which can clearly be seen on Google Earth.


(3) In your free time you:
      (A) Take long walks in your moor-free neighborhood, the moors having been pushed out when the 35th Starbucks opened on this block.
      (B) Traipse along the moors, in nothing but a pair of Wellies, communing with nature.
      (C) Thank god that you are geographically separated from anything moor-like. 


(4) Would you say that you are artistically gifted and/or a polymath?
      (A) I can complete a simple sudoku puzzle while simultanesouly watching television and snacking on Kettle Chips.
      (B) I speak twelve languages, have composed five symphonies, and am up for the Nobel prize in chemistry this year. Plus, I'm only 10 and a half.
      (C) Math and I do not get along.


(5) On a walk near your home, you are likely to encounter:
      (A) Three stray cats and the neighbor that called the cops on your ten person Halloween party several years back.
      (B) Rodents, raccoons, opossums, the Hound of the Baskervilles, and, on alternate Fridays, the ghost of Peter Maysles.
      (C) So many a**holes you cannot even BEGIN to list them all.


(6) Your family reunion consists of:
      (A) Your immediate family and your grannie, whose dementia forces her to swear like a sailor. 
      (B) Your parents (Favre and Muv), your siblings (Unity, Topaz, Tyrwhitt, Polly, and Pelham), your cousins (Little Hettie and Big Hettie), and your pets (Abelard and Heloise).
      (C) Dinner at a chain restaurant with your mom and stepfather. The awesome blossom  is totally on them.


So, how much of an eccentric are you? Add up the number of A's, B's, and C's you received and then check out the table below. 


Mostly A's = Almost Eccentric
Mostly B's = Batty as a Beale
Mostly C's = Clearly a Cleaver


If you somehow managed to acquire an even number of two of the letters - or, even more shocking - an even number of all THREE letters, then you are even weirder than this test could have imagined. Well, that or you cheated. Congratulations, on being a (cheating?) super-weirdo!



Almost Eccentric
Try as you might, you are just not that odd. Although you do have some unusual hobbies, habits, and predilections, you are fairly normal by comparison. Your home is in a semi-populated region, is not overrun by wild animals and endangered muskrats, and your family is so boringly normal that they are almost gauche. Were any of them arrested at all last year? Even for taking part in an ill advised political or social protest? No? See - boring. You do try to compensate for your stultifying normality by acquiring and expressing "quirky" mannerisms, like wearing pajamas outside or trying to repopularize the deerstalker cap. Sadly, no one is fooled. We all just think you have bad fashion sense (on top of being such a normie.) My advice would be to either accept your normality, quickly, or work on acquiring a few of the following: a family ghost; a run down castle in the Scottish Highlands; siblings who join fringe social movements and/or cults (note that you need a minimum of two siblings in different groups for this to be an option); or simultaneous world-wide acclaim for your newest contribution to string theory and for your smash hit opera. I am not saying that tackling any of these will be easy, but they really are your only shot at moving from wishfully weird to truly eccentric. Best of luck, dearie.



Batty as a Beale
My, you are an odd duck. You are not, by any chance, the reincarnation of Little (or Big) Edie Beale, are you? I have to ask. Not only do you live in relative seclusion, in an area that makes no man's land look like Times Square, but your house is literally a breeze away from collapsing on you and the family of meerkats who live in the cellar. Which would be a shame, because your house is overflowing with your artistic and intellectual output: your oil paintings; your letters to the President and his cabinet; your memoir revealing what nasty thing you saw in the woodshed all those years ago; and your formula for a natural deodorant that actually works. In fact, you are so weird - and live so far off the grid - that it amazes me you were able to find and complete an internet based personality quiz. (AT&T's coverage must be a lot better than it used to be.) Clearly, you are odd enough to need no advice from someone like Miss Merricat. However, it is the season of giving, so I will pass some along to you anyway. If a documentary crew ever shows up at your abode, and asks to film you, please condition your participation on them never allowing a feature film version - with professional actors - to be made of your life. The last thing you need is to be portrayed by Drew (normal-as-all-hell) Barrymore. Don't say I didn't warn you.



Clearly a Cleaver
My, you are normal. Too normal, even. Are you using your overwhelming normality as a cover to get away with nefarious deeds? Secret trysts? Serial killing spree? Addiction to snorting Pixy Stix? I certainly fear so. No one could possibly be as boringly normal as you are on a day to day basis without committing a few serious felonies here and there. Might I make a suggestion? Rather than live as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, why not split the difference and live as a semi-weird person on a day to day basis? Think of all the money you could save on attorneys, chemistry equipment, trash bags, and candy. (The Willy Wonka company does not need ten percent of your annual household income.) You may not end up looking like a true eccentric but, then again, you would not want to. The police always suspect those people first and you have more than a few skeletons to hide. (Not literally, I hope. Otherwise, Miss Merricat will be forced to report you to the proper authorities. Sorry.)


Crushed to see that this quiz has come to an end? Me too. Now we both have to get back to being productive: feeding the raccoons in the cellar, distressing the 17th century wing of the house, scheduling a date for Albert Maysles to come by. Nothing but work work work all the time. And you know what raccoons are like . . . all rabies and attitude. Never a word of thanks. If it were not for the hundreds of adoring fans I have worldwide, it just would not be worthwhile.


Luckily for you, I'll be back with another totally meaningless quiz sometime in the near future. Do try to contain your excitement; you would not want to keel over before the new quiz arrives. That would be tragic.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser: The Mystery Fiction of G.K. Chesterton & Edmund Crispin


In his youth, Robert Bruce Montgomery was a self described “intellectual snob.” Although his snobbery may have reared its head on several different fronts simultaneously, one thing his intellectual pretensions kept him far away from was mystery fiction.  (Christie, David A. "(Robert) Bruce Montgomery." British Mystery and Thriller Writers Since 1940: First Series. Ed. Bernard Benstock and Thomas F. Staley. )


Were it not for John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge, the mystery novel Montgomery read at the prompting of a friend, he may never have overcome his aversion.  Prior to reading Carr, Montgomery felt that detective stories were beneath him; after finishing The Crooked Hinge, he went on to author a series of outstanding mystery novels under the pen name of Edmund Crispin.


Like Montgomery, I have a complicated relationship with mysteries. While I have always appreciated good writing, regardless of the genre it is packaged under, the intellectual snob within has some distinct reservations about much of what is labeled and sold as mystery fiction. To quote Kingsley Amis’s introduction to a series of Father Brown stories, I have always believed – and still believe – that the mystery fiction genre is divided into two types of works:  detective stories; and, “detective stor[ies] with a difference, or several differences.”  (G.K. Chesterton, Selected Stories. Ed. Kingsley Amis.) Mysteries in the former category may be highly entertaining to read, but they are formulaic, plot heavy devices. One reads frantically through them in search of the answers – Who? What? How? Oh my! – and turns the last page without a second thought. Rereading such a book would be a farce; by relying so heavily on plot, and on convention, these works forget about the traditional elements of the novel that set a good book apart from a mediocre one: the delineation of character; the description of people and places; and the use of language that is both beautiful and evocative. The second category of mystery novels, those Amis refers to as mysteries with a difference, manage to combine the traditional elements of the mystery genre and the novel with something which is original and clever. Those authors who write mysteries with a difference – Georges Simenon instantly comes to mind – challenge our conceptions of what a mystery is and what it can be in the future.  Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time is the perfect example of a novel that broadened and reinvigorated the mystery form; despite the temporal lapse between its “crime” – the murder of Richard III’s nephews in the tower – and its detective – an ailing twentieth century police inspector – Tey managed to create a wholly original novel that was eminently literary, suspenseful, and moving.


Edmund Crispin and G.K. Chesterton also wrote detective stories with a difference. Like Crispin, Chesterton had not intended to become a mystery novelist. Trained in fine art at the Slade, he turned his back on an artistic career in favor of the life of a reviewer, journalist, and poet. His mystery fiction was born of a need to “subsidize a series of weekly newspapers: the Eye Witness , later the New Witness, which he founded with his brother Cecil and Hilaire Belloc in 1911; and its successor G.K.'s Weekly , which Chesterton edited from 1925 until his death on 14 June 1936.” (Leitch, Thomas M. "G(ilbert) K(eith) Chesterton." British Mystery Writers, 1860-1919. Ed. Bernard Benstock and Thomas F. Staley.)



Despite its humble origins, the mystery fiction G.K. Chesterton authored is anything but run of the mill commercial work. Chesterton’s stories – which include both stand alone mysteries as well as mysteries starring his amateur detective, Father Brown – are small masterpieces of both description and logic.  In all of Chesterton’s work there is an:


inexhaustible fascination with the outward appearance of things, not only with the effects of light upon them but with the things in themselves: landscape and seascape, streets, shops, gardens, the outsides and insides of houses, ornaments, knick-knacks of every possible kind, details of dress and costume – and, more than any of these, the lineaments of the human beings inside the costume. Nobody, I think, would call Chesterton a great characterizer of the inner selves of men and women, but one would have to turn to a writer on the scale of his beloved Dickens to find a better representer of how they look.
(From Kingsley Amis’s introduction to: G.K. Chesterton, Selected Stories. Ed. Kingsley Amis.)


Chesterton’s frequent descriptions are rendered with the kind of detail and precision one would expect of a classically trained artist as well as with an uncommon degree of humor. Take, for example, Chesterton’s description of Glengyle Castle, the location for his Father Brown story, “The Honour of Israel Gow.” The story begins thus:


A stormy evening of olive and silver was closing in, as Father Brown, wrapped in a grey scotch plaid, came to the end of a grey Scotch valley and beheld the strange castle of Glengyle. It stopped one end of the glen or hollow like a blind alley; and it looked like the end of the world. Rising in step roofs and spires of seagreen slate in the manner of the old French-Scottish chateaux, it reminded an Englishman of the sinister steeple hats of witches in fairy tales; and the pine woods that rocked round the green turrets looked, by comparison, as black as numberless flocks of ravens.
           (G.K. Chesterton, Selected Stories. Ed. Kingsley Amis.)


These detailed descriptions of places, people, and things, allowed Chesterton to create tension and atmosphere without having to sacrifice the simplicity of his plot lines. The mood builds through the word choices he makes, and the comparisons he draws, rather than through an accumulation of nefarious happenings.


Chesterton was an advocate of simple mysteries: "the secret may appear complex, but it must be simple; and in this also it is a symbol of higher mysteries." The author has given the reader the handful of clues necessary for the mystery’s successful resolution; whether the reader is able to “solve” the case depends not on her being able to keep up with the plot twists but with her ability to see “the world of the story in a completely new way, a way [she has] never suspected before.” The detective story is, ultimately, a kind of logic puzzle in which the reader “is not really wrestling with the criminal but with the author.” (Leitch, Thomas M. "G(ilbert) K(eith) Chesterton." British Mystery Writers, 1860-1919. Ed. Bernard Benstock and Thomas F. Staley.)




“The Honour of Israel Gow” is an excellent example of the mystery story as logic puzzle. In this story, Father Brown is looking into the death of the master of Glengyle Castle. The circumstances of his death are shadowy, at best, and there is a puzzling array of clues:  a stash of loose “precious stones;” “heaps and heaps” of loose snuff; “curious little heaps of minute pieces of metal;” and wax candles, without candle holders.  Scotland Yard’s Inspector Craven, who is also at the scene, challenges Father Brown (and the reader) to successfully resolve the case as “by no stretch of fancy can the human mind connect together snuff and diamonds and wax and loose clockwork.” Whether one is able to work out how these pieces fit together – and Miss Merricat was not when she first read this story – Father Brown’s solution to the case comes like a revelation of clear thinking. Rather than feel anger at the author for failing to provide you with the needed clues, the reader is left frustrated with herself for her inability to see the obvious truth before her eyes.

While some of Chesterton’s stories are easier to reason out than others, he rarely fails to provide the reader with the clues she needs to work out the story for herself. Partially, this is due to Chesterton’s belief that the story should act as a kind of logical game, as a way for the reader to test her wits against those of the fictionalized detective. But his meticulous fairness to his readers stems from another source as well: he believed that “a reader who [was] given the opportunity to discover the secret of a detective story [was] thereby offered a model for perceiving the world of God's reason.” (Leitch, Thomas M. "G(ilbert) K(eith) Chesterton." British Mystery Writers, 1860-1919. Ed. Bernard Benstock and Thomas F. Staley.) The spiritual world, which Chesterton strongly believed in, was a mirror for the fictional world of the detective story; the deceptively simple secrets of each would be revealed to those who approached them with patience and with logic.


As a Catholic, much of Chesterton’s work is infused with traditional notions of right and wrong:  he, “unabashedly, used the structure and figures of detective fiction as a vehicle for dramatizing [his] moral and eschatological view of the world.”  (Leitch, Thomas M. "G(ilbert) K(eith) Chesterton." British Mystery Writers, 1860-1919. Ed. Bernard Benstock and Thomas F. Staley.) For some of his contemporaries, including George Orwell, this was his main fault. By failing to keep his personal ideology separate from the poetry and prose he composed, he was apt to imbue his work with – sometimes objectionable – religious and political imagery.



In addition to the Father Brown stories, Chesterton also authored poetry and nonfiction. In some of these works, Chesterton expressed his most unappealing character trait: his anti-Semitism.  Some critics have tried to salvage Chesterton from this accusation by insisting that numerous members of British society were anti-Semitic during the 1920’s; they somehow feel that by making his bigotry appear commonplace, a societal ill rather than a personal failing, they can redeem the man. While these critics may be well intentioned, their premise is completely unsound: we cannot ignore his prejudice merely because it was shared by others. Chesterton is a racist bigot by contemporary standards, and he “was a racist bigot even by the standards of his time.” (Beckett, Francis. "G K and A K: a tale of two anti-Semites." New Statesman (1996). 126.4323 (28 Feb. 1997): p46.) As one who believed in moral absolutes, Chesterton himself would not have exempted another’s conduct from reprobation simply because the individual was not on the extreme fringes of society. Wrong was wrong, no matter how often one encountered it.


Although it does not excuse his beliefs, nor mitigate their harmfulness, it would be unfair of me to fail to mention Chesterton’s strong opposition to Hitler. As Amis notes, “he was quick to speak out against the rise of Hitlerism, rather quicker, in fact, than some social democrats of the period.” (From Kingsley Amis’s introduction to: G.K. Chesterton, Selected Stories. Ed. Kingsley Amis.)


Chesterton was a bigot, but he was also a fine mystery writer.  Whether the former cancels out the latter is something you will have to decide for yourself; while I cannot look at some of Chesterton’s poems, or nonfiction, without feeling nauseated by his beliefs, most of the Father Brown stories remain untainted for me. Lacking complicated plot structures, grisly crimes, or an overly eccentric amateur sleuth, these stories function as both artfully constructed logic puzzles as well as entertaining feasts of description.  They are also, dare I say it, often quite funny.



Humor is at the heart of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen series. Fen, an Oxford professor, solves crimes in a manner that can only be described as madcap; if P.G. Wodehouse were to have taken up the mystery mantle, I think his efforts must have come very close to those of Crispin. There are zany car/boat/foot chases; impossible, and impossibly silly, crime scenes; and characters so bumbling that Fen is simply forced to insult them. Repeatedly.


Like Chesterton, Crispin was keen to provide his reader with all of the clues necessary for the solution of the case. As Fen asks in The Case of the Gilded Fly:


You've had all the facts that I've had; more, you've had a lot of them at firsthand; they give you everything you want. Do you honestly mean to tell me you still don't know what this is all about?


Despite being provided with all of the clues necessary, most readers will find Crispin’s puzzles less than simple to decipher. As a fan of John Dickson Carr – the recognized master of the so-called locked room mystery – Crispin’s work typically involves a seemingly impossible crime. In order to help the reader work out how the murder could have been committed, his books come complete with a detailed map to the crime scene and its environs.


What Crispin brought to the pantheon of impossible crime stories is a wholly unique protagonist; in Gervase Fen he created a completely amoral detective who was both a moody and pompous academic as well as a childlike eccentric. To watch Fen reason out how a crime occurred, and why, is to receive a thoroughly entertaining advanced course in logic.



Like Chesterton, Crispin was a political conservative. He believed in middle class Britain's values and work ethic, although he labeled himself as "a lazy person essentially, and of a sedentary habit." (As an aside, Miss Merricat finds this quote to be a wholly appropriate description of herself as well.) Although his politics occasionally crept into some of his later works, most of Crispin’s novels are remarkably free of moral or ideological judgments. The books are mysteries, but their resolutions are meant to tax the reader’s logical capacities – and her sense of humor – rather than her sense of the world and one’s place in it. Crispin is decidedly uninterested in ethics or epistemologies; any character who even ventures into such waters is apt to receive a rather hilarious drumming down from an irate Fen. (Christie, David A. "(Robert) Bruce Montgomery." British Mystery and Thriller Writers Since 1940: First Series. Ed. Bernard Benstock and Thomas F. Staley.)


Although strikingly different as men, and authors, both Chesterton and Crispin used the precepts of the mystery genre to create original works that were wholly reflective of themselves and their interests. For Crispin, the mystery became an avenue to explore characterization, humor, and impish perversity. For Chesterton, it became another route by which to study paradox and revelation.


What both men shared is an idea of the mystery as something which should be solvable, a test that the careful and logical reader could master along with the amateur sleuth. There are no missing clues or shocking last minute revelations brought into the fray. There are only facts, clearly given, waiting for the reader to pick them up, examine them, and fit them into place. The picture that emerges from these disparate parts may or may not be one of jarring simplicity, but it comes into focus with a sense of awe that can only be called revelatory. 


As T.S. Eliot wrote, of another kind of mystery entirely:


the end of all our exploring / will be to arrive where we started /and know the place for the first time.