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He’s the great granddaddy of the genre, perhaps second only to Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin as the founder of the modern murder mystery. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the character in 1887 and the erudite detective who uses deductive reasoning and logic as his tools of the trade soon spanned four novels and 56 short stories. Since then, he’s been immortalized on film (with Basil Rathbone being, perhaps, the most memorable), portrayed on stage, and a standard in several televisions series (including a celebrated adaptation featuring Jeremy Brett). The character is so solid that it can even survive modernist reimaginings (ala Guy Ritchie or Elementary).
Dapper, droll, and usually drunk, retired private detective Nick Charles was the very opposite of the hard boiled dicks who dragged their knuckles through dive bars looking for clues. Along with his heiress wife Nora and their wire-haired terrier, Asta, the couple sipped bootleg gin among Prohibition era swells and traded witty rejoinders with verbal panache. Oh, and they also solved mysteries every once in a while. Author Dashiell Hammett’s last novel became such a stunning starring vehicle for actors William Powell and Myrna Loy that the rest of their creative canon seems inconsequential. There would be five sequels, and even a TV series starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.
Sure, we learned relatively quickly who killed Laura Palmer. It wasn’t so much anticlimactic as antithetical to what American auteur David Lynch and his co-creator Mark Frost wanted to do with the genre and format. Instead, this is another bravura bit of baroque American Gothic, played out among the fog-drenched designs of a sleepy Pacific Northwest burg, complete with crazy log ladies and mystical woodland creatures. While the series might have gone off the deep end toward the end of its run, Lynch truly twisted things up to masterpiece levels with his provocative film prequel, Fire: Walk with Me.
Thanks to hundreds of hackneyed impersonations that emphasize the obvious ticks of the Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective (and star Peter Falk’s complex personal physicality), many have forgotten what a fascinating character study this long running TV series really was. Without a traditional whodunit to center the scripts around (the perpetrator was usually revealed in the opening act), the writers focused their attention on the raincoat wearing schlub, infusing his oft-incoherent ramblings with backstory and insights into his home life and preferences. Falk found the right balance between slob and savant, and maximized both to magnificent effect.
Frankly, this is as close to perfection as the TV mystery can ever get. Robbie Coltrane, who many know as Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, plays an alcoholic, gambling addicted police psychiatrist who uses his keen powers of interpersonal observation to “crack” cases, usually with little more than a suspect’s responses within an interview to go on. With each storyline stretched out over several episodes, there is plenty of room for Dr. Eddie ‘Fitz” Fitzgerald’s human imperfections to show through, including an affair with a colleague and struggles raising his children. Brilliantly acted. Brilliantly written. Brilliantly realized. Just brilliant all around.
// Notes from the Road
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