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Nunc Dimittis

A Little Tea Shop

On T.V. detective shows.


During the last year and a half people baked sourdough, developed workout routines, and adopted pets. My sourdough starter died (to be replaced by another, which also died), my exercise bike broke after one use (and gathered dust in my apartment thereafter), and I already have a small, beautiful, opinionated dog. When I try to recollect how I spent my days, the easiest way is to ask myself: “What detective show was I watching?”

There was Columbo, which proved to be too good to use as a distraction. There was Agatha Christie’s Marple (which I cannot recommend). Then Murder, She Wrote. Then Midsomer Murders. Then Murder, She Wrote, again. There were brief forays into other English detective shows that did not, for whatever reason, have the magic power to absorb me: Vera, about an irritable woman detective who calls everybody “love,” Grantchester, about one of world’s worst clergymen, and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. As I type this, I have begun on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett. Somewhere in the space between these shows and the daily crossword I have fed myself and walked the dog and perhaps even read a book or two. But mostly, it’s been detective shows.

Detective stories have long been thought of as “smart” genre entertainment, something people openly profess their enjoyment of no matter how status-anxious they are. In the age of Marvel and “prestige” television, this is less true than it used to be. A few genres are slightly disreputable (the romance novel, say). Still, there is something accessible about the mystery that puts it in a different category from science fiction or fantasy. It might be the preferred genre of snobs, but it is also the least snobby of genres.

While Star Wars and comic book franchises involve the cultivation of esoteric knowledge, detective stories approach the world that we know already. (Or, as in the case of Poirot and other Christie-type period stories, a world we already recognize even if it has never quite existed.) We are introduced to the social world that involves the crime and given clues: not only what happened, but what people’s motivations might be. What is crucial is that the detective only gets the same information that we do, usually at the same time.

If these mysteries rely on obscure knowledge, they still rest on things that people might just happen to know—the operations of various poisons (often learned, granted, from other mystery books) or bell-ringing. Sometimes this trick can get a little too cute: there is a Dorothy Sayers short story that relies entirely on somebody once using the wrong article while speaking French. But ultimately a mystery story or show is a collaborative game with the audience, in which you, along with the detective, try to figure out what information matters and what doesn’t. Or, of course, you can sit back and just enjoy the story.

Raymond Chandler argued in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” that stories by Christie and Sayers don’t work “intellectually as problems” or “artistically as fiction.” They are too mechanical, he thought, and in certain ways, too cute. I’m a fan of Chandler’s novels, and his is a perceptive essay, but I think he misses what the detective story can gain through a kind of artificially rational scheme. The murders in these stories are often, as he points out, absurdly complex, practically Rube Goldberg machines. But the meticulousness, even tidiness, of the murders, alongside the placid surface of social life, throws the unpredictability of human hearts into relief. Violence, impulse, hatred, and stupidity all remain, but under wraps, pulled out into the open by the actions of, first, the murderer, and then, the detective.

There are moments from Christie novels I will probably remember forever because they were moments of pathetic revelation—discovering that a lonely woman had committed a brutal crime out of a combination of resentment and her desire for a little tea shop of her own. Though their schemes are ingenious, the murderers in these stories are rarely geniuses, and when their motivations are sympathetic, it’s even worse. Poirot arrives like a doctor who must draw out the poisons the community has chosen to hide. A mystery gives you a problem, an escalation, and a solution. Sometimes the solution is unpleasant, but nothing’s left unsolved. Detective stories that stretch their plots over multiple episodes are probably less appealing to me just for that reason—what I want is for things to come to rest with a competent thud.

There are other things one might have done. A plant of some sort—herbs, perhaps, for the window sill—or knitting; German, weightlifting. I wonder what I’ll do when I run out of Sherlock Holmes. I hear good things about Cadfael.

B.D. McClay’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Gawker, and other publications.

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B.D. McClay's writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Gawker, The Baffler, and other publications.