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Articles » A Magic Mystery Tour
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(Originally published in San Francisco Literary and Travel Magazine)

For a genre which is devoted solely to entertainment, mystery writing has a very complex taxonomy. Within each class there are many subdivisions. Authors who have spent their life in a particular field write convincing stories about its practitioners. Other writers expend an enormous amount of effort to give the same appearance, often starting from complete ignorance.

We who read mysteries avidly do so with one eye over our shoulder. There is something intellectually déclassé about it, the risk of being thought a mental lightweight. We apologize, bend the knee for wanting a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, nothing de-constructed about it and thoroughly intelligible from start to finish.

Along the way we have some pleasing challenges, pitting our wits against those of the omniscient author. The reader is not brutally driven to the edge of some emotional or psychological chasm but can be reassured that in most cases right will prevail.

John Brady grew up in Dublin but emigrated to Toronto in his twenties. He has written a remarkable series about a police sergeant from County Galway now working in the Dublin Garda. The richness of Brady’s dialogue, the precision with which he describes places and the mood he evokes would be memorable in any type of book, whether “serious literature” or the humble police procedural.

Sergeant Minogue features in all six of Brady’s first series such as A Stone in the Heart, A Carra King, Kaddish in Dublin. He has no opinion of empty authority, cherishes his warm and wonderful wife and tries to deal with a rebellious son and only slightly less feisty daughter. He comes through as a real person one would enjoy knowing.

The astonishing thing is that Brady did not work in the Garda or grow up in such a family. All his books come from his imagination, doubtless primed by his early life and possibly lit by some nostalgia. The IRA and Northern Ireland “troubles” are central to his stories.

The idea that the detective is a fallible human being is quite recent, a concession to modern “touchy-feely” sensibility. Some examples of the breed are P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh, a moody poet with a secret inner life, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone and Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc.

Marcia Muller’s books usually feature Sharon McCone, a very complicated human being. Bill Pronzini, Muller’s husband, writes very hardboiled books about a man with no name, but there is no mistaking his attitudes and prejudices. Both writers set their work in California, and often the Bay area, a very pleasing feature for us.

Lest this essay be accused of reverse sexism, I shall round it out with comments about Georges Simenon, and “Baantjer” (pseudonym of a very prolific Dutch writer). Simenon was born in Belgium but spent most of his life in France. Inspector Maigret has seen everything and has vast experience of the more unpleasant side of life. Simenon is extremely economical with words. All his stories are brief but within a few paragraphs one knows precisely who the characters are and how they are likely to behave. He achieves this without making Maigret a stick figure.

Baantjer writes about Inspector de Kok, “De Kok with a K”. De Kok is a cariacature, a figure who is always exactly the same in every book, but no one else tells such unusual stories about the underworld of Amsterdam and its environs. Baantjer spent 30 years in the Amsterdam police force. Both Madame Maigret and Mevrouw De Kok are placid, comfortable figures in barely two dimensions. They make lunch on cue and serve their husbands’ colleagues with snacks and drinks at the post mortems of the cases.