May 1, 2016
I love a good mystery. Always have. When a characteristic like that becomes part of who we are, we generally have little trouble recalling the source. My passion for science fiction, e.g., showed up as a result of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials that my dad took me to see when I was four years old. (I've mentioned that in these pages before.) That led me to a lifelong interest in astronomy. I can track my enthusiasm for politics, baseball, history, and Greek mythology as well.
Where fiction is concerned, nothing hooks me better than a good mystery. I got committed to the Sherlock Holmes films during my very early years. To quote Jean Shepherd, Basil Rathbone didn't play Sherlock Holmes, he was Sherlock Holmes. The films were supported by a radio series starring the same actors, Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. So yes, I became addicted early. But the addiction was to the characters rather than to the concept of a mystery.
I never really cared all that much who was writing threatening letters to Lord Chesterfield or what new shenanigan Moriarty was up to. In fact, when I got around to reading the stories themselves, I was surprised to discover my favorite moments had little to do with the plotlines, but were rather simply having the opportunity to sit in on the Baker Street conversations between the two iconic characters.
I had a similar experience with Hercule Poirot. And with the film character Charlie Chan. The only literary detective who took on mysteries that caught my attention and took over the narrative was Gilbert Chesterton's Father Brown. In those classic stories, the issue was less who committed the murder, or whatever, as it was a question of what on earth had happened? In "The Invisible Man," how can it be that a character who knows he is in danger gains round-the-clock police protection at his home, but is nevertheless found murdered inside? In "The Arrow of Heaven," a victim found in a locked apartment in a skyscraper with no surrounding buildings has an arrow in his chest? In "The Sign of the Broken Sword," a heroic British general with a lifelong reputation for caution foolishly orders a charge against fortified position that gets a lot of his men killed. Why? This, for me, is the definition of a mystery.
So who was the detective through whom I originally developed this taste? Actually there were three of them. Their names were Jack Packard, Doc Long, and Reggie York. They originally met in China during World War II, and formed the A1 Detective Agency in Carleton E. Morse's radio series, I Love a Mystery, beloved by those of us who were around when it originally played. Usually it ran fifteen minutes five nights a week, with a story line running through fifteen or twenty episodes.
Were these simply whodunits? The titles of some will provide a hint: "The Blue Phantom," "Bury Your Dead, Arizona," "Temple of Vampires," "The Monster in the Mansion," "Stairway to the Sun," and "The Graves of Whamperjaw, Texas." Unfortunately, not much survives. And, to be honest, I should mention that supernatural forces were sometimes involved. That of course for an adult would have taken some of the fun out of it.
Nothing draws most of us into a narrative like a good mystery. Even in science fiction. We've landed on a beautiful planet with a perfect climate but no real technology to speak of. Think ancient Rome. Buildings and towns are everywhere. But the inhabitants are missing. Where'd they go? Where could they have gone?
And a hint: No evil aliens anywhere in sight.