My Crime & Detection Genealogy

Not surprisingly, my experience with crime and detection fiction begins with Sherlock Holmes. No need to say anything except that, like most of the books I’ll mention, they’ve always rewarded re-reading. One also needs say nothing about Miss Marple and M. Poirot. Both have been delightful companions for years.

Next on my list would be the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries of Dorothy Sayers. I love Wimsey’s delightful character (with its dark component of WWI PTSD), his fantastic detection skills, his delightful relationship with his man Bunter, and his patient and often-frustrated courting of Harriet Vale.

Alongside Peter Wimsey must be recognized Albert Campion, less famous than Lord Peter but equally entertaining and in some ways deeper and darker. These novels, by Marjorie Allingham, deserve more popularity than they seem to have achieved.

The 300-some pounds of Nero Wolfe cannot, of course, be ignored, even if he is loathe to leave his comfortable and carefully staged office for anything but his orchid collection on the top floor of his New York brownstone. But Archie Goodwin serves admirably and entertainingly as his legs and eyes and ears. Although each in his own way falls far short of a politically correct attitude toward women, I can’t help thinking that Rex Stout might well be caricaturing rather than endorsing such attitudes.

If I ever get around to joining the Catholic church, I’ll just tell the priest that my theology is that of Bishop Blackie. The late Fr. Andrew Greeley not only made major contributions to the sociology of American Catholicism, but created an absolutely entertaining and delightful fictional community of South Chicago Irish, whose members appear, mixed and matched, in a long series of novels. My reading has centered on the sub-set of that series which recounts the exploits of the Reverend Doctor John Blackwood Ryan, aka Father Blackie/Bishop Blackie/Archbishop Blackie. Blackie solves crimes assigned to him by his Archbishop, Cardinal Sean Cronin, who doesn’t tolerate trouble in his diocese. “See to it, Blackwood.” The attitude toward the Church is well summarized by Cronin’s and Blackie’s referring to Cardinal Ratziner as “God’s Rottweiler.” Greeley had what my father would refer to as a “lover’s quarrel” with the Church. Central to Blackie’s theology is the concept of love; the love between a man and a woman, including the sexual aspects thereof, are the sign of God’s grace in the world. His treatment of women (and of men’s relations to them) might have been even more compelling if the main female characters hadn’t all been all physical and intellectual ‘10s’.

Let me conclude this highly selective genealogy with a shout-out to Kinsey Millhone. This tough but reflective P.I. has nearly completed an alphabet’s worth of solved crimes. Orphaned at age six, Kinsey has found a delightful Ersatzvater in the nearly-90-year-old Henry, her landlord. I’ve made my way through U is for Undertow, and have no doubt that the remaining mysteries (author Sue Grafton has completed volumes through X) will be equally rewarding. While not quite as noir or hard-boiled as Dashiell Hammet’s characters, Kinsey Millhone presents a strong sociological and stylistic contrast to Lord Peter Wimsey.

There are many others I could mention, but these are probably the ones that have been most important to me over the years. Happy reading.

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