Watching the Detectives

Hercule Poirot, the handlebar-mustached Belgian obsessed with order and method. Foyle, a subtle master of human nature solving crimes amidst WWII. Miss Marple, the misleadingly absent-minded spinster, always with her knitting. These characters have become so familiar to me they’re practically family.

The reason? My family has watched Masterpiece Mystery! since I was in early grade school. Sure, we enjoyed Columbo, Magnum PI and Simon & Simon, but suspenseful plotlines riddled with creepy stone manors, steam engine trains and remote English countryside have been a part of my landscape since childhood. You could say British mysteries are a family ritual.

I can’t remember exactly when my parents introduced me to Mystery!, but I know I was one of its youngest fans. I also tuned in for Full House and Family Matters like friends my age, but unlike them  ̶  I was as well acquainted with the illustrious Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes as I was with Jaleel White as Steve Urkel. Add my love of black and white films and it often made me odd girl out at the lunch table. “Hey, did you see Sherlock’s Hound of the Baskervilles last night?…Anyone?…Anyone?”
Almost every time I visit my folks these days, we continue to gather for a British whodunnit, either a recording of the latest episode or something from years past. Their collection is staggering: Hercule Poirot, Foyle’s War, Miss Marple, Inspector Lewis, Midsommer Murders and Sherlock Holmes, including its most recent revival… No Downton Abbey for us; give us a good ol’ British mystery dripping with intrigue and atmosphere – and red herrings galore.

Our ritual of viewing these treats typically goes something like this: “You feel like a Brit?” “Sure, what are you in the mood for?” “A Foyle? A Poirot?” Proceed to my mother rummaging through stacks of DVDs and VHS tapes, reading off titles to see if something catches our fancy. “Poirot – The Yellow Iris?” “Nah, we just watched that two months ago.” “Foyle – Bleak Midwinter?” “How about something with more humor?” This typically goes on for a good 15 minutes. When we finally do settle on something, the kettle’s put on the boil and cups of tea are poured. We then settle into our respective spots: Mom on the left, me in the middle and Dad on the right. Sophie the cat typically migrates from the floor to a lap during the course of the program.

Vincent Price was the first host of Mystery! I ever saw. From his high-backed armchair he’d tell us in that rich voice of his what we were in for – a playfully sinister gleam in his eyes. Then there was the elegant Diana Rigg, posed in sequined dresses against a living room backdrop illustrated by Edward Gorey. The most recent host was Alan Cumming, who brought his mischievous charm to the role. But now they’ve sadly reduced the format to just his brief voiceover narration.

Though it no longer has hosts, Mystery! thankfully has retained some of its introduction, which features a wonderful Edward Gorey animation. I await my cue each time to “weep” along with a damsel in distress draped across a ledge, waving a handkerchief over her head and wailing. Then we’re off on an adventure with our British sleuth of the evening. Often we end up at a sinister mansion with thunder crashing outside. Its occupants are dressed for dinner in gowns and tuxes, stealing nervous glances at each other across the table. Our daring detective stands before them, ready to reveal the murderer in their midst. There’s a formula to these shows, you see, and yet it never seems to get old for us.

Along with this formula, there’s the usual template of suspects the detective has to investigate: the drunken, trouble making rich son; the demanding patriarch/matriarch who runs the household with an iron fist; the snooping household staff; the lovely romantic interest who’s supposed to be 18, yet always seems to be played by a 30-year-old…and the list goes on.

Though we’ve watched some of these mysteries numerous times, it never fails that once the show ends we have a round of what I like to call, “And Another Thing!” With Agatha Christie in particular, there tends to be an impossible series of events that leave you going, “Oh, come on! Really?!” For example, how did the heiress overhear a conversation that happened clear across a busy intersection? Or, why did the butler not recognize his master’s new wife as the former cook? And where did the original will go? Despite the ridiculous amount of “coincidences” and plotline holes, these programs are still loads of fun  and highly addictive!

Growing up with this ritual has certainly given me a love of anything with a sense of suspense as well of the supernatural. Many of those great British authors, after all, hinted at larger forces at play to spice up their plotlines. These programs also developed my appreciation for subtlety. Instead of the non-stop action and snatches of mediocre dialogue many American shows had, these quieter gems allowed for a study of human nature and required an eye for detail to pick up clues.

My family’s ritual has carried beyond their home and into mine. I find myself bringing home British mysteries from the library – ones I’ve seen many times – and popping them on in the background while I cook dinner. They offer a sense of comfort. And, they make my home feel more like home.

Sarah Wolfe is an editor and writer whose work has been published in the Derry News, the North Andover Citizen and Exec Digital Magazine. A self-confessed linguiphile, she began creating stories at a young age, inventing an imaginary world with unusual residents like The Gunkulator, a barrel-shaped creature with a vacuum cleaner trunk. She still visits these old friends from time to time. Also a part-time actor, musician and composer, Sarah enjoys singing old jazz songs, especially those covered by Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. To stay centered amidst life’s creative hubbub she finds solace doing mountain poses on yoga mats across the North Shore.

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