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Case Book: Sleuths and Snickers

Ron Miller investigates comedians whose second career becomes crime.

If you compare private detective Hetty Wainthropp with private eyes Cordelia Gray of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman or Elly Chandler and Dee Tate of Chandler & Co., you may soon be snickering over how silly she looks next to them.

After all, you'd never see Cordelia tumbling down a flight of stairs, showing a brief glimpse of her knickers, as Hetty did last season.

And it's doubtful the résumés of Chandler or Tate contain anything like the confession Hetty makes about her background this season: that she used to work as a music hall dancer and "I did wear fishnet tights... once."

For some mystery fans, Hetty's occasional silliness has no place in a detective series --even one designed to be lightly humorous, tailor-made for its star, beloved English actress Patricia Routledge.

Fortunately, such picky mystery lovers are a minority. The record reflects that most mystery fans really enjoy detectives with a touch of humor, even if, upon occasion, these blundering gumshoes make themselves look a little ridiculous.

What better way to prove that than to look at the 21-year record of MYSTERY!? The most flamboyantly comical series in the program's history is Rumpole of the Bailey. It premiered in MYSTERY!'s first season and finished its first-run episodes 15 seasons later. No other series had such a run -- and it only ended because actor Leo McKern, who played Horace Rumpole, decided not to go on.

This isn't a new phenomenon, either. The comic mystery has been around for at least a century, but it really blossomed in the 1930s. That's when Hollywood began to entertain audiences with Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man series and its elegant sleuths, Nick and Nora Charles; with the Charlie Chan pictures which were filled with "comic relief" not found in the original novels; and all those Warner Brothers mysteries in which wisecracking reporters served as sleuths.

But the comic mystery exploded with popularity during the television era, breeding a generation of new TV detectives played by actors like Patricia Routledge, who were groomed in stage and television comedy.

There's an obvious reason for that: TV is, by nature, a more intimate medium because it entertains us right in our homes. For that reason, viewers prefer likable, nonthreatening TV characters because they're more comfortable to have around the house. And seasoned TV comedy stars can do "likable" better than anyone.

A good example is Diagnosis Murder, a lighthearted mystery series starring the cozy veteran situation comedy actor Dick Van Dyke , as Dr. Mark Sloan, amateur sleuth.

Van Dyke didn't break new ground in television by turning from comedy to mystery, and neither did Patricia Routledge. Many actors blazed that trail before them.

In America, the list includes dancer-comic Buddy Ebsen, who went from playing Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies to TV sleuth Barnaby Jones; Andy Griffith, who evolved from hayseed comic of No Time for Sergeants and The Andy Griffith Show into a mystery-solving lawyer on Matlock; former Jackie Gleason sidekick Art Carney, who starred in Lanigan's Rabbi, based on the Harry Kemelman mysteries; Tom Bosley, who first played the affable Mr. C. on Happy Days, and then the affable crime-solving priest on The Father Dowling Mysteries; Carroll O'Connor, who starred as the irrepressible Archie Bunker on All in the Family and moved on to the very different role of Chief Gillespie in TV's In the Heat of the Night; and finally Jack Klugman, who left behind his sportswriting days as Oscar Madison on TV's The Odd Couple to become the crime-solving coroner Quincy.

The tradition of casting comic actors as detectives is a long one in England as well.

Though Dame Margaret Rutherford often played serious movie roles, she's best remembered for comedies like Blithe Spirit and Passport to Pimlico. So when she played Agatha Christie's Miss Jane Marple in four films, starting with Murder, She Said in 1960, it wasn't surprising that Miss Marple was a lot funnier than she ever was in print.

When he played G.K. Chesterton's priestly sleuth Father Brown in The Detective (1954), Alec Guinness was at the peak of his popularity as a movie comedy star in Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob. When Father Brown came to MYSTERY! in 1982, the role went to Kenneth More, an actor who became a star in two hit movie comedies, Genevieve and Doctor in the House.

In more recent years, other comic actors who played detectives in British mystery shows have included Robbie Coltrane (Cracker), David Jason (A Touch of Frost), Warren Clarke (Dalziel & Pascoe), and now Patricia Routledge, who's best remembered as the pretentious but lovable Hyacinth Bucket (that's pronounced "Bouquet," please) from Keeping Up Appearances.

The point of casting a skilled comic actor like Routledge in a mystery isn't to "joke it up," but rather to warm it up. Routledge was able to make us love the often obnoxious Hyacinth, so we're predisposed to like her as Hetty Wainthropp. We don't need any introductions, so we're on Hetty's side from the get-go.

Routledge's Hetty isn't an eccentric detective like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. We might admire those men, but we wouldn't like having them live next door. In contrast, Hetty is a decent, warmhearted, socially responsible person most of us would feel comfortable talking to over the back fence.

What's more, you may have noticed Hetty is smart enough to catch most of the crooks she goes after. In a way, she makes us feel as if we, too, might be able to accomplish quite a lot, even if we're "60-something" and putting on a few pounds.

That universal appeal has made Hetty Wainthropp Investigates popular enough to be invited back for its fourth consecutive season on "MYSTERY! The fact that she always makes us feel a little more cheerful by the end of each hour is probably the secret to her success -- that, and she doesn't have to roll down the stairs and show her knickers every week to do it, either.

This is the second in an occasional series by Ron Miller, author of MYSTERY! A Celebration.

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