Tag Archives: Mystery

Review: Dumbledore as a Detective

Review: Dumbledore as a Detective

While going through the DVD section of the Berkeley Public Library, I lucked out and found Michael Gambon in ITV’s Maigret (1992-1993). Since the mental image of Dumbledore as a detective earlier captured my imagination, I just had to borrow it.

I’ve been watching the twelve episodes all out-of-order since not all of the DVDs are available at the same time. Still, I have to say that the series is a perfectly corking bit of work. Gambon’s expressive voice is crisp even if the video quality (alas!) is not.

Gambon makes an excellent Jules Maigret, whether he’s chasing criminals or the freshest seafood and local wines. Gambon just makes it seem natural that a French Chief Inspector should speak so authoritatively in English.

Screen captures from the first episode. Images from Granada Television.

I’ve had the pleasure of reading some Simenon, but not enough to make me a hardcore fan. This adaptation brings to life all the minor officers in the books, from Sergeant Lucas to all the young detectives who flock to Maigret for mentoring. Madame Maigret was cast a bit younger than how I mentally pictured her, but the actress does well so I have no complaints.

From the six episodes I’ve seen, my favorite is currently “Maigret’s Boyhood Friend.” Edward Petherbridge is excellent as the sleazy Leon Florentin, whose been living off his mistress and the cash gifts of her four other lovers. Of course when the woman is murdered, Maigret spends a lot of time wondering if his loser buddy is the real killer!

I know Petherbridge mostly from his romantic portrayal of one of my favorite detectives—Lord Peter Wimsey—so I couldn’t help from sniggering with joy with his character in this episode. He’s such a good, solid British actor, I hope I can dig out more of his work.

Hitting two birds with one stone—surveillance work and eating well.

Now, some mystery lovers insist there are only two types of fans: the hardboiled and the cozies, and never shall the two types mingle. It’s rather silly, seeing how much I love the genre.

In my mind, the Maigret books represent the beginnings of contemporary police procedurals. Here’s a guy who’s not an amateur genius, but an honest, working man of the official police. He’s not a Golden Age silly ass with arcane habits and hobbies. Yet he’s also not a cynical private eye who boozes up in speakeasies with double-crossers and corrupt cops.

Upright but not uptight, Maigret is the kind of police officer whom you’d actually want to live across your street. Michael Gambon plays the character so well, I almost wish he hunted out bad guys for real—especially when the bad guys turn out to be murderous little grannies.

Lord Peter’s Opinion on “Modern” Literature

Lord Peter’s Opinion on “Modern” Literature

“After all, it isn’t really difficult to write books. Especially if you either write a rotten story in good English or a good story in rotten English, which is as far as most people seem to get nowadays. Don’t you agree?”

 

— an observation of Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Unnatural Death (1927)

All Clues, No Solution: Two Reviews

All Clues, No Solution: Two Reviews

Movie poster from Icon Productions.

Some say that Robert Downey Jr.’s 2003 film The Singing Detective is better left forgotten. I have to disagree with that assessment. It is an interesting failure, as only a film with gratuitous sex, cheesy musical numbers, and a sprinkling of seething anger can be put together to make a whole. Several times while watching I tried to shut it off but I couldn’t. It made me think so much my head hurt.

Based on the beloved British series starring Michael Gambon (Dumbledore, a badass detective?), the movie is one hot mess, but that’s pretty much the point of the exercise.

Downey plays two men in the film: one is a swaggering ‘50s gumshoe and the other is the bedridden, bitter writer who created him. The film starts with the vicious killing of a prostitute who is drowned in a bathtub.

Who is the woman? What does she know? As the film unfolds, at first it seems there is one central mystery. Then the clues begin to pile up and an overwhelming feeling of bafflement sets in. Is the writer so sick that he can’t tell reality from pulp fiction? Is he remembering the novel he wrote or is he living it? Is the murdered woman merely a memory of his mother or is it wish-fulfillment regarding the fate of his estranged wife?

I wish I knew. The film certainly doesn’t. I wonder if digging out the original series would help answer some of these questions, but my gut tells me the unsettled feeling will only get worse.

A promotional still from Almega Projects and Native Voice Films.

The 2011 film The Bengali Detective, oddly enough, continues with the merry disarray that The Singing Detective started in my head. As a documentary, one might expect it to be dark and gritty, and nothing more. Reality, however, likes to surprise the genre-savvy.

The Bengali Detective follows the life of Rajesh Ji, the head of the Always Detective Agency. He’s a simple, kind man, who loves his wife and child and treats his employees with paternal affection. He likes to sing duets with his wife, and for relaxation he and his employees try to shimmy to the latest Bollywood dances. So yes, just like The Singing Detective, there are dance numbers in this one, too. Sometimes it seems like a detective’s life is all fun and games.

The three cases we are allowed to see, however, are not of the heartwarming sort. A young man needs to know who murdered his cousin and his cousin’s two best friends. A middle-aged woman, physically and emotionally abused, needs proof of her husband’s infidelities in order to move on with her life. A local manufacturer of hair products demands to find the sellers and source of counterfeits.

The Always Detective Agency relies on its men to get to the facts, which they manage to do for most part. The murder case, however, is beset by tremendous hurdles, including a missing witness and suspects who are on the run. They become preoccupied with proving motive, since most of the physical evidence are in the hands of the police. The official police are portrayed as bureaucratic and unhelpful: they don’t want to give any of their information away, even if they don’t seem to be solving the case themselves.

That the bodies of the three men were found by the railway tracks might stink of red herring to a mystery fan (The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, anyone?). Of course it is highly possible that they did die there, but not even this angle can be fully explored. It’s a bit frustrating for the viewer.

So, does the agency catch the unfaithful husband, the hair product fakers, and the murderer? Sort of. Only one case is fully resolved. The Bengali Detective ends on several notes for everyone involved—for the people who hired the agency to the detectives themselves. Distrust, resignation, and hope all abound.

Personally, I’m curious to see what the feature film adaptation of The Bengali Detective will be like. Will it leave many things open-ended, or will it go for absolute closures? I guess I’ll have to wait for 2014.

 

Some friends might be wondering why I’m bothering to review these two films together. Thematically, they stand together in my mind as deconstructions of my favorite genre. There are other detective films that may be more brilliant and satisfying, but I would probably have less to say about them. Enamored as I am with Golden Age mysteries, these films serve as a reminder that the genre has shifted, in so many crazy ways, since Dupin and Holmes were first written.

I cannot recommend these films, good and flawed as they are, to whodunit fans who demand justice and a neat tying up of loose ends. These films will only infuriate and frustrate anyone seeking quick catharsis. To anyone who wants to experience films that mirror, as closely as possible, the mystery of living, then these films might just fit well.