I came across a book the other day entitled “Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes,” which seemed like a worthwhile pursuit. I mean, the man and his buddy Watson solved a long string of mind-bending mysteries in their evening clothes after taking a light supper at the club. Had I been alive in their day (and had they not been fictional) I might have been right there with them.
Instead, I bend my brain around British mystery series on TV. I don’t watch them in evening clothes, unless you count my Peanuts bathrobe, and my light supper might simply be crackers and cheese, but I watch and I nibble and I have a marvelous time.
I justify this guilty pleasure because, as Monsieur Hercule Poirot says, the mysteries help keep my “little gray cells” moving. The stories are all different and they all require a good bit of concentration, in part because I have to glean the particulars through a series of heavy British accents. It’s like tuning your ears to another channel.
The murders take place in seaside resorts, rundown hunting lodges or small thatched-cottage villages, but they all manage to create an ambience that hovers between cozy and claustrophobic. More tuning in…
There are generally more characters than I can comfortably keep up with, sporting names like Constance and Eugenia and Wilfolk (his friends call him Bunny), each one with a peculiar set of eccentricities. The women trundle their elderly dogs to town in their motorcycle sidecars, the men collect pipe stems, and all of them putter about in their gardens burying…nobody knows for sure. Handily, very few of the characters actually work, which gives them ample time to dally in the affairs of everyone else in the resort/hunting lodge/thatched-cottage village.
The trick is, no matter how disparate these characters seem, they are all connected. Oh yes, that becomes clear. They attended the same school, dated the same dangerously beautiful woman, or were long ago posted as attachés in India.
Of course, a murder is committed. You never see the actual crime (no blood and gore here), but the results are ghastly enough to make the sleuth’s underling cover his mouth with his handkerchief. The coroner determines time of death (between quarter to and half past) and then begins the delicious process of finding out whodunit.
Unlike American police dramas, there are no dark interrogations at the precinct, no pounding on the table, no wild flung accusations. Here, there are enquiries in overstuffed living rooms where cups of tea are passed around before the detective sidles into his questions. The suspect takes an equally thoughtful time to respond, offers everyone a biscuit, then gives the detective some detached, noncommittal answer that is an obvious lie.
The detective, who knows full well that the suspect is lying, simply nods and takes his leave to add the new piece to the puzzle. Soon, it is determined that every single character had a reason to want the victim dead and is covering up dirty little secrets that are embarrassing but unrelated. More tea is poured and on Sunday, the whole morally bankrupt lot dons their hats and toddles off to church to listen to the Vicar who could very well be the murderer himself.
In the end, the murderer turns out to be the person I least suspected (if I had any inkling at all) and I realize that, as yet, I do not think like Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. Maybe I’ll buy the book…and brew a cup of tea.