[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]

Daw suu's Letter from Burma #35

Mainichi Daily News, Monday, July 22, 1996


"Mystery Weekend"

Letter from Burma (No. 35) by Aung San Suu Kyi

	Once upon a time, I read a biography of Arthur James Balfour of Balfour
Declaration fame.  The book did not really make the man come alive for me,
leaving the impression that he was either too private or too intellectual to
come across as a vivid human being; or that the author could not do his
subtle personality justice.  Nevertheless, I liked what I learned about the
"happy prime minister." I particularly liked him for the fact that in spite
of the metaphysical dabbling which troubled some of his political
colleagues, he possessed a healthy appreciation for the detective story.  He
was said to have advised a young man that the best way to get a really good
rest was not to go away for the weekend but to shut himself up in the house
with a detective story.  (Or perhaps he said several detective stories).  In
any case it is a piece of advice I consider very sound indeed.  Some of the
most relaxing weekends I have ever enjoyed were those I spent quietly with a
sense of all work to date completed, and an absorbing mystery.
	My introduction to the detective story was, very conventionally, through
Sherlock Holmes.  I was about 9 years old when a cousin enthralled me with
the story of The Blue Carbuncle.  Soon after, I was either given or lent a
book about Bugs Bunny's antics involving some Big Red Apples.  On reading it
I was struck by the inanity of the plot: How could Bugs Bunny's adventures
compare with those of a man who could, from a careful examination of a
battered old hat, gauge the physical and mental attributes, the financial
situation and the matrimonial difficulties of its erstwhile owner?  I
decided that detectives were far more interesting and entertaining that
anthropomorphized animals.
	My childhood affection for Sherlock Holmes did not wane even after I learnt
to think in terms of whodunits rather than detective stories.  The lean,
laconic individual of Baker Street can hold his own with private eyes of the
Philip Marlowe genre as well as the intelligent, understated breed of
Inspectors Grant and Dalgleish.  And the dash of French artist blood in his
veins ("Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest form") makes him
more fascinating that the meant-to-be exotic investigators like Hercule
Poirot.  But of course it is not the detective, or the spy, alone who makes
a weekend spent with a mystery or two so satisfactory.  Apart form the
complexity of the plot and the element of suspense, the style of writing,
the little details that build up the atmosphere of the story and the
fascination of secondary go a long way toward contributing to my enjoyment
of a whodunit.
	While Inspector Maigret is a great favorite, Madame Maigret is an even
greater favorite.  I like best the stories in which she features large and
comfortable, the image of a good "memere," always at her cooking pots,
always polishing, always mollycoddling her big baby of a husband.  Even more
than the domestic vignettes of the Maigrets, I enjoy descriptions of the
sights and smells of Paris and the food the gourmand inspector eats with
solid appreciation.  The small restaurants he discovers in the midst of his
investigations seem to specialize in robust, full flavored provincial dishes
reminiscent of Elizabeth David's book on French country cooking.
	It is probably because of my love of experimenting in the kitchen, a
pastime in which I no longer have time to indulge, that the eating habits of
fictional characters are of such interest to me.  I seem to remember that in
one of his adventures, which I read years ago and the title of which I have
forgotten, Maigret expressed a dislike for calves' liver; in another,
however, he claims that if there is anything he likes better than hot
calves' liver a la bonne femme, it was the same dish served cold.  An
inconsistency as intriguing as any of his cases.  I cannot recall with
clarity a single plot of any of the stories about Nero Wolfe that I have
read but the flavor of the confabulation he had about food with his Swiss
chef lingers.  And it was because this obese private investigator's fulsome
praise of the chicken fricassee with dumplings he ate at a church fete that
I learnt to cook that deliciously homely dish.
	Of course one does not read whodunits for memorable descriptions of food.
Does George Smiley ever eat?  I cannot remember.  And one does not
recollect, as one follows the developments of espionage in Berlin, that Len
Deighton has written a number of cook books.  As for Dick Francis, horse
feed it more germane than human diet to his plots but that does not make his
fast-moving tales any less gripping.
	Why is it that Englishwomen produce some of the best crime fictions?  I am
thinking of Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, P.D. James and Ruth Rendall.
Theses and probably books have been written on that subject.  It is a
mystery I would like to have the opportunity to mull over some time when a
weekend of leisure becomes a possibility.  In the meantime, there are enough
complexities in Burmese politics to keep one's faculties for unraveling
intrigue fully engaged.

* * *

This article is one of year-long series of letters, the Japanese translation
of which appears in the Mainichi Shimbun the same day, or the previous day
in some areas.