Friday, December 9, 2011
Life After Betty - A Few Mysteries
For those of you who like that sort of thing, following are a few mystery series that might appeal to Betties of the world:
The Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman; start with The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax
Emily Pollifax, a widow in her sixties with two grown children and a few grandchildren, has begun to feel bored with her Garden Club, hospital volunteerism and other projects. Inspired – and frightened – by her deep malaise, she decides to offer her services to the CIA as a spy. Through a series of mishaps, she becomes one, and finds much greater danger, excitement and success than she ever imagined.
In the first book she travels to Mexico and Albania; subsequent novels find her in exotic locales like Turkey, communist Bulgaria, Switzerland and Zambia. Gilman began publishing the Mrs. Pollifax stories in 1966, so the early novels reflect a Cold War mentality and a degree of innocence that offers some of the escapist coziness of Betty’s world. You need never be in any doubt that Mrs. Pollifax will win through! Gilman also depicts some violence, and secondary characters occasionally become victims of murderous bad guys.
The books have a good deal of humor in them. The heroine is a constant delight. Her value to the CIA is in her resolutely un-spy-like appearance, and she frequently worries her handlers with her un-spy-like behavior. Mrs. P is open-minded, warm-hearted and resolute, and like a true heroine almost unflappable. She’s ahead of her time in studying yoga and karate in the 1960s, in her 60s, but never loses her essential grandmother-liness. She loves to study maps, so could certainly find Brighton on one, but she’s never, never been to the place. About the middle of the series, she embarks on a second marriage with a supportive widower whom she meets on an assignment.
Food includes prison rations and paté de foie gras; clothes include some astonishing hats, a jacket with a large amount of counterfeit money sewn into the lining, a goatherd’s babushka, and dogi.
You might also like to read the Madame Karitska series by the same author, beginning with The Clairvoyant Countess. Madame K, the countess of the title, is in her 40s, poor now though she’s been rich, unshakably soignée and clairvoyant. She befriends and assists a New Jersey police detective through a series of crimes, including a murder by voodoo. Like Mrs. Pollifax, she has a tremendous talent for befriending others, and the secondary characters are part of the book’s charm. This series includes much more philosophy, many more crimes, and much less humor than the Mrs. P series, and anyone who’s offended by the occult won’t like it.
images: Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Pollifax in a 1999 TV series – book cover – Lansbury again – Rosalind Russell as Mrs. P – Darren McGavin as Farrell (a CIA colleague) in the Russell movie – Dorothy Gilman – Mrs. P is a geranium grower.
The Inspector Grant series by Josephine Tey – my favorite, and the experts’, is The Daughter of Time
Josephine Tey is probably not a great pick for classic puzzle-solver mystery fans, nor for those likely to be irked by her obvious prejudice against anyone not mostly English and solidly middle-class. (The Irish, the Scots, astrologers, ardent movie fans, Jews, and strict Presbyterians all arouse her stinging distaste.) She doesn’t always share the clues to her mysteries with her readers until the denouement, and her first Inspector Grant story, The Man in the Queue, is only solved when the real murderer, who’s never been a suspect for even one second, strolls into Scotland Yard to confess in order to save the innocent man the police have arrested. (That book also suffers from unnecessarily ornate prose in parts – “another ebullition of chatter and good will;” “There was more likelihood of a revelation being vouchsafed him in the middle of the teeming streets, in the seething mob;” “the car decanted him at the flagged doorway of his hostelry.”)
However, the stories are very evocative of a Neels-ish mid-century England. Inspector Grant lives in London, but dreams of Hampshire and often travels to Scotland. Tey’s penultimate book, The Daughter of Time, is a masterpiece; the UK’s Crime Writers’ Association named it, in 1990, the best mystery ever published, while the US’s Mystery Writers of America, in 1995, ranked it fourth-best of all time.
In The Daughter of Time, Inspector Grant is bed-bound in a hospital, attended by staff nurses The Midget and The Amazon and visited occasionally by Matron (“slender and remote... her white veil spreading itself in imperishable dignity... Grant wondered if there was anywhere in this world a more unshakable poise than that achieved by the matron of a great hospital.”). He’s also visited by an actress friend who, recognizing that he’s bored with the books she and others have brought, arrives with a bundle of portraits of historical figures. Since Grant is a detective, he can try to puzzle out great unsolved mysteries of the past.
In England in 1951, when the book was published, apparently there was no mystery about Richard III. He seems to have been universally condemned as the murderous, hunchbacked brute who killed the young Princes in the Tower. However, looking at the king’s portrait, Grant sees the face of a conscientious judge, not a ruthless criminal. He sets out to understand Richard better, and with the help of an enthusiastic young American who serves as his researcher, comes to the gradual conclusion that Richard was grossly wronged by history and historians. If you have any interest in history, I expect you’ll find the slow unspooling of the facts of Richard’s life and works, based on contemporary accounts, fascinating. Today, thanks in part to Tey’s work and despite the strong impact of Shakespeare’s incontrovertibly villainous depiction, Richard III has been largely rehabilitated.
Food includes little rich cakes called bachelor’s buttons, cheese pudding and stewed rhubarb, and an “uncompromisingly health[y]” rock bun for tea. Clothes include a dashing “Cossack hat worn at a casual rake that must have taken her several minutes at her mirror,” fresh pajamas, and a much-too-big tweed coat that reflects the American researcher’s changes of mood. Richard III’s elder brother, the much-admired Edward IV, was apparently a very regular visitor to Brighton, but Grant’s history books don’t dwell on the details...
Two recipes for bachelor’s buttons from cooks.com:
BACHELOR BUTTON COOKIES
1 c. butter
1 c. brown sugar
1 tsp. soda
1 c. nuts
1 c. coconut
2 c. flour
Mix as listed. Roll into balls, press center with finger. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes.
BACHELOR BUTTONS (FROM NEIMAN-MARCUS OF DALLAS)
3/4 c. butter
1 c. brown sugar
2 c. flour, sifted
1 tsp. soda
1/4 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla
1 c. chopped nuts
Mix all ingredients together. Chill dough. Make into small balls. Dip in the granulated sugar. Place 2 inches apart on greased cookie sheet. Press with fork. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes at 375 degrees.
Images: Richard III (I think this is the portrait that sparks Grant’s interest) – Ian McKellan as Shakespeare’s Richard III in a 1995 movie version with a 1930s setting – book cover – Josephine Tey, apparently not very happy about it – a happy nurse in an undated photo from the Great Ormond Street Hospital website
(Betty Debbie here - I couldn't find the picture that Betty van den Betsy used here on Google. Sorry)
The Lord Peter Wimsey series, by Dorothy Sayers – Whose Body is the first in the series
You’ve read these, right? Classist, racist, anti-Semitic, not specially fond of Americans, and the best-constructed murder mysteries in the golden age of British crime fiction. The rich English aristocrat and his valet carefully piece together vast arrays of tiny clues whilst showing off Sayers’s broad and deep knowledge of history, literature and philosophy, with all the elegance of Grace Kelly and all the emotion of a rock – until Harriet Vane arrives on the scene.
Harriet first appears in Strong Poison, and Lord Peter falls immediately, irrevocably in love. Of course he intends marriage, though Harriet has lived in Brighton (with regret) and Peter has been told he “make[s] love rather nicely” by at least one of several talented singers he’s kept as mistresses (we never meet his mistresses, and only very occasionally hear about them). However, Harriet is on trial for the murder of her former lover, so things don’t look good...
Not to give anything away, but she shows up again in Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, in which emotions become a major part of the mystery and Peter and Harriet become much more three-dimensional (the CWA’s #4 and the MWA’s #18), and in Busman’s Honeymoon.
Lord Peter dresses impeccably, eats well and knows his wines.
images: Harriet Walter as Harriet and Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter – a rendering of the Wimsey coat of arms – Dorothy Sayers – book cover – Robert Montgomery as Lord Peter, Seymour Hicks as Bunter and Constance Cummings as Harriet