Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Devil's in the Details

I've been in Tennessee for about a month now, and I'll be here for another month yet before I leave for China. In that time, I've grown oddly fond of The Mentalist, which I've been watching in reruns on TNT. For those who haven't seen it, The Mentalist is one of the myriad procedurals currently on television. The protagonist is Patrick Jane, a mentalist who assists the California Bureau of Investigation. He's an expert in human behavior, and uses his skills of observation to solve crimes. I like him because he's tricky. Either I've never really taken notice before, or there's been an outbreak of procedurals in the last few years. I understand the appeal; you know the general pattern an episode will take, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you get resolution too. Most are perfectly pleasant ways to kill time, but I'd rather do something else.

I've spent some of that time reading various Sherlock Holmes short stories. It just seems appropriate. I've really enjoyed them, which wouldn't have surprised me, but for my last experience with the mystery genre. About two years ago, I read One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Agatha Christie. It's a novel in the Hercule Poirot series of stories, and it was my first exposure to her work. I really didn't care for it. It was also my first exposure to mystery novels in a very long time, so I thought maybe the genre wasn't for me. That I have enjoyed the Holmes stories has led me to wonder why I disliked Poirot so thoroughly.

We can safely blame Holmes for the procedural. It was his popularity that got people hooked on the general formula. Christie's novels, including the Poirot stories, contributed to the madness. Both men (Holmes and Poirot) can be blamed for The Investigator Who Doesn't Play By Anyone's Rules But His Own stereotype. Both are known for being remarkable detectives. Their stories were written by equally gifted writers. So what's the difference? Poirot notices the same things as everyone else, but he would draw what seemed to me to be outlandish, nigh impossible, conclusions. Sherlock Holmes notices the things others don't, and draws from them perfectly rational conclusions. I dislike Poirot because he is required to make perverse leaps of logic from the evidence he observes to solve his cases. I like Holmes because everything he observes feeds directly, and perfectly, into his deductions.

I enjoy The Mentalist for its sense of humor, and for Patrick Jane, the protagonist. He's in the traditional vein of The Investigator Who Doesn't Play By Anyone's Rules But His Own, but he doesn't do it out of self-righteousness; he's just aloof. Ultimately, I like Jane as a detective for the same reason that I enjoyed the Holmes stories I read; the conclusions are realistic. It's what they notice that's unbelievable.

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