Reading Honolulu Mysteries

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I discovered Glen Grant’s noirish Honolulu detective Arthur McDougal in Grant’s collection Obake: Ghost Stories in Hawaii. The two McDougal tales in Obake have supernatural villains, so one could say that McDougal in these stories is a (reluctant) occult detective. The other tales in Obake, which mostly focus on aspects of Japanese supernatural folklore that “migrated” to Hawaii, are also delightful.

The short stories in Honolulu Mysteries are different. Although the tales include various aspects of Hawaiian folklore and sometimes even feature a touch of Hawaiian supernatural phenomena, the bad guys are all definitely human — just as they ought to be, in McDougal’s view.

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The Department of Dead Ends

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I adore Columbo; I got addicted to reruns of the original Seventies-era series when I was in graduate school, and it’s still one of my favorite TV shows. Columbo’s sharp eye for apparently trivial incongruities, his deceptively bumbling manner, his mythical wife who’s a fan of everything and everyone, his equally mythical Captain who just hates loose ends — I love it all.

Columbo‘s format is the so-called inverted mystery, where the viewer (or reader) knows whodunit, how, and even why. The real mystery is how the murderer will be caught. You could make an argument that inverted mysteries existed in literature at least as far back as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment ; I read somewhere that the creators of Columbo cite this novel as on influence on the Columbo format. That, and the “cozy English mystery” tradition of elaborately complicated murder amongst the upper classes (investigated by the not so upper class police). But the official original inverted mystery is R. Austin Freeman’s “The Case of Oscar Brodski” (1911).  The story was popular enough that Freeman wrote four more and collected them with “Brodski” into The Singing Bone (1912).

Beyond the twist of presenting the crime before the investigation, Freeman’s stories are classic ratiocination stories. His protagonist, Dr. Thorndyke, is basically Sherlock Holmes, complete with a (portable) laboratory and a Dr. Watson (Dr. Jervis, in this case). Thorndyke notices things the police don’t, and awes them with his deductive prowess. As with most stories in the ratiocination genre, the detective and his extraordinary abilities are the center of the tales.

The stories in Roy Vickers’ The Department of Dead Ends (1949) are inverted mysteries of a different style. The Department of Dead Ends is a group within Scotland Yard whose sole purpose is to take “everything the other departments rejected:” clues that led nowhere, cases that can’t be closed (or that no one is interested in closing), puzzling but seemingly irrelevant information, lost items. The department solves cases (often cold cases) via this massive collection of minutia mostly by serendipity: someone happens to notice that a puzzling fact from one case, when put together with some irrelevant trivia from an apparently unrelated situation, becomes an observation neither puzzling nor irrelevant to either circumstance.

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Not Holmes: American Detective Stories from a Century Ago

American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Several years ago, at a wonderful, now gone bookstore called Outerlands, I found a collection called The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Hugh Greene (one-time Director-General of the BBC, journalist, and Graham Greene’s brother). The book is one of a series of “Rivals of Sherlock Holmes” anthologies Greene edited in the 1970s. Most of the stories, as you would expect, are of the whodunit or puzzle variety.

What’s especially interesting is the difference in subject matter between typical stories in the Holmesian style and these contemporaneous American offerings. British mystery stories from this period tend to be about interpersonal crime: crimes of passion, crimes over money or jewels, or jealousy. There is the occasional case of international espionage, but the criminals are almost always individual actors. Many of the stories in this collection are American transpositions of these classic themes, but others go beyond the personal to corporate or political crime.

Here’s Greene:

Sometimes one realizes with a sense of shock how modern these differences make them appear. We find a brutal and corrupt police force, corrupt politicians, bugging, big and wealthy corporations using their power to cheat the Federal Government or to put small competitors out of business, methods used by political parties in elections which are extraordinarily reminiscent of Nixon’s CREEP.

Rereading these stories this past month, I found a particularly interesting theme running through several of these now century-old stories.

  1. Big business routinely engage in corrupt practices for the sake of the bottom line.
  2. When caught, only the little guys (those who implemented the crimes) get punished. The corporate officers, who instigated, or at least encouraged the crimes, get off lightly, or perhaps even completely.
  3. That the big guys get off is wrong. But there are members of the Government — Senators, Federal Agents, and others — who are intent on making the big guys pay.

The first two points still sound awfully familiar, and far too topical, a century later. The last point, I fear, we no longer believe. Do these stories mean that we once trusted more in the State to protect the public’s interest against big business? Or does it mean the opposite: were these stories escapist fantasy about the world we wished that we lived in?

It is the strong hope of the country that there is justice and fairness and sane commonsense at the American bottom of us, if you can only get at it.

— Francis Lynde, “The Cloud-Bursters” Continue reading