Lord Peter Wimsey, in one of Dorothy Sayers’ novels, calls detective fiction the “highest form of literature we have.” The essence of detective fiction is the conflict of good and evil…the idea that a crime (a murder) breaks the world, and the core of a hero is in solving it (bringing the evildoer to justice).
Thus it’s hardly surprising that Ms. Sayers is one of, if not the, best mystery writers of all time. Her novels are entertaining yet educational, tricky yet profound – grounded on a firm grasp of human nature, and grappling with how the very universe groans for the blood of the innocent to be repaid.
I’m not here to talk about her work. I’m here to talk about the short stories of Charles Schwarz – stories billed as “hilarious” and sarcastic murder mysteries…that probably ended up being more educational than entertaining for me.
(Incidentally, what first caught my eye was the cover. Something about it just looks sarcastic – and who doesn’t love that?)
Alert: SPOILERS Possible
The Snarky, Lonely Detective
Most of Mr. Schwarz’s stories are written in first person, so we examine the mystery while riding in the head of the protagonist. These protagonists range from a police detective, to a cruise boat security officer, to some down-on-his-luck private investigator…but he’s usually named Ed, so I’m going to call him “Ed.”
Ed cares for very little outside of himself. And he has zero tolerance for the liberal, inclusive, diversity PR-crap of the modern politically correct society.
From the very first story – “Murder at Snow White” – the author shows his willingness to confront the issue of race head-on…and many of the stories feature side characters who are much more absorbed in how the interpretation of a crime can be spun for their benefit, rather than what the actual truth of the crime is.
Dead bodies and dead-beats
Agatha Christie is famous for delivering large casts, each with their own motives and opportunities for committing the crime. Usually, though, we like at least one or two of the characters, and so tension comes from not wanting our “friends” to be the murderer!
In The Lonely Detective, no one is nice. Mr. Schwarz has a great talent for painting vivid pictures of people…but for some reason they all come across as horny, greedy, self-serving, morally-bankrupt shmucks more focused on how this murder will affect their schedule and reputation than that a human being has literally been murdered.
Well…the book was billed as a collection of “outrageously nasty, politically incorrect, uniquely humorous mysteries.”
The Sexy, Lonely Detective
There are no “sex scenes” in Lonely Detective, but there’s plenty sexual innuendo, out-uendo, and talk about sexual needs and relationships.
Nothing so thick that it made me stop reading, but it just reemphasized that everyone here – everyone – is driven by their “lower” instincts (meaning whatever happens below the solar plexus).
And my sub-heading was probably misleading. There’s nothing really “sexy” about it. There are plenty of hot girls, but that just means they’re sleeping with anything they can get a hold of…and the fat, unattractive people are desperately trying to get in on the action.
Sex is discussed, but not like something fun or elevating (not how I would think of fun, anyway). It almost sounds like a drug addiction…something everyone’s into, something that can give you a sweet high, but in the end the drive to get it consumes your life.
The Lazy, Lonely Detective
Lord Peter Wimsey had fun detecting. Investigating murders and other crimes was almost a game to him, as his aristocratic soul thrilled at the hunt. Until he actually caught up with the perpetrator, and then his compassion for his fellow human sapped the enjoyment from the chase.
Yet he still did the right thing, and turned the murderer over to justice…Even if it broke his heart to punish anyone, he still understood the fundamental break that a murder causes in society and the moral fabric of the universe – a break that must be repaired through the payment of the guilty.
“Ed” has none of that.
Ed is brilliant, I’ll give him that. From little details, he extrapolates out who among the unattractive cast is the real villain (although the solutions to the mystery usually feel more on the level of Encyclopedia Brown than Columbo or Wimsey).
But the reader is left wondering…why does Ed solve these mysteries? Why does he exert the brain power to find the right killer?
You see…believe it or not…the murderer gets away. In almost every single instance Ed lets the murderer walk!
Sometimes, like when he’s a police detective, his hands are tied by internal politics, and he hands the case over to a superior…snidely telling himself that “maybe” the other detectives will solve it.
Sometimes, when the protagonist is a self-serving PI or Joe (Ed) Shmoe, it’s for personal gain – either via blackmail, or a personal promotion because he accepted the PR department’s sanitized version of events.
At other times, there’s no clear reason he lets the baddie off the hook. He takes a dislike to the victim for some reason, or he decides it really isn’t his place to get involved and nail the guilty party. And I’d call that lazy…or, y’know, morally bankrupt.
Why bother solving the crime at all? Is it just so Ed knows how smart he is? To get the satisfaction of telling the culprit, “I know what you did. I don’t think I’ll tell anybody, ’cause I’m bored now, but just so you know…”
How does letting the villain get away mend the rent in the universe from the violation of the victim?
The Lonely, Modern Detective
While Ms. Sayers’ Christian faith never quite broke the surface of her novels, she was close friends with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, both well-known Christian authors…and her faith in God and His final say on morality shine through in implicit ways, if not explicit.
In the pages of Ed the Lonely Detective(s), what comes burning through is his sarcastic loathing of the diversity police, the liberal speech-patrollers, the environmentalist wackos, the makers-of-ridiculous-laws and -even-more-ridiculous-PR-campaigns.
Some of his comments earn a wry smile, but at the same time it was like wading through everything that I disagree with that raises my hackles, all for…what? The snippets of the story that seem devoted to what Ed/Mr. Schwarz actually believes are exercises in selfishness, you-do-you libertarianism, self-serving anarchy (blackmailing a murderer), materialistic hedonism, etc.
It’s great to understand that the diversity-for-diversity’s-sake crowd have a screw loose…but what are you standing for in its place?
Murder who you want, because I didn’t like them anyway, and if you can get away with it while benefiting me?
Like the post-modern millennial whiners, it’s great at standing against things, not so strong on standing for something…at least something worth standing for.
Ed “Encyclopedia” Brown
These are short stories, so there isn’t as much room to cram depth and alibis and complicated motives into them as there is in a novel. And I don’t want to sound like the puzzles aren’t clever…it’s like Encyclopedia Brown or the Boxcar Children or Nancy Drew grew up and are still solving puzzles, except now someone’s dead.
Each story is short enough to read in one or two sittings, and I enjoyed many of them. I did read to the end of the book, and it did a good job of giving me my “mystery” hit.
While the puzzle solutions were sometimes more juvenile (like figuring out that a murdered man spelled his killer’s name with playing cards), they haven’t soured in retrospect (as some thriller novels do, once you realize the build-up of mystery and tension wasn’t worth the pay-off of the evil plot). And some of the solutions are inventive, using the different relationships of the cast or the dynamics of the social structure to figure out what happened – or psychoanalyzing the participants based on their telling characteristics.
In the end, though, I found myself analyzing the life philosophy of the protagonist (and presumably, through him, of the author) more than feeling immersed in the murder mysteries themselves.
I miss the good old days, when mystery stories echoed the eternal saga of evil versus good, where the detective protagonist (however tarnished) still strove to uphold the cosmic order by punishing the guilty party (come on – even Batman understood that!).
Now I need to go drink some tea and knit some socks and tell my parrot how the young people don’t do it like in the good old days – What? Mr. Schwarz is Professor Schwarz, and he’s been writing these stories since 1990? And he has graduate degrees in History, Mathematics, and Philosophy?
So much makes sense now…so many things make sense…
Don’t get murdered at the New Jersey State University…Professor Emeritus Schwarz won’t care.
DISCLAIMER: I got a free copy of this collection from Smashwords during their free and discounted ebook promotion. I was not required to write a review of any kind, and all thoughts are my own.
The author’s official website is CharlesESchwarz.com.