Last week in this space I was musing about how the personal life of the detective has invaded the mystery genre. The genre has hybridized with the soap opera. But it’s not just about milk and cookies (though sometimes it is; that’s even worse). Tragedy strikes those around the detective with numbing regularity. I’m reminded of the cliche observation about the old Star Trek series: If an unknown crew member gets into the transporter with Kirk and Spock to beam down to an unknown planet, you know that crew member is going to die.
I’ve read a few more of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels. In one, Gunther picks up the threads of an old, never-solved case, and his memories of the old case flow side by side with memories of his wife dying of cancer during the same six-month period. Then, in another book, a woman Gunther is living with is killed by an insane sniper in the closing pages. Clearly, Joe Gunther has bad luck with women.
What’s worse, this is gratuitous manipulation of the reader’s feelings. The sniper could have missed the woman … but no. Mayor even indulges in two or three pages of pointless, shallow, manipulative suspense by not telling us quite yet which woman died, the current girlfriend or the former girlfriend.
And now I open a novel called Vengeance, by Stuart Kaminsky, an author I’ve never read before, and on the second page this is what I find: “…my wife died in a car crash in Chicago a little over three years ago. Six months and five days more than three years.” But who’s counting? “It wasn’t her fault. Someone had sideswiped her, probably an accident, sent her into a low concrete wall on Lake Shore Drive, and driven away fast. Never found. I’ve driven as little as I could since then….”
I guess this must be what mystery lovers want. But what would Jane Marple say? “You know, my dear, I must say this reminds me of a girl I once knew in St. Mary Mead. What was her name? Agnes something. Agnes had an incorrigible habit of regaling anyone who came within earshot with fantastic and improbable stories that she had read in movie magazines. It was all to compensate for the fact that the poor girl’s own life was so very, very dull.” Miss Marple had no personal life, you see. She was a keen observer of the lives of others, but other than the fact that her dear nephew Raymond sent her on a vacation once or twice, we learned very little about her. One suspects, in fact, that there was very little to learn. She wasn’t interesting, she was just a sweet, well-mannered old woman sitting in a cozy chair by the fire, knitting.
A modern sleuth cast in this mold would be a breath of fresh air.