WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I had an unusual obsession. While most of my favorite TV shows and programming blocks were the same as everyone else’s in my peer group — Animaniacs, Saturday morning cartoons, Nickelodeon’s What Would You Do? — I also watched the PBS show Mystery! with a fervent dedication, particularly Agatha Christie’s Poirot, in which British actor David Suchet plays the incredibly polite and incredibly smart Belgian detective. The show was mesmerizing for a number of reasons: its intriguing mysteries, which, hard as I tried, I could never solve; its bewitching Britishness; and the attendant propriety that came with that culture. Even though Poirot was nearly always solving the grimmest of crimes, both the show and its hero approached them with the utmost tidiness and nothing nearly so obvious as surprise. This was murder with high tea and a pair of leather gloves on.
The other memorable aspect of Mystery! was the animated opening sequence, a string of brief, inexplicable, mostly black-and-white scenes: a thin man pushing a wheelchair; a group of well-dressed people drinking tea outdoors; a woman with her ankles tied together wailing atop a stone wall; a pair of legs sinking in a bog. I didn’t know at the time that this sequence was based on drawings by Edward Gorey, an artist, illustrator, and writer whose work was in fact a perfect complement to Poirot: Gorey’s matter-of-fact approach to death and disaster — which is in evidence as early as his second book and remains throughout his entire career — mirrors the calm with which Poirot solved his cases.
Consider Gorey’s second book, The Listing Attic, which came out in 1954. Small, thin, and nearly square, like all of Gorey’s original output, The Listing Attic could be mistaken for a children’s book. It’s comprised of limericks and accompanying illustrations, also apparently an innocuous form, if you didn’t know better. But from the second poem, which tells of a woman who throws her two-year-old child at the ceiling, you begin to know better. And then comes the third entry, for which nothing quite prepares you:
They had come in the fugue to the stretto
When a dark, bearded man from a ghetto
Slipped forward and grabbed
Her tresses and stabbed
Her to death with a rusty stiletto.
Above the poem is an intricate and heavily crosshatched black-and-white drawing showing the moment just before the stabbing. Despite the initial shock of the words, the scene looks fairly mundane. The woman appears resigned to her fate: rather than wave her arms or struggle, she grabs the bottom of her chair, throws back her head, and opens her mouth as if at the dentist’s. Well-dressed men with mustaches look on with bemused curiosity, while th...read more