While most of my reading dwells on history, I do love a good mystery. I got hooked on Agatha Christie ages ago, but ultimately found her stories a bit too similar and her characters too one-dimensional. She did know how to create a great puzzle, though. I periodically pick up my Complete Sherlock Holmes and spend a few evenings perusing his cases. Holmes is an enduring, fascinating character and his most exciting cases are among Conan-Doyle’s best work, even if the author often played down the Holmes stories. Edgar Allan Poe remains a great favorite and I’m sure to re-read some of his more celebrated tales and poems around this time of year. What’s Halloween without a spirited reading of “The Raven?” Much of Poe’s work, of course, lies more in the field of the macabre, or just plain weird, than in traditional mystery, but he did, after all, create the detective story, and Holmes was, in part, modeled on Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. I think the reason I enjoy Dickens is that his plots often play out like mysteries. There’s always more to the back story of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield than meets the eye and we know that all will be revealed eventually. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, and his long-suffering assistant, Sgt. Lewis, are as memorable as Holmes and Watson, but that is due more to the actors John Thaw and Kevin Whately, who brought them to life on television.
In fact, television has brought new and lasting life to many fictional detectives. Thaw and Whately may lead the pack, but Jeremy Brett nailed Holmes so well that it is unlikely any other actor will be found credible in the role, notwithstanding the iconic Basil Rathbone. Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple have been fleshed out on TV far more than they were on paper by the author. David Suchet has largely erased images of Poirot created by Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and the unlikely Tony Randall, while Joan Hickson came closest to the original Miss Marple, while breathing a good deal more life into the character than the books gave her. Nonetheless, I’ll always have a soft spot in my head for Margaret Rutherford’s comical take on Miss Marple. For pure enjoyment I turn to John Mortimer’s “Rumpole of the Bailey,” both in print and on television. Leo McKern placed his lasting imprint on the character during the 14-year run of the Rumpole television series and in his recorded readings of Mortimer’s original stories. Mortimer’s writing is fluid and charming, and he has a unique talent for dry, understated wit, which McKern captured perfectly. These are not great “mysteries” in the strict sense, but great fun and sly observations on life at the bar -- or anywhere else.