“Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?” the literary critic Edmund Wilson asked in a famous petulant essay, alluding to Agatha Christie’s most controversial mystery and assaulting them all.
Three leading contemporary mystery writers--P.D. James (“Devices and Desires”), Mary Higgins Clark (“Where Are the Children?”) and Donald E. Westlake (“Trust Me On This”)--provide some answers on who cares, and why, on Sunday morning’s edition of “Bookmark” with host Lewis Lapham (10:30 a.m., Channel 28).
The mystery, all three agree, restores a feeling of order and balance to daily lives that may well be neither orderly nor balanced. Reality, Westlake says, sits atop “a pool of chaos” that the crime writer somehow reduces to manageable terms.
Lapham quotes Alfred Hitchcock on the beginning of his television series: “It puts murder back where it belongs, in the home.” Phyllis James concurs. Murder tends to be what she calls “malice domestic,” the victim known to the murderer more often than not.
“Eve managed to induce Adam to commit a felony,” Clark notes, mischievously, and one of their two children murdered the other. “So I think it’s part of our psyche that malice domestic started from Day One.”
Without seeking to, P.D. James dominates the half-hour with her thoughtful explanations of how she works and where she discovers the roots of crime. The crime committed out of love, on behalf of another, is a plot line with which she has had particular success.
All three authors report characters who, once established, defied the authors’ original intentions. A mystery he had titled “The Felonious Monks” had to be quite revamped, Westlake says, when the monks refused to carry out the caper he had planned for them.
A half-hour is too short a time to hear out three strong creators (and an enthusiastic host). But for mystery readers most especially, the program is an intriguing glimpse at the tellers of the tales.