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Episode 316

A Brief History of Mysteries

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Posted by Mary Ann

Laurie King is an inventive writer, who can recreate all kinds of historical milieus and keep a suspenseful plot moving along. In probably her most well-known series, she really bit off a big task: recreating Sherlock Holmes and giving him a wife!

Of course, the story of Sherlock Holmes has proved so universally popular, it has spawned a host of novels that use Sherlock as a character, not to mention movies and TV. Please, don’t get me started on the wonderful BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a 21st century Sherlock. Too late!   With Martin Freeman as a 21st century Doctor Watson, this has got to be one of the most loved series amongst my fellow Sherlock-o-philes, and we await the airing of Season Three with an anticipation I can’t even begin to describe.

Another recent reworking of the Sherlock story occurred in 2011 with “House of Silk.” Its publishers said it was the only one of these kinds of stories ever authorized by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle, though that is in some dispute – Leslie Klinger, a well-known Sherlockian scholar, has cited at least two others,Caleb Carr’s The Italian Secretary and Lyndsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow.

“House of Silk” is by Anthony Horowitz, a prolific and imaginative writer who created the idea for the “Foyle’s War” television series. In “House of Silk,” Sherlock tries to help a well-to-do American who is being threatened by a mysterious man in a flat cap. Of course, things are not what they seem. I gobbled this one up in a night.

But back to Laurie King’s books. Starting with 1994’s “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice,” she created Mary Russell, an exceedingly bright young woman who ends up, first partnering with, then marrying Sherlock Holmes! For myself, I was pretty sure Sherlock Holmes was a misogynist, but Russell apparently won his heart. Laurie King writes about that attraction in her blog , that she created Mary Russell by asking herself the question: “What would the brilliant, cold, and egocentric mind of Sherlock Holmes look like set in a young woman?.”

In my opinion, these books doubled Sherlock Holmes’ appeal. As much as I love the Sherlock Holmes stories, with the exception of Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Belgravia,” the women are pretty milque-toasty. They’re fainting or cringing or locked up in some room, and they seldom come up with their own solutions. As a woman, I have always found this a little tedious, but with Mary Russell, I now have a window into what a bright, brave young woman of the late 19th and early 20th century might be thinking. There are twelve books in this Laurie King series. Yum.

Now I want to jump over the English Channel and talk about a few mysteries set in Paris and in France that I think our viewers are duty-bound to check out. Like King’s latest book “The Bones of Paris,” the city practicically becomes a character in the book.

All these books owe a debt to Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, who also solves crimes in Paris. These books are heavy on action; you mostly get to follow along inside Inspector Maigret’s head as he meditates on any number of things. Simenon, who was actually Belgian, was a journalist early in his career, and he was able to draw on a treasure trove of info and experience from that job, which took him into the seamier sides of Paris. He started writing the Maigret series in the 1930s; he wrote 75 books featuring the inspector. If you love the character, you are in for a long, leisurely trip through these books. Here are the titles of some of the first: “The Death of M. Gallet”, “The Crossroads Murders”, “The Crime at Lock 14” and “The Crime of Inspector Maigret.”

If you don’t, try another series I love, Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series. Fred Vargas is actually a woman named Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, a French historian and archeologist who says she started writing police thrillers as a way to relax from her day job.

The main character is slouchy Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg,   a Paris police chief whose methods can only be described as, well, one writer described them as Zen, which comes as close as anything. For much of these books, he appears to be doing nothing except thinking, enraging his superiors and mystifying his troops, who nevertheless remain steadfastly loyal to him. Generally their loyalty is rewarded.

Start this series with 1991’s “The Chalk Circle Man.” One of the books, “An Uncertain Place” like “The Bones of Paris,” also features someone with an unhealthy obsession with body parts. This is a very creepy novel that has some gruesome elements so…you’ve been warned.

Finally, to go back even further, a mystery novel set in Paris that starts up in 1818 is Louis Bayard’s “The Black Tower.” It features Vidocq, founder and chief of a newly created plainclothes police force. Vidocq uses disguise and surveillance to track criminals, and in this book he tries to solve a tantalizing mystery—the fate of the young dauphin Louis-Charles, son of Marie-Antoinette and King Louis XVI.

Vidocq was actually a real person, a Paris cop who inspired writers such as Victor Hugo. A former criminal, he is considered to be the founder of modern criminology.

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