My husband quakes in his bed when I pull out my bedtime book and he reads the title of my “Who dun it.”
“You are researching ways to do me in,” he apprehensively concludes.
“Nah, just having a good time reading and seeing if I can get ahead of the detective in the series. But hey, you know – this method might go undetected. You might want to read it, so you can leave a note in a secret bank deposit box,” I say confidently. I know that the technique will remain my secret. He does not read mystery books, let alone open secret bank deposit boxes.
He will watch a murder mystery on television – if it isn’t too creepy like the opening of “Bones.” That show begins with the discovery of some greatly deteriorated, gruesome skeleton. He goes into shock when he sees the decaying body and its grinning skull. To watch that show, when he’s around I tend to wait 15 minutes til they get past the Halloween part and it becomes a detective show.
So the gory details are not our favorite part either. I prefer the process of sorting through the clues. That process varies with each show and the details change depending on the time of the show’s first broadcast.
Take “Perry Mason.” Only shadows, hints and reports of the death tell the viewer the victim has expired. No messy details distract me as Mason gathers information and moves into the courtroom where he will use the clues he has to shift the blame to someone other than his client. As the clock ticks down to the end of the show, his defendant inevitably gets off when a witness breaks down and confesses to the crime in open court.
We never see the courtroom in “Colombo” – a detective series that began in 1968. This bumbling detective fools many a murderer with his apologetic manner, his obvious ignorance about anything related to the crime and his rumpled suit. I discovered the old “Colombo” videos on YouTube. Having spent most of my first five decades on this earth without television, this old show provides plenty of new entertainment for me. My husband pays special attention to “Colombo” because, as he explained, “When I worked, they told me I acted just like him.” He studies the detective shambling his way apologetically through the show in his rumpled coat, driving an vintage, falling apart car and chewing a cigar.
No cigar for Hershberger, but like Colombo he will start to leave two or three times, stop, turn and ask “just one more thing.” And he will ask a lot of questions about anything.
Chatting about the crime as he sorts through the details, Colombo often mentions his wife whom the viewer never sees. We see her car used to trap a perpetrator. We hear discussions of her hobbies and interests. We hear about her nephew. Colombo obviously admires her but the show never degenerates into a soap opera of his personal life.
A certain innocence lingers over these vintage mystery shows compared to today’s blood splatter patterns and horrific details of crimes in modern detective shows. Today’s cop shows lean more toward hyper-scientific techniques than the psychology of the crime. One exception is the obsessive compulsive detective Monk, who abhors disorder, germs and mess. He comes across as a comical spin-off of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. All three fastidiously study the information and focus on using their “little grey cells” for resolving the problem over gathering multiple bits and pieces of evidence.
Whatever the decade of the crime show, the morality play of a mystery proves again that “Crime does not pay.”
That’s what I need to tell my husband the next time he accuses me of researching murder techniques: “No, dear, this is not research. I know that it doesn’t matter what I learn, there is always a sharp-eyed detective out that who can uncover the most devious of crimes.”
Yeah, that should keep him off his guard while I prepare that special potion for his porridge in the morning.
(Joan Hershberger is a staff writer at the News-Times and author of “Twenty Gallons of Milk and Other Columns from the El Dorado News-Times.” Email her at email@example.com)