Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Happy Detective Day!

Have you ever helped to launch a holiday? Now's your chance! In reading a mystery novel, I stumbled across this information: the Detective Branch of London's Metropolitan Police was established on August 15, 1842. It was a plainclothes branch of detectives based at Scotland Yard, of course. The first head was Inspector Nicholas Pearce with Inspector John Haynes as his deputy. A handful of men served under them (roughly six) and it was for a while the only such branch in the UK (and presumably the world) dedicated to detectives. So, I think today is the 164th Annual Detective Day! Think of the possibilities: in the future, TV stations will broadcast marathons of "Columbo" and "The Rockford Files" and old mystery films, movie studios will release noirs like the upcoming The Black Dahlia pegged to this date, theatrical companies will revive Agatha Christie's Mousetrap or The Mystery of Edwin Drood or Deathtrap, bookstores will have readings and events celebrating classic and new mystery books. And I'll get to wear my deerstalker cape and smoke a pipe and shout out "The game is afoot!" while striding down the street with my Watson. So make sure to wish your friends and family a Happy Detective Day! Here's a rundown of the recent books and TV shows I've been watching that would be ideal for anyone looking to celebrate further.

*** "The Moonstone" by Wilkie Collins is a classic mystery tale, often considered the first mystery story of all. Edgar Allan Poe wrote some short stories before it, but the mystery as we know it (with a detective hero filled with faults and eccentricities, details the reader can parse out on their own and so on) is all here. It's quite modern, even if the mystery itself is rather tame and easy to solve. What Collins does offer is a gallery of great characters. There's Sergeant Cuff, a sly detective who loves roses and gets in arguments with the gardener while investigating the disappearance of the Moonstone. And there's the comic house steward Gabriel Betteridge, who reads "Robinson Crusoe" as if it were a Bible, constantly finding comfort and meaningful signs in random passages. Betteridge gets the "detective fever" while helping Cuff in his work. The narrative passes from character to character in a clever way and it's all amusing and quite entertaining.

*** 1/2 "Right as Rain" by George P. Pelecanos -- This writer of crime stories based in DC has been on my radar for years. I've just been waiting for the right moment. A NYT profile of Pelecanos for his latest book finally shamed me into reading him. "Rain" introduces two characters who would star in a series of books for Pelecanos: Derek Strange, a former cop who runs a private investigation firm and has a casual thing with his secretary that SHOULD become something more; and Terry Quinn, a former cop who quit the service after accidentally shooting a black police officer who was out of uniform. Strange, who is black, and Quinn have a terrific rapport and the book deals with crime and race in a compelling, low-key manner. Again, I didn't find the mystery that hard to figure out (and I don't even really try) but this book isn't one of those mysteries for people who demand the clues and only want to solve a puzzle. It's a novel that uses the mystery genre to bring to life some terrific characters. You don't care whodunit so much as you do about finding out who these people are. Can't wait to read more.

"The Trail Of the Serpent" by Mary Elizabeth Braddon -- the best-selling female writer in Dickens' day, I discovered Braddon in a footnote to "The Moonstone." I'm just at the beginning of her mystery, which has a wry, biting sense of humor that strikes me as very modern. Why isn't she better known?

"The Wire" -- I just finished the third season of this exceptional HBO series on DVD. It was every bit as compelling as seasons one and two. What a show -- the only complaint I ever have is wanting to see more of the characters. Thank God that unlike Deadwood it has come back for a fourth season, starting in September. It follows a group of cops and criminals on the streets of Baltimore. Drunken cops with messed up private lives, gangsters who are trying to go legit by expanding into real estate, a female detective cheating on her lesbian partner after they just had a child, a gay bad ass named Omar who is smarter than everyone, an Irish city council member determined to run for mayor in a heavily black city -- the list of terrific and fascinating characters goes on and on. And the devastating look at crime and drugs and the utter hopelessness one feels when fighting it is just sensational. Put it on Netflix today. And watch it carefully. This show is a slow burner -- it takes its sweet time building up the plot, and it's best enjoyed with someone you can discuss the plot with (not to mention someone who might hear some of the muttered dialogue better than you -- don't forget DVDs have captions you can turn on; I've done it). Great great show.

Obviously, you can celebrate Detective Day (August 15) by watching "Veronica Mars" or wathcing on old movie or picking up Sherlock Holmes. Just remember to wish your family and friends a Happy Detective Day. If you don't, it won't be any mystery why this holiday doesn't catch on. See you next year!

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