Friday, October 10, 2008

Case of the Gilded Lily

Why are mysteries so fascinating?

One of the most popular shows on television today is CSI, a.k.a. Crime Scene Investigation. Essentially, it’s about the realities involved in solving murders. Though I’ve never seen the show, I know it must be popular because it’s on nearly every night of the week now.

CSI is, of course, only the latest in a long line of mystery, whodunit types of stories stretching back who knows how far. I remember conversations with my grandmother about the mysteries of the Great Pyramid and all the questions it raised. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about it twenty-five hundred years ago and it is still unearthing unresolved questions to this day.

What is it about mysteries and puzzles that gets us so engaged? In the realm of literature Edgar Allen Poe made his mark with mysteries such as The Gold Bug and Murders in the Rue Morgue. Suddenly, a genre was born. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was all about solving imponderables with a searing brilliance. G.K.Chesterton’s Father Brown was a contemporary to Holmes with an equally rabid following. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot became a household name through the murder mystery genre as well.

When television culture emerged the short mystery tale became a staple in the nation’s diet for diversion. The Rockford Files, Columbo, Murder She Wrote… The shows made for good fun as audiences attempted to solve the crimes faster than their heroes.

With regard to solving murders the literary character, and television show, that most strikes a chord with me is the one and only Perry Mason, created by Erle Stanley Gardner and later played by Raymond Burr. Having just watched five episodes (on DVD) of Perry Mason Season 1, it’s easy to see why this was such compelling television back in its day.

There were probably two things that made Erle Stanley Gardner’s books so engaging. First was the air of authenticity in the manuscripts. Gardner himself had been a trial lawyer. He did not have to research courtroom proceedings as a journalist. He lived them. His pugnacious hero Perry Mason no doubt mirrored his own real and imagined courtroom achievements. Second, his terse contemporary writing style continuously moved his stories forward. He didn’t waste time on tedious backgrounds and family histories. The books strode through the story, both revealing and concealing, leaving the reader illuminated yet in the dark as Perry Mason persisted through to victory, and victory again.

The Mason team included his personal detective Drake, and the ever efficient Della Street who provided a perfect counterweight to the granite and steel Mason. Raymond Burr brought Perry Mason to life ever so perfectly, the tough yet considerate counsel, who never seems to lose his cool, or his client’s case.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s own story is especially inspiring for young writers because he purportedly never published his first novel till in his forties, yet completed 82 Perry Mason novels before passing on. Yes, he had been writing pulp fiction for years before “making it” so it is not like something magical happened overnight. As was recently pointed out somewhere else, the only place where Success comes before Work is in the dictionary. Gardner paid his dues before reaping his rewards.

Mysteries, puzzles, mind games, concealed identities, disguises, surveillance, cryptography, encryption and decryption, decoding secret messages… these diversions can become almost obsessive at times. But they sharpen our minds by teaching us how to observe better, how to gather information and “see” in new ways. Applied thinking and problem solving are valuable skill sets in the real world. Leaders need these skills, and strive to develop them in others. Whether in the workplace, the community or the home, we really don't want or need a nation of sheep.

But let’s save that discussion for another time and give our attention to… The Case of the Jaded Jogger. Was it suicide, or was it murder?

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