Sunday, January 25, 2015

Murder With a Donut on the Side

            I love a simple murder.
            If I had a whole day stretched out in front of me—no kids, no deadlines, no papers to grade, and an opportunity to do nothing at all—I believe I would spend it reading a mystery novel cover to cover, in one sitting, not even breaking for lunch.
            And then I’d start another.
            When my literary friends ask me to name my favorite author, I demur. There are so many to choose from, I tell them, then cast my eyes upward, as if trying to choose from among Melville, Atwood, David Foster Wallace ….
            But as a point of fact, my favorite author ever to pick up the pen is the marvelously inventive Raymond Chandler, whose gritty knowingness was revealed in his masterful use of the simile:

She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.

I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.

I felt like an amputated leg.

She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.

I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.

On the dance floor half a dozen couples were throwing themselves around with the reckless abandon of a night watchman with arthritis.

The voice got as cool as a cafeteria dinner.

The voice that answered was fat. It wheezed softly, like the voice of a man who had just won a pie-eating contest.

From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class.  From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.

I love the quality of the observation behind each simile, and this intelligence pervades whole novels—his entire oeuvre—even when figurative language is not in play.
            I also love Agatha Christie, and have equal fondness for her Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple novels. Christie offers clever and observant investigators and drops clues so that the reader has a chance to unravel the case in real time, unlike those authors who introduce details at the end that make the killer suddenly obvious.
            While this rare intelligence is my favorite aspect of the Chandler or Christie novel, I don’t demand it in all of my mystery reading. In fact, my favorite subgenre is, pardon the pun, the cheesiest there is: the culinary mystery.
            In the culinary mystery, the person who investigates murders has a day job in the food industry. She is a baker or a caterer or a cookie-shop owner or a donut-maker. She typically resides in a small town, one with an unnaturally high murder rate (sort of like Cabot Cove, Maine, where the 3,000 residents had about a one in four chance of being offed during the twelve-year run of Murder, She Wrote). And between the chapters, or at the end of the book, the author includes recipes. (If you’d like to “sample” a culinary mystery, try Diane Mott Davidson, Joanne Fluke, or Jessica Beck.)
            What doesn’t do it for me is a larger mystery—espionage or, worse, some supernatural source of evil. I like the ridiculous notion that someone can dispatch some Alpine/coastal/desert/tundra town’s community theater manager or mayor or volleyball coach, and the woman who runs the donut shop can track him or her down and make sure justice is served, maybe twenty times or more in the life of a series of novels. I don’t believe the donut-making detective exists. I can’t help but believe in the former—dangerous nations and pervasive evil—and I don’t find the thoughts of them at all enjoyable.
            There is much to be said for a simple murder. As a former reporter, I covered murder trials, and they were terrible—nothing simple about them. But the elimination of a two-dimensional character in a wholly unbelievable novel doesn’t bug me, and the knowledge that there will be comeuppance in 150 pages pleases me greatly.

            I’d read a silly mystery novel right now, in fact, but a child needs my attention, and this copyediting project isn’t going to finish itself. One of these days, though, I’m going to give in, lie down with an appealing mystery, and put out a “do not disturb” sign for the whole world—and right now that couch is looking about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.


  1. I hadn't even been aware of the culinary mystery genre, but I always liked novels that worked recipes into the story. I will have to try one when I next have some serious reading time. I can't really read fiction during the semester or I won't get anything done. Teaching has made me a lot stupider -- I read less novels and more student essays.

  2. These are light reading, for sure! Easier to fit in. I only manage to fit in pleasure reading just before bed, so it takes an eternity to finish a mindless novel. Crazy.