Guest Post: Lev Raphael

Dissing Mysteries

No, this is not a blog about people who think mysteries are trash and not worth reading because they’re nothing more than “escape reading.”  The latter charge has always amused me, because I’m not alone in thinking that all reading is a form of escape, whether it’s Murder at the Vicarage or Madame Bovary.

This blog is about people who don’t respect the genre they’re ostensibly working in.  Years ago when my Nick Hoffman amateur sleuth series was just getting started, Woody Allen did a profoundly misguided film called Manhattan Murder Mystery.  It was slapdash and sloppy, and missing a crucial piece: there was no discernible reason for the amateur sleuth to get involved in investigating the murder.  Yes, there were some funny lines along the way, but the movie was hollow at its core because it didn’t make sense.  It’s one thing for cops, PIs and other professionals to investigate a murder, but the motive for someone untrained has to be believable; leaving that key element out as if it doesn’t matter shows a lack of respect for the genre–and its fans.  To me, the film was tossed off with an anyone-can-write-a-mystery attitude.

I just tried watching a film called Columbus Circle about a wealthy, mysterious agoraphobic living in an exclusive Midtown building whose neighbor is murdered.  The new, classy-looking neighbors who take over the dead woman’s apartment suddenly have a trailer trash brawl out in the hallway and as soon as it happened, I thought 1) they’re faking it 2) they’re doing this to lure the shut-in out of her privacy 3) they’re somehow after her money.  All of that proved to be true within minutes.  Worse still, the new woman neighbor badgered the wealthy agoraphobic into walking down the hallway and there was absolutely no reason why her intended victim should have succumbed to the pressure. So not only was the psychology bogus, the writers didn’t respect the thriller genre enough to make it remotely believable or suspenseful, and I see this on film and on TV way too often.

A more recent case in point is the hugely popular Benedict Cumberpatch love fest, aka Sherlock.  It’s gained viewers each season as it’s become less coherent and extravagantly devoted to special effects demonstrating the processes of Sherlock’s thinking.

The show started out as fiendishly clever in the first season, everything you’d hope for in a brand new take on Watson and Holmes.  The show even wittily played with the homoerotic nature of their bromance, not just as seen by outsiders like their landlady and a restaurant owner.  The leads themselves discussed it, Sherlock with aplomb, Watson with annoyance.  Most amusing.

But the special effects that were entertaining in Season One seem to have run amok and at times they not only upstage the story–such as it is–but the inimitable Cumberpatch himself. One fan told me that he enjoyed the FX because they were a fine demonstration of the chaos in Holmes’s mind.  This strikes me as a basic misunderstanding of Holmes’s character: his mind is anything but chaotic.  It’s brilliantly organized and makes connections we ordinary mortals can’t.  Between the effects and the frantic editing, I’ve had to replay some scenes to follow them.  It’s one thing when there’s explosively fast editing in a Jason Bourne movie, but that’s out of place in Sherlock because his internal processes should be a marvel, not stupefying.

There’s also much less actual story in the show than there used to, and that’s been very puzzling to me.  The answer came when I happened to see the show’s writers happily confide in an interview that for them, Sherlock was not going to be about him “solving a crime ever week.”  Seriously?  What’s the point, then?  Why try breathing new life into a character with so many lives in books and in film and then totally subvert his genius?  Holmes is a brilliant detective.  With a level of insight that’s uncanny, he observes, deduces, and detects, either in the field or just sitting in his armchair.  But the writers are apparently bored by all that, and prefer playing with toys instead.  Their attitude shows contempt for the genre they’re in.  Why not make him a plumber or an astronaut?

Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu is a true mystery, even as it offers viewers  an even bolder take on Holmes.  That’s not immediately obvious because it’s not as flashy.  Elementary doesn’t just make Holmes a recovering addict, it turns Watson into a woman and his “sober companion”–at least when the show debuted.  There’s no show-offy camera work or FX here, but plenty of substance, and crimes are consistently solved, not ignored.  Sometimes the motive in a crime might seem weak, or the suspect obvious, but perfection on a weekly basis isn’t really achievable.  Nonetheless, the show is a real mystery that respects the source material but gives it plenty of smart contemporary twists.  Elementary never loses sight of who Sherlock is and why he’s held our imagination for over a century.  Best of all, by making Watson a woman, it’s opened up the Sherlock story in a whole new way–just as Laurie L. King’s wonderful series breathed its own new life into the Sherlock legend.

Lucy Liu’s Watson is a strong, complex, fascinating woman.  Part of the joy of this show has been watching her develop from a sober companion into an amateur detective and Sherlock’s partner in crime-solving,  Just as enjoyable is the fact that her relationship with Sherlock does not feel stereotypical.  You don’t sense the writers taking the clichéd tack of pushing a male and female lead together because what else can happen between them?  I’m actually surprised at how many mystery fans I know who haven’t ever given Elementary a try, even the ones who are tired of Sherlock for many of the same reasons I am.

Do I love crime fiction, mystery films and TV?  Absolutely.  That’s one reason I was thrilled years ago when the Detroit Free Press expanded my brief and made me their crime fiction reviewer, a spot I held for about a decade. And I admire writers who value the genre, so I’m sorry when people cash in on it–or try–without really understanding its essence.

***

Lev Raphael is the author of seven Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the crazy world of academia, as well as seventeen other books in genres from memoir to Jane Austen mashup. His books have been translated into nearly a dozen languages, some of which he can’t recognize. But he has been able to do readings in German when he’s done book tours in Germany, thanks to a good tutor. Lev has been writing since he was in second grade and currently is a guest teacher of fiction writing, crime fiction, and Jewish-American Literature at Michigan State University. That university’s Library purchased his current and future literary papers for its Special Archives, carting off 93 boxes of all sorts of materials related to his long career. His attic is now navigable again.

For more about Lev’s books, check out his web site:http://www.levraphael.com.

Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LevRaphael

Read his book blogs at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lev-raphael/

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9 thoughts on “Guest Post: Lev Raphael”

  1. Yay! Happy to see Lev here again. Well, now I don’t feel so bad about missing this season of Sherlock due to work. I’d be curious what your take on True Detective is? I don’t have HBO and am trying to finagle a way to watch it because so many people have raved about it — many of them my crime writer friends.

  2. Nice to see you again, Lev. You hit on my main pet peeve with some cozies – just why on earth is this person getting involved, anyway? It’s not enough to be on the scene and nosy. Give me a reason. Some people do it better than others. As a matter of fact, that is one reason I struggle to write cozy – I can’t come up with a reason!

    On Sherlock, to me the show is less a crime show than it is about the personalities. I like some of the changes they’ve made (Watson was a soldier, he shouldn’t be a pushover) and I like the chaotic nature of Sherlock’s mind. I’ve never seen it as he’s super-organized as much as he’s capable of processing an immense amount of information and sifting out what’s really important.

    The one that recently got me was Isabel Allende’s interview where she said she wrote a mystery as a “joke.” Now, I’ll give her a little benefit of the doubt that English is not her first language and what she said wasn’t exactly what she meant – but why write a genre that you don’t like? Makes no sense to me.

  3. Lev, Yes, a little respect for genre fiction is always a good thing. Tomorrow I’m teaching a short story by a newish literary writer with many awards and speaking engagements. He couldn’t get this story published in genre fiction because it’s . . . not well written. I’m used to plot now, thank you. I like a well told story with well drawn characters. A little motivation and some plausibility.
    As for True Detective, I’m also curious what you think of it. We can’t get enough of it. All the elements of excellent literature.

  4. Mary beat me to it, but when I started this blog, I thought it was going to be about the Isabel Allende backlash going on right now. It really is too bad that there’s a perception that mystery is child’s play. It most certainly is not.

  5. What I love the most about this post is its timing. I’m working through a first draft and I can tell something’s missing. Last night I realized the protag needed a stronger motive for getting involved. Your first couple of paragraphs describe exactly what I discovered (so I like to think that even if I hadn’t thought of it myself, you would have pointed it out to me!). Very well said.

  6. This is so great. I have been surprised at how much I enjoy Elementary, and I think you have pinpointed why. Very astute. (Jonny Lee Miller also handles the complexity of the character very well.)

    ps: I would like to use “fiendishly clever” in my daily conversations as much as possible henceforth. Thanks for that, too!

  7. Thanks for your comments, and sorry for my late replies–I was working on course proposals yesterday and the day slipped away before I checked back. I had one of those high-energy days when my thinking was incredibly clear and problems melted away. And it ended with everything slowing way, way down with two-hour massage therapy. Then *I* melted away.

    I’ll go backwards through the comments if that’s okay.

    Cynthia, I’m glad this spoke to you. Miller is a wonderfully subtle actor, I agree. Ditto Lucy Liu, who really deserves an Emmy for her performance. And I confess: I have an “Elementary” poster in my office.

    Diane, wow, I’m glad to have helped. Isn’t it funny for us writers that “help” comes from unexpected sources? It’s one of the delights of the profession. I remember once being at Magna cum Murder and wandering into a panel just when someone said something that helped me see my Nick Hoffman series (http://www.levraphael.com/mystery.html) differently and open it up.

    Sarah, I agree. Mystery isn’t regarded as difficult, but then for many people, neither is writing. Haven’t we all heard, “I’ll write a book some day when I have time” from other professionals?
    And then, within crime fiction, I’m not convinced reviewers understand that writing a comic mystery can be harder than it seems….

    Kristi and TL: I haven’t gotten into True Detective. One reason is that I’m so busy right now (teaching one course, planning two for London this summer and two for Sweden summer 2015, and working on my 26th book), that I’ve been reluctant to take time to watch a new show. When I have extra time, I want to chill and read, and my free time has been spent with Martin Smith Cruz’s Arkady Renko series. And when I did watch the debut episode, I found the structure off-putting. I’m not a huge fan of long flashbacks like the ones in the first episode, but that doesn’t mean I won’t like the show in the future, of course–and have to binge watch to catch up. 🙂

  8. Reading or viewing something created by anyone who doesn’t appreciate the genre is tedious at best (and sometimes enraging). I think it’s easier to ill treat the genre on TV and movies than in books, but the tendency is there in some writers.

  9. I agree. And whether it’s laziness or mild contempt, the attitude by writers is as annoying about mysteries as it is about any genre. As when people say, “Oh, a literary novel is a book where nothing happens to nobody of interest.” Really? Try writing a good one. 🙂

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