Wednesday, February 22, 2017


"Harriet Vane"  

How does one stay sane when events grow daily more whackadoodle?  I used to depend on Netflix to carry me away into fantasy in something like the way the Audible ads suggest.  (My fav is still the first one I saw: the Millennial athletic woman in shorts and singlet who is suddenly rowing alongside a hairy, greasy, massive slave (?) in a Viking galley.)  But Netflix has degenerated into explosions and cheesy sex for teenagers.

Since I’ve been depending upon YouTube to follow news, I sort of accidentally slipped over into watching their collections of BBC mystery serieses, some of which I hadn’t really seen before.  As an example, last night I watched a “Lord Peter Wimsey” mystery by Dorothy Sayers which is really about his significant other, "Harriet Vane", as she tries to resolve a poison pen stalker in her old Oxford women’s college.  (“Gaudy Nights.”  Gaudy means reunion, not flashy.)  Less whimsical than peculiar, Wimsey backs her up, which plays into the overall theme which was about intellectual women, their moral and psychological quandaries, and their struggle to be themselves in the face of rigid gender roles.

“Sayers did not content herself with writing pure detective stories; she explored the difficulties of First World War veterans in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, discussed the ethics of advertising in Murder Must Advertise, and advocated women's education (then a controversial subject) and role in society in Gaudy Night.  . . . in many ways the whole of Gaudy Night can be read as an attack on Nazi social doctrine. The book has been described as "the first feminist mystery novel.”  Randi Sørsdal  

Lord Peter in this film is played by an actor with a fascist vibe, which goes well with his monocle.  Harriet Vane is clearly a fiction based on Sayers’ own life but Vane has her own Wikipedia entry as though she were flesh and blood.  Sayers has said she invented “Vane” in order to marry off “Wimsey” and get rid of him.  Evidently, it didn’t work.  The “Gaudy” story is based on Sayers’ Oxford education and I must say I’m much attracted to that, even though I’ve discovered there’s no such thing in real life.  It’s as much fiction as Vane. (Pun intended.)  Anyway, nowadays female academics are women of color who espouse post-modernism.  Or post-structuralism.  Post-something.

All the women in this secular cloister of the early 19th century are dressed in shades of brown, with marcelled hair close to their heads, respectable and bespectacled, little brown birds in the dense thickets of academia.  (Harriet’s hair is a defiant bushy bob, as though electrified by her brain.)  These sturdy females worry about moral issues, things like keeping secrets and the proprieties of class.  Oh, yes.  There’s always class, but not always based on family or money or even intellectual achievement.

(Vane was played by Constance Cummings, who has an excellent reputation as a stage and screen actress, with her most admired performance being the mother in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” opposite Olivier.  After a long career she died aged 92.)

As Harriet Vane says of herself, I’m not disciplined enough to be an academic, but the flavor is appealing.  Partly it’s the multi-syllabic and witty dialogue, going along like a brisk tennis match; partly it’s the “frocks” (chiffon print with asymmetrical hems) and the gothic settings that the U of Chicago echoed.  I watched another film with a different actor playing Wimsey and was bored.

I don’t really understand how these films get onto YouTube, but I have a feeling that they will soon be monetized so I’ll watch what I can now.  Poirot is there, both Marples, and I’ve always enjoyed Maigret before he became a wizardly eminence.  Morse is there as a lawyer, although many of his episodes come with a sparkling/dancing/exploding frame that I presume is meant to discourage watching.  I tend to avoid Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, but there are characters here that I’ve never heard of.  I was surprised to see “Wire in the Blood.”  The first I knew of Robson Green’s films were the two first episodes which were based on the novels of SM queen Val McDermid, whose work in the written versions is so lurid and vicious that I find them unreadable.  English mysteries are characteristically bloody and grotesque.

Maigret is another fictional character whose biography is in Wikipedia, invented by Georges Simenon, who is presumably French, or rather a British notion of what a French detective might be like.  Nothing like the more contemporary French version of the French cops in “The Spiral.”  Maigret is happily married and rather laid-back.

The most intriguing find was full-length movies starring Michael Kitchen when he had a full head of dark frizzly hair, which meant he wasn’t “Foyle” yet.  Foyle is a reassuring and wry fellow I’ve always treasured.  But in these films he’s often wicked and shaken.  Last night I watched “The Guilty” which followed two stories, finally weaving them together after killing people all along the way.

Peter Froggatt was Kitchen's discoverer and agent.  I thought Mick Froggatt might be a relative since he once posted old films like these, but Mick has been terminated for violation of terms, so I guess YouTube is not as much of a free-for-all as reputed, and my theory about windows about to close is probably accurate.

All these mysteries play out like a card game with the elements all being very familiar, but the interaction of them is fed by our identification with a primary character, played by an excellent actor.  (Later this was a pool of talent for the various kings in "Game of Thrones.") The predictability plays against familiar settings, particularly the beloved coast of Britain, the towers of Oxford, and the drawing rooms of nobs.  But then, more like a crossword puzzle than poker, the clues show up, fed out to us a bit at a time until the last entries fall into place with satisfaction, usually happy.

Because many of these British plots are driven by psychological hangups, they can become dated.  The newer ones move over to a political context and then become more morally focused and also more likely to explore crimes against vulnerable groups than the murder of individuals.  The more traditional ones have a comedy dimension which I don’t appreciate, esp. when it becomes slapstick, but at least they don’t all hinge on treacle romance, which is a category of its own in America.

In times as surreal as these we're hoping to survive, one must find what reassurance one can.  Brit murder mysteries are not too inaccessible, but they do offer some wit and glimpses of upper classes that are properly sophisticated.  A flute of champagne.

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