Monday, August 20, 2007

Two Minute Mysteries Can Last A Lifetime

If you are going to quit smoking you need things to compulse over.

This is why I now have a book of half-filled Sudoku puzzles. More precisely, I have a book of Sudoku puzzles in which the easy-to-mild Sudoku puzzles are untouched, while the hard Sudoku puzzles are half-filled. Something I could actually do wasn't going to hold my attention; I needed something I couldn't do, and I needed to abandon it once I got bored.

Also: when I was at Borders the other day I saw in their clearance rack the Two-Minute Mysteries Collection by Donald J. Sobol. It is perhaps worth noting that on that trip to Borders I also found a cigarette between the pages of the book I was looking at (Gold Diggers! Through the Ages! -- which looked pretty good). I'm not asking whether the cigarette was a message from a supernatural being.

So, two-minute mysteries. I had many, many Encyclopedia Brown books as a child -- I did not have any two-minute mysteries (featuring Dr. Haledjian). I saw them around though, in the hands of my more sophisticated peers. They feature actual death and dismemberment, as opposed to property damage. The solution is upside down at the ending; they take about a page and half.

When I was a kid, I couldn't solve any of the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. My current rate is about fifty percent. My young and impressionable mind may just have learned Donald J. Sobol's little tricks (he's particularly fond of the criminal going for, at the direction of the detective, the, say, flower when an innocent man would have gone for the flour).

The mysteries aren't logical in the way of Sudoku. For example, in The Case of The Spilled Brandy, Haledjian catches the criminal because he finds the brandy in a house he's supposedly a stranger to. It's not, I think we can agree, really a logical solution. Instead, the stories have this crossword puzzle aspect to them -- the solution's not perfect, but it's the only thing that you can use under the circumstances.

This sort of thing will leads you to decide that "greases" is an adequate synonym for "facilitates".

Which leads to an oddly appealing combination of crossword puzzle solutions and supposedly real human interactions. They're not really human interactions, of course, and they're not designed to be psychologically piercing. But the human brain, mine at least, given a set of characters, cannot help trying to move them into more plausible attitudes.

And although this is already probably too long (the Secretary was complaining about post length yesterday) there's also the dependence on a supposedly shared body of human knowledge, that, of course, is not shared at all. I don't mean the random facts ("after covering 26 miles, a runner's calves will have increased an inch or more"), but the not-quite facts. I.e. a resident of San Francisco will never, ever call the city Frisco. Still mostly true, but not really true enough to give conviction. Some of that may just be the passage of time; the copyrights in the book start in 1967. Some of it may be the need to limit the world -- two minute mysteries can only be solved in a world designed as a test chamber, where a particular act always produces a particular effect.

It all reminds me of Edmund Wilson's essay about Sherlock Holmes, in which Wilson discusses how the beauty of the Sherlock Holmes set-ups is ultimately diminished by the solutions. I feel the same about the Two Minute Mysteries. While Holmes stories started with the beauty of the exotic and strange and improbable, the set-ups of Two-Minute Mysteries have the beauty of the pseudo-familiar, the would-be-plausible, and, ultimately, the improbable.


Charlie said...

When I was a kid, my elementary school (which was also C.C.'s elementary school until it stopped meeting C.C.'s educational needs, circa the fourth grade) had book fairs. I religiously acquired each Two Minute Mystery which appeared at these book fairs. For some reason, it did not occur to me that Two Minute Mysteries might be purchased at other locations. Anyway, by the third reading of each volume, I could solve every mystery. So that's a 100% solve rate.

Captain Colossal said...

See, I never managed to get above fifty percent on the Encyclopedia Brown books, even after the third reading. Which may be why my parents decided the school wasn't meeting my educational needs.

I think it comes as no surprise to anybody that you fall in the "more sophisticated peer" category.