Sunday, October 29, 2023

UNCOMMON MYSTERIES: Domecq, H. Bustos [Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares], Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, (1942), trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni (1980).


            Not only a parody of the detective mystery genre but also a satire aimed at Argentinian societal types, these six stories give Argentina its first fictional detective. Don Isidro, wrongly convicted for a murder, is the ultimate armchair detective; even Nero Wolfe and Mycroft Holmes occasionally venture out from their lodgings, but Parodi can’t stir from Cell 273. Prison has turned him from an ordinary barber to an extraordinary crime-solver. A series of flamboyant characters approach him there, including Achilles Molinari, a self-important journalist, a poet manqué named Carlos Anglado, another would-be literary figure who also fancies himself a detective, Gervasio Montenegro, and several Chinese who are much more voluble than inscrutable. Montenegro also writes the preface, in which he reveals himself to be a chauvinist, an anti-Semite, and a fool.

            Parodi listens to his clients deliver these long-winded tales that Borges himself described later as “baroque” and “painful…for the reader.” Then, after fifteen prolix pages, Parodi solves each problem succinctly, usually puncturing his clients’ pretensions to cleverness as well as implicitly condemning their prolixity by his brevity.

            The tales themselves allude to famous detective fictions: “The Twelves Figures of the World” to Chesterton’s intricate conspiracy story The Man Who Was Thursday, “The Nights of Goliadkin” to Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, and “Tai An’s Long Search” to “The Purloined Letter.” Allusions to Father Brown and other famous detectives may be found throughout, and it might be useful if a student of Argentine history of the first half of the twentieth century would annotate the references to contemporary figures and events.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

UNCOMMON MYSTERIES: Karen Joy Fowler, Wit's End (2008)

            I went to a concert in the late sixties to see a Canadian singing duo called Ian and Sylvia. One of their original songs, “Four Strong Winds,” had been high on the charts a few years before. When they started this song, the audience began to sing it, and when Ian and Sylvia Tyson tried to change the words in the third verse, they were drowned out by the crowd’s singing of the lyrics that had been on the record. Just whose song was it, I wondered at the time.

            This question of who really owns a creative project like a song or in this case a book’s characters, is taken up by Karen Joy Fowler in her 2008 mystery, Wit’s End. In this book, Rima Lansill, saddened and confused by the deaths of her mother, father, and younger brother, arrives at Wit’s End, the Santa Cruz shoreline house of her godmother, the mystery writer Addison Early. She comes for a kind of rest cure and stays to solve a mystery.

            The mystery is partly what the relationship was between Rima’s father and Addison, a relationship that would prompt Addison to put Rima’s father in one of her mysteries as a serial killer, complete with his real name. But there’s also a stalker who haunts the coast house and who may or may not be the same woman who writes fan letters to Addison’s fictional detective and who may or may not have grown up in a cult called the Holy City with the person who inspired the character of the detective.

            At the house called Wit’s End, Rima encounters a cast of eccentrics that includes Tilda the tattooed cook, her unpleasant son Martin, the dog walkers Scorch and Cody, and various strangers who have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction. The detective in Addison’s books becomes a regular visitor in Rima’s dreams, and she finds herself drawn into an investigation that puts her in danger from those who have been deranged by their bizarre and violent past.

            Karen Joy Fowler has had several bestselling books, the most recent being The Jane Austen Book Club. She’s not really a mystery writer. What I mean by that is that her attention is always less with pacing Rima’s discoveries and clearly elucidating the mystery, always more with the developing new social order at Wit’s End, as well as whether and how Rima will fit into it. As she has shown from previous books, some of which combine historical and science fiction, she’s a little bit of a genre bender. But she kept me reading with a really ingratiating style that is often funny and never mistakes sarcasm for wit.


Sunday, September 17, 2023

Michael Dirda, On Conan Doyle: or, the Whole Art of Storytelling (2012)

             Dirda discovered Sherlock Holmes when he was a boy and says of reading The Hound of the Baskervilles for the first time “I shivered with fearful pleasure, scrunched further down in under my thick blanket…as happy as I will ever be.” He goes back and forth between his own experience with Conan Doyle’s writing and description of his life.

            The young Dirda in Lorrain, Ohio finds the Doubleday Complete Sherlock Holmes which keeps him busy for a while. In the course of his going to college at nearby Oberlin, moving on to graduate school at Cornell, and ending up, after some teaching and translating, finding his niche reviewing for the Washington Post’s Book World, he expands his reading to Conan Doyle’s other works, including his historical novel The White Company and his “club tales” narrated by Brigadier Gerard (“comically naïve, charmingly vain, and absolutely convinced that every woman finds him irresistible”). Dirda’s grasp of Conan Doyle’s oeuvre is wide and deep, though he confesses to not having read everything. He notes the author’s efforts to find justice for the unjustly accused George Edalji and Oscar Slater. He also notes Conan Doyle’s thirteen books on Spiritualism and the one arguing for the existence of fairies. He has read the stories, mostly based on Doyle’s and other doctors’ experience, in Round the Red Lamp, as well as his book on books, Through the Magic Door, and autobiography, Memories and Adventures.

            Dirda got involved with The Baker Street Irregulars, the club that originated so-called “Sherlockian scholarship”—the whole tongue-in-cheek field of writing about Holmes and Watson as if they were real people. Something too much of this, here, but the book is entertaining and informative (I didn’t know about the “club tales,” for instance) for those of us who have been lifelong Holmes fans.

Friday, September 8, 2023

UNCOMMON MYSTERIES: Penelope Fitzgerald, The Golden Child, (Colin Duckworth, 1977; rpt. Mariner, 1999).

            Penelope Fitzgerald is a British novelist who did not begin publishing until she was in her sixties, but who eventually won England’s top literary award, the Booker Prize, as well as the National Book Critics Award in this country.  Her first book, The Golden Child, is a mystery based on the Tutankhamen exhibition which came to London’s British Museum in 1972.  But the museum in the book is not quite the British Museum, though it resembles it; the Golden Child of the title, a gold-encrusted mummy, is not quite Tutankhamen; his country of origin is not Egypt but “Garamantia;” and the museum director is not quite Lord Kenneth Clark, though he looks and acts like him.  And unlike the Tutankhamen exhibit, this one turns out to be a fake; the thousands of people in folded queues in the famous courtyard are unaware that the mummy in the gilded sarcophagus is not the adolescent king but a much more modern corpse covered with gold-leaf.

            The quirky staff of the museum, besides the Kenneth Clark look-alike, includes a precious aristocrat his coworkers call the May Queen, a ubiquitous assistant known only as Jones—whose name turns out to be Jones Jones—the cantankerous old Sir William, discoverer of the real treasure of the Golden Child, and Sir William’s sleepy, insouciant, six-month’s pregnant secretary Dousha Vartarian.

            Fitzgerald shows a Dickensian playfulness about names, such as that of Professor Untermensch, the expert on hieroglyphics.  The book has a parody Frenchman, a sort of combination of Jacques Derrida and Claude Levi-Strauss.  There’s a little touch of P. G. Wodehouse and more than a little reminder of Waugh as the museum employee at the bottom of the food chain is the one singled out for an intrigue-filled trip to Moscow, where he uncovers the real Golden Child artifacts and the international Cold War politics that dictate that a fake one be sent to England.  The British ambassador to Garamantia, where the Golden Child came from, is, according to the museum director, “Pombo Greene, whom I have known, since he was in my election at Eton, to be exceptionally foolish and incompetent.”

            The book has an orthodox mystery plot with a couple of murders, but its strength is social comedy, and its conclusion is a farcical scene which satisfies our desire for poetic justice.  Fitzgerald died in 2002, shortly after this book was reissued in a Mariner paperback.  It’s her only mystery.