Here’s a secret that’s not a secret. I’m old-ish. I was a teenager in the 1970s, which was both an amazing and horrible time to be a teenager. Many of us were very confused about many things, and we smoked and drank many things we shouldn’t have. (I swear I would still smoke cigarettes if they didn’t make my clothes and breath smell, and put me at risk for cancer. Of course now I would only do it outside, like I did in high school in the designated SMOKING AREA.) Often we had bad hair. *hides photo of young Laura with pyramid head perm* But you know what we did have? Pretty awesome mystery television.
When people ask me what got me started liking mystery and horror, I immediately talk about Edgar Allan Poe and Sherlock Holmes. I realize now I forget to mention television shows like The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Night Stalker. Dark Shadows and McMillan and Wife. Last night I stumbled upon a nostalgic treasure (See? I worry that being nostalgic makes me seem old. Even though I am old-ish, I still always want to be a Modern Girl.). I found Columbo.
Columbo is a fictional Los Angeles homicide detective who has a bumbling, self-effacing persona. He wears a grubby raincoat, drives an ancient Peugot, and smokes cigars–or at least chews on them. He drives the suspects and pretty much every other character a little crazy with his seemingly random questions, subtle innuendoes, and habit of saying, “just one more thing” just when the person he’s been questioning thinks he’s headed out the door. The viewer always knows who committed the crime because it’s the opening of the episode. It’s a format known as the “inverted detective story” and was first used in an early 20th century mystery story. I’d never read the term before today, but according to the linked Wikipedia description, the inverted detective story is called a “howcatchem” rather than a “whodunit.” If you’re a reader of contemporary thrillers, you’ll very much recognize the techniques of the “howcatchem” and the “howdunit.”
Film, stage, and sometimes television actor Peter Falk didn’t originate the role of Lieutenant Columbo (who actually does have a real first name), but he was the only one to play him from 1968, on. The films were mystery movies of the week that ran each month of the television season, rather than hour-long weekly dramas. Peter Falk was an incredible actor, and if you aren’t sure what he looks like, you actually do. Because The Princess Bride.
Anywho. I’ve made a short story very long. And here’s my point, finally! This episode I watched last night was called Exercise in Fatality, and one of the clues that caught the murderer was one that has stuck with me since I saw the episode when it first aired all those years ago. It’s one of those small things that made me see the magic in being a writer. Columbo noticed there were brown heel marks on a freshly waxed floor. The murder victim had brown heeled shoes in his locker–but that’s not what gave the murderer away. The victim was wearing tennis shoes, and Columbo noticed that the way the laces were tied indicated that SOMEONE ELSE had tied them. From the front, as a parent might tie a child’s shoes. The murderer had put the shoes on the dead victim!
Update: The day after I wrote this riff on Columbo, we watched the 1968 pilot, called Prescription: Murder. If you loved the high gloss 1960s glamour of Mad Men, you’ll adore seeing the real thing as much as I did. The episode is like a master class in 1960s high-fashion clothing and design. Delicious.
SUNDAY REVIEW: BEATING ABOUT THE BUSH by M.C. BEATON
Fans of M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin, Hamish MacBeth, and her Regency romance novels written as Marion Chesney, are well aware that Beaton died last winter at the age of 83. She was a journalist first, and didn’t even begin on her fiction publishing journey until she was in her forties. And at 160 books at her death, it was quite a journey.
BEATING ABOUT THE BUSH was the last Agatha Raisin mystery to be published before she died. Agatha and one of her employees from the Agatha Raisin Detective Agency–the young and beautiful Toni, with whom the always competitive Agatha has a sort of unwanted (on both parts) mother/daughter relationship–discover a leg in the brush. There’s something not quite right about that leg, and the discovery leads Agatha and Toni even deeper into the industrial espionage case they’ve just begun at an engineering firm. Agatha had thought the engineering firm investigation would be deadly dull. But deadly it becomes, and Agatha ends up in more physical danger than is usual for her. In other bad news, no one wants to tell Agatha that her best friend and sometime lover, Sir Charles Fraith, is engaged to another, younger, wealthy woman. Again. With a thousand acre estate, a decaying Great House, and poor financial judgement, Charles is always looking for money to protect his heritage and entrapments of aristocracy. Thus far, Agatha has managed to protect him from women and their families who want to trade their money for the patina gleam of his social position. Except this time the engagement might stick. But the good news for Agatha is that she has discovered a surprising new love interest. One that she seems genuinely intrigued by, and not just a man who interests her just because he shows an interest. Agatha is a terminal loser in love. Could she win this time?
I’m leery of BEATING ABOUT THE BUSH, but not necessarily in a bad way. There’s something…different about it. The Agatha Raisin series began the early 1990s, and like so many long-running series, it has been challenged to stay contemporary in a rapidly changing technological world. Beaton hasn’t worried about the technology much. It rarely plays a definitive role in the stories. In fact, in BEATING ABOUT THE BUSH, Agatha struggles to even turn on her computer, and uses the term Interweb, marking her as on the oldster side of Internet discourse. That’s all fine. Technology isn’t much of an issue, and Agatha is very hands-on in her investigating. There’s something different about Agatha herself in this book. She’s less insecure than the Agatha Raisin I’ve come to know and love. In nearly every Agatha Raisin novel, her solving of cases is often hampered by her desperate desire to be admired and loved by men. Usually a particular, powerful man who turns out to be a bad guy and breaks her heart. Beaton generally keeps her storytelling to a close third person read on Agatha, but she also takes clever detours into the minds of other characters so we get a good sense of what they really think of Agatha. Her friends know and love her in spite of her vanity and foibles. She’s truly a good-hearted person, even though she yells a lot. Those who would exploit her only see her vanity and usefulness to them, and so often hurt her emotionally. But in BEATING ABOUT THE BUSH she’s interestingly self-observant, making some decisions that are actually good for her. She speaks plainly to Charles, less concerned about his opinion of her opinions. She’s also less spiteful and critical of Roy Silver, her former employee. Is she growing up?
Mrs. Bloxby, her closest female friend, and wife of the local vicar is almost completely absent from the novel. So is James Lacey, her next door neighbor and former husband. I rather miss them. It’s nice to see Toni and Agatha together, figuring things out. And we get a closer look at Toni’s complicated personal life. There’s an unexpected donkey named Wizz Wazz who’s quite the character, and provides both mystery-solving and comic relief.
I confess I wonder if another writer didn’t have a hand in the writing, if not the editing of BEATING ABOUT THE BUSH. There, I’ve said it. The book was released in December of 2019. The announcement of Beaton’s death came on January 1, after a “short illness” of an undisclosed nature. Or perhaps she knew it would be the last Agatha Raisin book that would be written entirely by her, and she wanted to move Agatha forward. I don’t think we’ll ever know. What I do know is that there is a new Agatha Raisin book, HOT TO TROT, coming out in November. Beaton is the co-author with a person named R.W. Greene (or Rod Greene). I can find very little on Rod Greene, and even the publisher’s page for the book is opaque. I’m anxious to get my hands on the new book to compare.